Parenting Strategies for Healthier Kids
It takes a village to raise our children. Unfortunately, our village is busy playing Candy Crush and obsessively scrolling through five social media feeds. Okay, maybe that’s not fair. Most of the village is at work, playing “whack-a-mole” against to-do lists and extra projects that never end. When it’s time to go home, we fly out the door, collect the kids, and rush them to their respective practices. No time to cook a meal. When was the last time you cooked? Doesn’t matter; it’s a drive-thru for tonight.
This is the rat race that characterizes many a parent’s existence. They can only hope the schools are filling in the gaps. Unfortunately, poor health and sedentary behavior are even more entrenched in these bad habit factories.
There is no more important duty than that of raising a healthy, inspired generation. But even the best education is futile without parental support. Parents must intentionally create a vision and path for their children. If parents don’t understand the many pitfalls our village has created, and don’t prioritize developing an independent child, it simply won’t happen.
The good news is that there are some basic, actionable tenants of inspired human development. By making a few key lifestyle changes, your child will be far more inclined to thrive physically and mentally.
Create Opportunities for Natural Movement
We were made to move, and health is easy to maintain if we continue to do it. So much of our physical pain, movement pattern loss, and stiffness is simply a consequence of spending long portions of our day in a chair, and casting our feet and ankles in heavily padded shoes.
In my experience working with 12 different high school sports, I’ve noticed that basketball players consistently have the tightest ankles and hips. I attribute this to their shoes, which allow no movement all the way through the high ankle. They cut off feedback to the feet, allowing very unnatural foot strike patterns, and the weakening of toes, arches, and ankles.
Make your home a shoe free zone! Encourage the kids to play and move barefoot whenever possible. When buying shoes, look for the flattest, widest sole possible, with the least padding. The more their feet can develop naturally, the better their whole bodies will feel.
Likewise, limit their sitting. Kids are in a chair most the school day. Please don’t bring them home to sit more. Make the back yard a play paradise. You don’t need to buy much, just send them outside with a ball and they’ll figure the rest out. When they do read, color, or play with crafts, have them do so on the floor. They’ll constantly readjust and continue to use their body as one unit.
Rules for Screen Time
If we want more active, physically healthy kids, we should create less opportunity for them to sit and do nothing. Having a TV in their bedroom subjects them to the constant beckoning of infinite distraction. Video games, movies, and TV shows will all will keep them up later than they should be, and keep them sitting still.
In the same vein, nothing is more prone to disrupt productivity than our social media and mobile phone habits. I’m not advocating total denial, but we must create habits that allow us to use these tools for our benefit, rather than be controlled by them.
Curing this addiction in our kids has to start with the example we set. Common Sense Media surveyed 1800 parents of kids ages 8 to 18, and found that parents, on average, spent a startling 9 hours and 22 minutes per day on their screens. And yet somehow, 78% of them still think that they are acting as good role models in the use of technology for their children.
“No phone zones” are a great tool to create control and open up the rediscovery of simple enjoyments. A recent New York Times article proposed four that I particularly liked:
- In the Bed: This is proven to improve sleep, and will likely promote more communication and connection amongst spouses. Your children need at least eight hours of sleep. If they have a phone in their bed, it’s likely they are in bed but not sleeping for some time.
- At the Table: Eating together is an essential time to connect as a family, teach life lessons, and take time to value what is going on in each person’s life. Don’t let the phone interrupt or distract from that. Awkward silence? Embrace the rare lull, chew slowly, and take a genuine interest in whatever topic pops up.
- Reading a Book: If you don’t read, maybe less mobile phone time will help you start. As Mark Twain said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man that cannot read.” Your reading will make it far more likely that your children read. So relax, and enjoy a distraction-free book.
- In the Outdoors: There are a host of health benefits to getting outside. We were meant to be connected with nature and the outside world. If you do take your phone along to take pictures, put it in airplane mode.
By committing to no-phone zones, you allow yourself freedom from distraction and enable focused time for connection, relaxation, and creative activities. Furthermore, respecting these zones is a discipline. One must deny a comfort in an effort to gain something far greater. Frew things are as valuable as this simple practice of delaying gratification.
Another great method to instill discipline is requiring homework be done immediately after the kids get home. Willpower is a skill that must be trained, and the ability to set priorities will serve them well throughout life. Education must be treated as a value, which means it must come before other things.
Take the time to discuss what is going on at school. Always praise effort, not performance. Studies have shown that praising effort creates a desire to continue working hard and challenging oneself. This will help ensure your children like education.
Show an interest in subjects, so that they come to life. There is a significant trend towards parents and students wanting grades without actually acquiring skills or thought processes from the class. Make it clear that education is a wonderful opportunity that will enrich your life and make the world more vivid and interesting.
Eat Well, at Home and Together
As I’ve already mentioned, eating together without phones and TV has major upsides. Possibly the greatest benefit is the opportunity to nourish the body with better food options than you will be served at most restaurants. You also gain the chance to teach your children how to prepare and eat actual foods.
We are witnessing an epidemic of obesity, juvenile diabetes, and lifestyle-related illness in this country. According to Dr. Marc Bubbs, “the Western diet is chock-full of processed convenience foods that are high in added sugar, harmful trans fats, food additives, and artificial sweeteners, and are deficient in fiber and key micronutrients.” Cooking at home is one of the only ways around these dietary pitfalls. By cooking at home, you have a springboard to teach your children to prepare their own meals, as they get older. Perhaps nothing is more crucial to eating nutritiously.
I encourage you to challenge the beliefs that “kids” foods should be treats, that they need separate options at dinner, and that dessert should come at the end of each meal. If we want our kids to be healthy, we cannot continue to feed them mac and cheese with a soda and a couple cookies for dinner every night. A kids’ menu should simply be smaller portions of what the adults are eating, not a parade of fish sticks, chicken nuggets, or hot dogs, all washed down with soda and followed by ice cream. I understand kids can be picky, but we have a responsibility to help our kids learn healthy habits. Look after their dietary choices with the same (or more) scrutiny that you place on your own.
Chores and Savings
Please give your children chores. I’m not saying that your four-year-old needs to mow the lawn. But it is essential that, by early elementary years, kids begin to understand they are not entitled to anything, and all people must contribute. Chores can be simple, yet teach great lessons. Get a chore board, and require your son or daughter to accomplish their portion of the list by Saturday each week. This will help them learn to plan and budget time. When they put everything off until Saturday and can’t go out to play, they’ll have learned a great lesson.
Attach an allowance to these chores, and use it to teach financial responsibility. They can stop asking you to buy them things on every grocery trip, because they’ll have a little bit of their own money to manage. Explain to them that the amount they save is the amount of each “check” that they get to keep. Everything else is lost after it’s spent. These invaluable lessons are easily created by parents, and will open the door to a lifetime of good habits and possibility.
Let Them Set Their Own Alarm
If we want our children to be self-sufficient and healthy, they will need to be able to take control of their daily plans. This begins with being able to predict the time necessary to get up, eat, and be ready for school. It’s invaluable to let your son or daughter take responsibility for his or her own success or failure in the morning.
Most great people have morning rituals. We put our children on the fast track to creating their own life when we entrust them with the responsibility of preparing themselves for the day. I’m not saying to just stop waking up your 8-year-old and see what happens. Set expectations for punctuality. Walk them through a morning timeline, and help them plan what getting ready might entail. If they are a hard sleeper, suggest an alarm clock by the bed and one across the room that will force them to get up. The goal is to get them to a point where they no longer do need you.
Shape the Child for the Path
Let us be clear about what it means to change your child’s habitual path. We want to control what is easy to control, in an effort to create youth who are better able to thrive independently. A great teacher once told me, “we must shape the child for the path, not the path for the child.” This is the greatest goal. Establishing these habits early helps entrench them as the preset norm. As they get older and you give them more freedom, they’ll still make many mistakes. However, they will always have that experience in health, discipline, and good habits. That, coupled with their love of learning, will make a return to balance much more likely.
My own mother would tell you that the hardest part of parenting is to do what you think is right for your child, without making them feel deprived or too different. This was true when she raised me, and remains the great challenge of youth development in the 21st century. We must excite our children about the lessons we wish to instill in them and enthusiastically support them, because we are asking them to be different. It’s up to us to make them proud of their effort to be a positive difference among their peers. Only then will they embrace their own vision and independence, and go on to thrive throughout life.
Signing your kids up for little league is just the beginning: