As parents, we have the power to impart a legacy of health on to our children and we do this hoping that we will have healthy kids who grow into healthy adults. We pass along our understanding and beliefs around health and we model health-related behaviours that our kids learn from; or at least we try!
Rearing healthy kids is more than making sure they eat healthy; it is about that but also about having a healthy mindset about their bodies, one that will help them in trusting their body and learning to listen to it.
Here are my top 5 tips to set kids up towards being healthy kids.
- Instil a sense of wonder about the body.
How often do you talk to your children about their body and what it can do? Our body is the most complex and amazing system on the planet. Cuts heal without a single thought or action on our part. Our immune system is our own border security, protecting us from bacterial and viral enemies.
Many adults fear and distrust their bodies. They believe that the body is fragile, and illness is just around the corner. Your kids are listening when you look in the mirror and say to no one in particular, “Im so fat.”
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.
- 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 and these questions can remind you of the joy of discovery. Together you can look for answers. I mentioned to my daughter that bones make blood and she 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.”
Another suggestion is to 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, and find the terms that you and your children just don’t like! My daughter hits me every-time I say the word haemorrhoid!
If you need some help talking to your kids about their bodies, Mathew Oldham wrote a very helpful children’s book called “My First Body Book”. It is a board book and I would highly recommend it.
- Teach your kids to listen to their bodies.
We all know the “hero” who comes to work with the flu or the mum who ignores her need for food or sleep – or maybe we are one of these people! Health however is maintained when we listen to our body and act – it will tell us when it is out of balance, and we need to respond in a timely manner.
We need to teach this to our kids too. Help your kids identify when they’re cold or hungry or tired. You can try saying, “You look hot, so Im taking off the blanket”, to an infant for instance. Let your child experience regulating her/his external environment like taking on and off jumpers or cardigans.
Teach them that pain is there to keep them safe. Say, “Ouchies are no fun, but they’re there to keep you from burning yourself on the stove or cutting yourself with a knife. Thats how your body reminds you to be careful.”
- Model healthy eating habits.
Childhood obesity is a growing problem. Talk with your kids about good food choices and bad ones but remember that a picture tells a thousand words, so most importantly model healthy habits. Let then see you asking yourself, “What kind of food is my body hungry for right now?” and “Am I full?” even if theres still food on the plate, and encourage them to ask the same questions.
This way, not only are you modelling good behaviours but you are showing your children that talking about food is OK.
- Reward healthy behaviours
Now I don’t mean using unhealthy foods or habits to reward healthy behaviour; that would defeat the purpose! However encouragement by way of a reward for making a healthy choice, whether it be food or going out to play instead of sitting on the couch for a couple of hours, is something I recommend we all consider.
It’s up to each one of us how we reward our kids, and we know what they like and what makes them happy. In my case, my daughter loves playing hospitals with me (where I am always the patient!), and so a reward I give for her healthy choices is that I drop everything and start to play sick dad.