Believe it or not, you impart a legacy of health to your children that goes well beyond the genes you give them. You also pass along health beliefs and model health-related choices. Here are 5 tips that will set your kids up on a path towards a healthy life.
1. Instill a sense of wonder about the body.
Many adults fear and distrust their bodies. They believe that the body is fragile, and illness is just around the corner. The myth that you will catch a cold if you go outside without a coat persists. Your kids are listening when you look in the mirror and say to no one in particular, “I’m so fat.”
The truth is your body is the most miraculous mechanical system on the planet. Cuts heal without a single thought or action on your part. Your immune system is your own personal homeland security system, protecting you from bacterial and viral terrorists. Yes, illness is part of the human condition. And we have powerful treatments that add to your body’s own ability to heal. Look at your body’s ability to battle illnesses, such as the common cold. This alone offers concrete evidence of your body’s resiliency.
Comment on your child’s amazing body. “Wow, that cut healed in no time!” or “You have such strong fast legs” or “Look at what your hands have been able to draw.” Remind your child how great it is to have eyes and kidneys and hearts that work so well.
2. Become a student of the human body with your child.
Your kids will come to you with questions about how their bodies work. It can be uncomfortable for both you and your child when you don’t have the answers. This discomfort can teach children that they should avoid questions about how their bodies work, which may, in part, explain why parents themselves are reluctant to ask doctors embarrassing questions.
Remember, no one has all the answers. That’s why your doctor participates in continuing medical education. Your child can remind you of the joy of discovery. Together you can look for answers. I mentioned to my son that bones make blood and he asked, “What about creatures with exoskeletons?” I said, “What an interesting question. Let’s get on the Internet and see what we can find out.” Have a child-appropriate book about the body available and learn and use anatomically correct words. Maybe you can have a family contest to come up with the coolest medical term.
3. Teach your kids to listen to their bodies.
Often it feels as if adults are rewarded for ignoring or overcoming the signals from their bodies. The “hero” who comes to work with the flu or the mom who ignores her need for food or sleep. Health is maintained when you know the signals that suggest your body is out of balance and respond in a timely manner when your body indicates it needs something.
Help your kids identify when they’re cold or hungry or tired. You can say even to an infant, “You look hot, so I’m taking off the blanket.” Give your child some experience regulating his external environment like taking on and off sweaters. Educate your children that pain is there to keep them safe. Say, “Owies are no fun, but they’re there to keep you from burning yourself on the stove or cutting yourself with a knife. That’s how your body reminds you to be careful.”
4. Model healthy eating habits.
Childhood obesity is a growing problem. Talk with your kids about good food choices and bad ones. Encourage them to ask themselves, “What kind of food is my body hungry for right now?’ and “Am I full?” even if there’s still food on the plate. Pay attention to see if your child is a “grazer” or a 3-squares-a-day kid and set an eating schedule that reflects their style. Decide whether it’s OK to indulge in unhealthy food choices now and then. When I inquired about the nutritional value of my son’s snack of donuts, he said, “It’s health food for the soul!”
5. Reward health rather than illness.
Some of my best childhood memories come from times when I was sick. In an effort to ease my pain, my mother unwittingly rewarded illness by lavishing attention on me, delivering endless bowls of ice cream and playing games with me. Who wouldn’t want to be sick!
Instead, lavish attention on your kids when they’re well. While you don’t want to punish your kids for being sick, consider which privileges of health should be withdrawn during sick days.
When you instill in your children a sense of pride, wonder and respect for their bodies, you have given them the foundation of health.