I learned a valuable parenting lesson the other day. As I sat sipping a diet soda, I was urging my 7-year-old to drink her glass of water. I was in the midst of telling her how water fuels the body and is the best source of hydration, when she stopped me. Ok. But how come you are drinking soda? Good point.
As parents, we often talk to our kids about smart choices, but we don’t always display those same behaviors. This is too bad. Children often follow the behavior of their parents, and this includes making both healthy and unhealthy choices. In order to help your child make healthy choices, you have to practice what you preach. Here are five parental behaviors that can have a real impact on creating the happy and healthy kids we all want to have.
Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including 42,000 deaths from secondhand smoke. Despite the billions spent on anti-smoking campaigns around the country, each day an estimated 3,200 young people try their first cigarette. Most parents who smoke do not want to see their children fall into the tobacco habit, but unfortunately this is one place where kids often mirror their parents’ behavior. Research has shown that adolescents whose parents smoke are more likely to start smoking themselves. While this may in part reflect a genetic influence, it is also likely the result of children imitating the smoking behavior of their parents. If you smoke, ask your child’s pediatrician or your own doctor for information on smoking cessation programs that might work for you.
It turns out I can’t blame Barbie for making my 7-year-old daughter worry about the size of her thighs. We parents play an important role in shaping our children’s attitudes towards body size and image. In one study, researchers found that mothers’ attitudes towards their own weight were related to children’s “anti-fat” attitudes. By making negative comments about our own bodies, discussing dieting in front our children, and even subtle ways we look at ourselves in the mirror, we may be influencing our children’s perception of their own bodies. We can best help our children develop positive body image by modeling healthy eating and exercise choices, and avoiding negative statements about food, weight, body size, and shape. And, honestly, if we stop making negative comments about ourselves, we will probably feel better too.
The dietary habits adopted during childhood often last into adulthood. Parents can play an extremely important role in increasing their children’s consumption of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. One relatively easy way to encourage your the consumption of healthier foods is to let your children see you eating those foods. Researchers have discovered that eating meals together as a family can have a huge impact on improving children’s nutritional health. For example, there is significant evidence to suggest that children in families that eat at least three family meals per week have a 20 percent reduction in the odds of eating unhealthy foods compared to children in families that have fewer family meals. Researchers have concluded that shared family meals can help reduce the risk of obesity, unhealthy diets, and eating disorders. Letting your children see you making healthy food choices at the table is important in helping them develop their own healthy nutritional behavior.
Be present (put down your phone)
The average 8- to 10-year-old child in America spends eight hours per day with a variety of different media, such as television, smart phones, and computers. Roughly 75 percent of teenagers own a cell phone, and a third of teenagers send more than 100 text messages per day. With television, computers, and social media such as Facebook, teenagers spend more time with media than they do in school. Parents know that their kids shouldn’t have that much screen time—the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum of two hours per day of entertainment media for all kids over age 2, including teenagers. But simply telling your kids to put down the phone won’t do it. We have to be willing to let go of our own electronic devices and be present. Our relentless focus on the digital world is harming our kids. We are facing a disconnect with them emotionally, and research shows that our own parenting style can become more impatient and aggressive when we are playing with our phones. Teach your child that there is more to life than electronics by putting your own smart phone away more often.
In a 2012 study, researchers found that half of preschoolers do not play outside at least once a day. This is unfortunate because being outdoors and getting exercise is important for all of us, but especially for children. The American Heart Association recommends that children get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. Physically active kids are less likely to be overweight. Physical activity can also improve sleep and emotional well-being. Parents can model healthy behavior by taking their children outside for family activities like walking, hiking, bike riding, or swimming. Everyone in the family will reap not only physical benefits, but emotional ones as well. After all, if you are splashing around in the pool with your children, you can’t very well be playing on your smart phone, can you?
Bottom line: Our kids watch us. They mimic our behavior. Words can only go so far. If you want your child to make good, healthy lifestyle choices, then be the model of those choices.
Also see Finding Healthier Kids’ Meals.