When we have children, we take on many roles – protector, mentor, caregiver, chauffeur, financer, and educator to name a few. We want nothing more than to keep them safe and healthy both physically and mentally. So we teach them how to look both ways before crossing the street, remind them to wear their bike helmets, and try to bolster their self-esteem. But how do we instill these habits in our children so that they are compelled to make healthy choices throughout their lives, whether we are there to guide them or not?
Much like the old adage that it’s better to teach a hungry man how to fish, we need to provide our children with the tools that will allow them to make smart decisions both now and in the future. It’s about empowering them so that eventually they will take control over their lives which will hopefully translate into a healthy and successful future.
You first need to be knowledgeable regarding the healthy lifestyle choices you are making not only to allow you to make informed decisions, but also to prepare for the endless number of questions that your child is undoubtedly going to ask. Children are naturally inquisitive and the why question is probably their most common and favorite query. Satisfy their curiosity. They are more likely to comply if they know the reasoning behind your decisions. Rather than just saying “No” when they ask for a treat at the grocery store, tell them why and discuss healthier alternatives. And by showing them that you have logical reasons behind your selections you’ll also be teaching them the importance of making rational decisions.
Also, be sure to take advantage of those everyday moments as opportunities to teach them the practical skills they will need to become educated consumers such as how to read nutritional labels and ingredient lists, which ingredients to look for and those to avoid, diet and exercise guidelines and the common toxin exposures they may come across. That sort of casual engagement is likely to be far more effective and palatable than a lecture. Of course the type of information and your choice of words will vary depending on the age of your child.
You can’t expect your children to make healthy choices unless your decisions exemplify the values you are trying to teach. Talking about the benefits of exercise while you are sitting on the couch watching TV and eating a bowl of chips is likely not an effective approach. Children look to their parents for guidance either directly or indirectly. And through the simple effect of repeated exposure, they will often adopt similar viewpoints or habits be they positive or negative.
Making the necessary changes needed to live a healthy lifestyle applies to the whole family and only works if everyone supports the process. It may mean that as adults we have to break some old ingrained habits, but as difficult as that may be, it is in our best interest as well as that of the entire family. If you want your children to eat well, exercise and have a strong self-image, then be prepared to incorporate these ideals into your daily life. Be especially careful of self-criticism because that type of communication, even if not directed towards your child, can foster self-esteem issues.
Give them roles of responsibility when it comes to keeping your home and family healthy. If they are young, make them the “family police”, armed with the power to point out bad food choices or products that enter your home, or if unkind words are being spoken. When they are older, put them in charge of deciding on healthy alternatives. Start them on reading labels, making healthy meals, researching all-natural ways you as a family can keep the house clean, coming up with ways to minimize your family’s carbon footprint or planning family physical activities. This type of responsibility reinforces their knowledge as well as their confidence in making correct decisions. In both instances, think about tying their efforts into some sort of reward system or simply verbal praise, particularly when trying to establish a change in behavior initially.
Temptations are hard to resist at any age and childhood is no exception. In fact, it’s likely worse at younger ages due to less self-control and need for immediate reward. So in order to help your child succeed, create a home environment that supports a healthy lifestyle. Clear out the junk food from your cupboards, limit the amount of electronic or screen time they are allowed to spend. And make sure that you replace those activities or items with appealing alternatives.
Healthy choices shouldn’t be an exception, they should come naturally. Model this through your language “Oh these veggies are great” as opposed to “Come on, eat your broccoli and then you can have a treat” and also through your actions (ie. show that you enjoy working out). These choices should be the natural response as opposed to an exception that is not difficult and unwelcome.
The last thing you want your child to feel is that the careful choices that are being made are in some way a punishment or negative part of life. So make your healthy food choices for example, fun and nutritious. Topping your own pizza may not come with a toy, but kids love being involved with making their food, and it’s definitely more nutritious than chicken nuggets from the Golden Arches. If your little girl wants to paint her nails, try a water-based polish instead of the chemical ridden mainstream products. If your son is stuck inside, eyes glued to his newest video game, offer a family bike ride before insisting he turn the screen off.
You’re never too young to be taught to care about your health and all children of all ages are capable of learning about the importance of making decisions that are best for their health. The amount and way in which you teach will naturally vary according to the age of your child. Initially, it may be a matter of verbally expressing those ideals when offering them something healthy or praising and reinforcing those choices when they make them on their own. Much like any habit or tendency, the earlier a child is exposed to certain values or ideas, the more likely they are will adopt healthy life practices
As much as we’d like to shelter our families from making unhealthy choices and as hard as we try, it isn’t realistic to think that we can shield them completely. So if an occasional treat that looks more like Styrofoam ends up in their hands or the birthday party they attend is full of unknowns, don’t panic. And don’t make your child feel guilty. Because an unfavorable reaction from you will do one of two things; it will either create anxiety in them or they will crave the forbidden items or situations even more. You really want to emphasize the need for healthy choices and downplay any indiscretions as being unavoidable at times, but at the same time, casually discuss possible alternatives when they are presented with similar situations in the future, including the option to say no.
It’s only natural that kids that are involved with a process are more likely to take ownership and follow through. If your child helps you measure, combine and stir ingredients to make a meal, they are much more likely to eat it because they helped make it, regardless of how healthy the ingredients are. So take your kids to the grocery store, get them involved in meal prep, give them choices and allow them to decide which household or personal care products are safe to buy. Have meetings where all members contribute ideas on how to make your family ‘s choices more health conscious. Then, make some part of the follow through their responsibility so that they can make sure what was discussed was indeed implemented.
As much as we understand the dangers of cancer and would gladly make changes that will reduce our family’s risk, kids are less sensitive or familiar with these sorts of intangible consequences. I remember having to continually harp on the importance of applying sunscreen regularly to my daughters, and although they knew intellectually that it would help protect them in the long run, they were reluctant to follow through. That all changed and the reminders were no longer required once I showed them what sun-aged, damaged skin looks like in relatively young people. So try and keep in mind the difficulty some children have with abstract concepts and that they are much more likely to comply with concrete examples put in their context.
Each child is different with their own unique personality traits. Some kids will follow whatever rules are put in place, others need to have every detail of the reasoning behind the decision explained while still others only follow guidelines when they are presented in a fun and entertaining way. Some prefer a formal discussion, while others do better when the same information is presented when appropriate everyday situations arise. Some are fine with any option you establish for the family while others do better when given a variety of healthy alternatives. Tailor your approach to match the personality of each child.
Life is all about choices. Some are easy and yield immediate reward, others are more difficult and the benefit is not seen for some time. Making healthy life choices may at first seem difficult for our children, but as parents we now know that in the long run their quality of life is dependent on those choices. Therefore, given our foresight, it really is our responsibility to foster those skills they will need to make decisions that will benefit them in the years to come.
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