Raising a “Normal” Kid as a Bodybuilding Parent | IFBB Figure Pro Sarah Sweeney

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The reality is, that our children (especially young children) are brilliant mimics. They learn so quickly and with the effortless fluidity that we do not experience as adults because their brains are literally imbued with more plasticity than ours. This is not something that I take lightly as the parent of a young boy (or any gendered child for that matter, but I will discuss that further at a later point).

For me, bodybuilding was a part of my life before I became pregnant and gave birth to my son in 2012. Prior to him coming into our live, my husband and I generally ate similar foods. When I was preparing for a show and being extremely stringent with my food and training regiment, it was really something that I just happened to be doing. He and I often still went to the gym at the same time, I just needed to be doing more cardio than him typically. He would grab a burger here and there if he wanted, I just didn’t partake in the food. After welcoming our son into the world, there was suddenly a set of eyes and ears that would be watching, hearing and learning how to experience the world through everything to which we exposed him. All of that included what is in all senses of the words, an extreme lifestyle.

From day one, my husband and I knew that with all the knowledge we have of nutrition and health science, it would be foolish not to nurture a healthy eater. At the same time, though, it would be foolish to nurture a disordered eater who also had skewed expectations of what a woman (body, mind and spirit) is. He will learn what that is, and model what that is from us – particularly me.
One of the biggest things that we have used as a guiding principle in our approach to food with our son is making sure that he is always presented with nutritious foods, but also knows that we choose those foods for a reason. I did breastfeed as long as possible, but he was also supplemented with formula and I pumped so that others could help feed my son while I returned to work. His first foods were complex carbohydrates and dense fats that would encourage his growth and weight (I have a skinny baby): sweet potatoes, egg yolks, avocados, blended vegetables, a few pureed meats here and there, but also a few cookies here and there.

The same principle continues now, we are just able to actually talk about it with him now. He is presented with a wide variety of foods, obviously ones that are purchased and controlled by his parents. He eats chips, cookies, ice cream and plenty of other “normal kid foods”. These foods though, are limited and when we feel he has had enough, or that is not the best choice for him we explain that to him. Last year was his first year in public school and I made a point to pack his lunch daily. While that may not be a realistic choice for every family, for me it was not only important because we do keep a somewhat Kosher household, but it also helped me make sure that he was getting a good blend of nutrition to stay as focused as a toddler can in school. At first, he really wanted to eat the school lunch because that’s what he saw many other children doing. Every time he came home and asked about it, we had a discussion about whether he liked the lunch I packed (typically a gluten free sandwich of either almond butter and low-sugar jelly or turkey, a piece of fruit, a crunchy snack, and a small treat – he always liked it) and what he thought would be good about the “tray lunch”. After a few of these discussions, he came to the conclusion that he enjoyed not only the experience of food from home, but how the food made him feel (strong, healthy, focused… but also loved).

Often, when mommy is preparing for shows, or simply choosing not to eat the occasional bowl of chips he might enjoy after school, we have similar conversations. These are food choices that mommy and daddy make because of the way the foods work in and for our body, as well as how they make us feel physically and emotionally. THAT is the key, for me as a parent, to keep in mind as we shape our child’s relationship with food (as well as fitness, because our conversations and modelled behaviors about physical fitness are very similar). Food is both an essential, biological part of life and an experiential, communal part of life. It is attached to, arguably, every part of our hierarchy of needs (Maslow’s).

Forming and contributing to my son’s healthy relationship with food and fitness is of utmost importance to me, and honestly allows me to do the same despite the extreme rigidity with which I must approach my own training and nutrition to be successful as professional physique competitor. I am so proud when he gladly chooses fruit over those chips after school, when he does chose to indulge in ice cream but will easily say “I’ve had enough”, or will just generally know when he is legitimately full and satisfied.

Having this approach with my parenting helps me stay cognizant of the choices I make daily. He sees the choices I make, he knows why they are in place at certain times, but he also gets to be a part of the moments when we let loose. My hope is that this effort we make in our parenting will allow him to have a strong healthy body, that is physically capable, and a mind that is sound and strong into a long adult life. He may not follow my footsteps into bodybuilding, but I do not want him to go in the other extreme out of resentment or a terrible relationship with food and fitness either.

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