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Thanksgiving: Are You Naughty Or Nice?

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When you lament about tucking away your second helping of mashed potatoes, you are teaching your daughters a big lesson -- though not a good one.

woman eating pie

Lisa Sharkey: The moment Thanksgiving Dinner is consumed, and the leftovers are put away, we all begin asking our children if they are going to be Naughty or Nice this Christmas. But how many of us also play the naughty or nice game at Thanksgiving? How many moms out there are already thinking about whether they are going to be "good or bad" at the holiday table?

It wasn't something I was conscious of until I listened to a very smart and on-point lecture at my 10-year-old daughter's school last week. And boy did it ever hit home. At that meeting, Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a nationally recognized psychologist and author of Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health and Leadership talked about being "good or bad" at Thanksgiving.

Dr. Steiner-Adair wasn't talking about how we are treating each other, but how we are treating ourselves and what messages we are passing down to our children when it comes to the food we eat. Her point: we live in a culture that tells girls at a very tender age that we are in fact what we eat. Imagine their confusion at the Thanksgiving table when their impressionable ears listen to their moms or aunts ask each other. "Are you going to be good today or are you going to be really, really bad?"

Good means, staying "in control" over your food no matter the temptation. Bad means to gobble up sweet potato pie with marshmallows, and as many helpings of dessert as you desire.

This perilous pattern, passed down grandmother to daughter to granddaughter, causes children to digest the notion that a person could be good or bad based on what they eat. Think how scary it must sound to a child and how it might pave the way for psychological illness to take hold. A little girl grows up believing she can be more in control of her life and better than her peers, perhaps the ones she feels inferior to by, for instance, skipping dessert.

So if you're good, you do not eat what you want to eat. If you're bad, you are free to indulge.

Take that one step further, beyond the food.

If you do what you want, you are bad and only through self-denial and restriction and excessive control can you attain goodness.

Dr Steiner-Adair points out that we cannot prevent certain things from happening to our kids: falling off bicycles, not making teams, getting passed over for leads in the school plays and not being invited to birthday parties. But we also, and more importantly, cannot make things better or worse with by becoming obsessed with the scale and giving anyone the impression that food control is life control.

The danger is that girls, more than boys, are taught, by us, to weigh their self-esteem. Dr Steiner-Adair cautions us not to send the signals that you are a good person or a bad person based on what you eat. So how do we turn this Thanksgiving into a chance to break the cycle?

Begin by asking your children about everything BUT the food! "What's your favorite part of Thanksgiving?" "Who are you looking forward to seeing?"

Teach them to be happy for the plentiful food, to remember those who are not with us, to help out folks who have less. It's about the nourishment and the deliciousness of being together at a time when people can put aside some of the family angst and dynamics and appreciate the greater goodness!

I think I will be good to myself and my daughter this year -- and we won't talk about how much we're going to eat and what choices we are making at the table. We'll talk about how much we love all being together. I know it sounds like a fantasy, but it's worth a try.

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