Every day Jose looks forward to coming home. At 3:00 p.m. school is out, and he and his friend Michael can play computer games for at least three hours before Mom gets home from work.
Every day Jose’s mom dreads coming home. With feelings of frustration and even a little guilt, she arrives to find her son has wasted yet another afternoon in front of his PlayStation.
Seem familiar? As parents struggle to balance busy work schedules, their children are often being shaped by a number of less-than-ideal influences. Children are constantly exposed to advertising, media, and peers; and the consequential sedentary lifestyle has resulted in children struggling with adult medical problems, including obesity,
diabetes, and heart disease.
Consider these facts:
• The number of overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980.
• The percentage of overweight children (ages 6-11) has almost doubled since the early 1980s.
• From 1994 to 2001 the percentage of overweight preschool children (ages 2-5 years) has nearly doubled.
• African- and Mexican-American youth are more likely to be overweight than non-Hispanic, Caucasian children and adolescents.
While the problem is obvious, the solution doesn’t always seem quite so clear. Although the task of raising healthy kids can seem daunting at times, there are fortunately things even busy parents can do to ensure their children grow up healthy and happy.
1. Provide emotional support.
Children need the support and love of family and friends. They need you to respond to both their physical and emotional needs. Find out what’s going on with them and how they are making decisions and handling problems.
Communicate daily with your children, regularly listening and talking to them about the importance of making positive choices and resisting dangerous habits, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. (Even if you had those habits when you were younger, you do have the right—and responsibility—to tell your children to avoid those behaviors.)
Avoid negative comments about their bodies, because that will only contribute to feelings of guilt. Instead, help them set goals toward a healthier lifestyle. Praise them when they participate in active games or eat more vegetables and fewer sweets.
2. Use logic.
Part of helping children take care of themselves is helping them understand why a healthy lifestyle is important. In daily encounters when children ask questions (“What’s wrong with eating potato chips?” or “Why do I need to go outside and play?”), it is essential that parents welcome the questions and use those opportunities to logically help kids understand health principles.
3. Do not be child-centered.
Of course, you never want to be insensitive or neglect your child, but the truth is, if you want to raise healthy children, you can’t cave in and cater to their every whim and fancy when it comes to food and lifestyle. Instead, help them develop skills to make wise, healthy choices rather than shortsighted, selfish ones. We were designed to enjoy life, and making wise choices will help us do that: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
4. Be a good role model.
Children watch parents in all areas of life, including their health habits. Only three out of 10 young people reported that their parents or other adults actually model positive, responsible behavior, according to the Search Institute’s survey of 150,000 American youth (grades 6-12).
Your children need to see you model responsible behaviors. Don’t secretly eat snacks or spend lots of time watching
television instead of exercising unless you want your kids to end up doing the same. Remember, teaching is most effective when it is coupled with modeling.
5. Use affirmative discipline.
It’s up to parents to set nutritional goals at home. For example, you can establish the rule that family members must eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day before having a small treat. Don’t be afraid to set clear boundaries and have high expectations. Be consistent and firm, but always avoid ridicule and punishment when they make a poor choice. Instead, use encouragement and reasoning to cheer them on when they make good choices.
6. Help children make healthy decisions.
Part of a parent’s role is to help children learn how to make safe and healthy choices, such as wearing a seat belt, brushing their teeth, washing their hands, eating nutritious food, and forming healthy relationships.
Your approach to teaching decision-making will vary depending on the child’s age. For example, with young children, you can start out by offering them a variety of healthy foods and guiding them on how much of each they need to eat. For older children, you can take them grocery shopping and actively involve them. Teach them to read the nutritional ingredients on the labels of their favorite foods. Encourage them to choose foods that are closest to their natural state (thus retaining most of their nutrients), such as baked potatoes instead of chips, fresh apples instead of apple pie, or fresh peas instead of canned peas. For less- healthy foods such as desserts, teach them to exercise moderation.
7. Get physical.
It’s an unarguable fact that many children watch too much TV and don’t get enough exercise. To change this pattern, parents can experiment with limiting television, videos, and computer games to less than one hour a day, substituting the rest of the leisure time with outdoor activities. Take walks, ride bikes, go skateboarding, or play baseball together as a family. Another meaningful and creative way to be active as a family is to find service-
oriented activities, such as doing household chores for someone, raking a neighbor’s lawn, moving furniture, or cleaning up a community center. Such projects will teach kids the importance of both activity and service.
8. Do not over- schedule.
Music lessons, French class, Little League practice, ballet class: the list of children’s ECAs (extracurricular activities) could go on and on. Not to mention all the homework! Do these poor kids ever get to play? Keep in mind that healthy development comes from living a balanced life, so don’t over-schedule your child’s life.
Remember that what you and your family do today will affect the future. So begin now to invest in a healthy future for your family by exercising regularly, eating well, serving others, and practicing a healthy lifestyle.