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Stop Calling My Preschooler ‘Sturdy’

stop calling my preschooler sturdy

At just 3 months, my daughter was already in the 90th percentile for both height and weight.

When we sat in the waiting room at her 3-month doctor’s appointment, a woman next to me gasped when I corrected her after she asked if my daughter was about 9 months. Her daughter, almost 1 year old, was actually smaller than mine.

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That trend has continued, and at least once a week some stranger will reply with, “She’s how old?” upon learning that my daughter is 3. They’ll then make some additional commentary in an attempt to recover, usually something along the lines of, “Oh wow, she’s tall.” Or the much less welcome, “She’s sturdy.”

Your words make me cringe

No one ever means any harm when they throw these words about, they’re simply surprised by just how big my daughter is. And I get it, my little girl is certainly tall for her age. However, her doctor would argue that she’s proportional and within a healthy weight range. These days she tends more toward 95th percentile for height and 85th percentile for weight.

There’s just something about the word “sturdy” that makes me cringe, though. Maybe because it’s not exactly how any woman I know would ever want to be described. And while my daughter has certainly reached the point where I struggle to pick her up myself, she’s still a little girl. And I worry about how all this outside commentary about her height and build — things she has very little control over — may one day begin to affect her.

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The damage starts earlier than you’d think

Recent research from Common Sense Media indicates that children are beginning to develop body image issues at much younger ages than previously thought. In fact, the report found that more than half of the girls surveyed between the ages of 6 and 8 were already worrying about their weight.

My daughter will be 6 in just two and a half years. The idea of her already internalizing the comments everyone around her insists on making about her body makes me sick to my stomach.

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Maybe it’s because I was only 13 the first time I stuck my finger down my throat in an attempt to rid myself of a meal, but I genuinely lose sleep over the thought of my daughter ever seeing her body as anything but perfect. And I can’t help but want to shoot daggers at anyone who can’t seem to stop themselves from providing commentary that is anything but helpful.

It’s not just “sturdy,” either; it’s any kind of commentary on a child’s body. If you aren’t their parent or doctor, it’s probably not your place to comment on how “petite” or “skinny,” “short” or “tall,” “sturdy” or “chubby” they may be. Especially within earshot of them. Because even smaller kids internalize that, either as an ideal they have to continue to strive toward, or as something that sets them apart from their peers.

Think that words don’t matter? Well, you’d be wrong. And in fact, even the American Academy of Pediatrics is starting to recognize the power of words, as they issue new standards to step away from talk about dieting and weight loss with adolescents.

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words matter

The messages we send matter

So why do we have to comment at all? Yes, I understand the surprise of realizing my daughter is younger than she looks, especially because she has a pretty expressive vocabulary that also suggests that she’s older than she is. But she’s already the tallest kid in her class, and fully aware of that fact. It’s to the extent that she has now reached a point where she’s decided she doesn’t want to be tall. If someone comments on it, she’ll argue with them: “I not tall,” she says. “Mommy’s taller.”

Bottom line

If it didn’t matter, if she wasn’t at all bothered by the commentary on what sets her apart, she wouldn’t feel the need to address it, or deny it, at all.

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She’s only 3 1/2, and already she feels the need to try to convince others that her height isn’t worth commenting on. So don’t. Don’t bring it up. Don’t mention it. Suppress your surprise, and then, if you must comment on something, comment on what a great climber she is, or how well she’s doing with that puzzle.

Comment on something actually within her control, something that has nothing at all to do with the body she was born with.

She knows she’s tall. She probably even knows she’s “sturdy.” She doesn’t need you confirming that for her.

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And neither do I.

Leah Campbell
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