Last week we talked about ways to teach your kids to eat healthy and be fit. That’s not all it takes to create a healthy family, though!
A healthy diet and physical fitness will help your kids grow up healthy in their bodies. What else do your kids need to learn to live healthy all their lives?
I can think of two other very important things children need in order to live healthy. First, they need to be deeply connected to others who love them. Second, they need to know how to make (and be very good at making) healthy choices.
How do we keep our kids connected to people who love them? We make sure they spend time with them. The first people children connect with is their immediate family (parents and siblings). Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins are all important role models, caretakers and playmates.
As our kids grow, neighborhood and school friends and their families become important parts of their extended families. If your family attends church or temple, your religious community becomes an increasingly important source of support.
Why are social connections with people who love us so important? For many reasons. It’s exhausting raising kids! Having more adults and older kids around to provided guidance and positive role models takes some of the pressure off of parents. After all, a wise person said once that it takes a village to raise a child.
Hanging out with others who have the same values as your family helps to reinforce the values you are teaching your child. While everyone has a little different approach, it’s good that your kids see other parents and adults insist on the same rules of behavior that you have taught them. Mom and Dad aren’t so weird if Grandma, Aunt Stacy and Mrs. Cooper at Sunday School all insist on washing hands before snack and saying “please” and “thank you.”
One of the most important reasons for staying socially connected to other people as they grow up is that social connection is the anti-drug. Studies have shown that people (teenagers and adults both) are unlikely to use drugs or engage in other dangerous and potentially self-destructive behaviors if they have deep social connections to people whose opinion of them matters to them.
This brings us to the second lesson kids need to learn well: How to make good choices. How do kids learn to make choices? It sounds very strange, but THIS skill is one that really can’t be taught. It’s one that kids have to learn on their own.
How do you teach your child to whistle? You can’t, right? You can show them how to purse their lips or position their fingers just right, but it’s a skill they have to learn by trial and error. And you can’t convince them they can do it, you have to just encourage them to keep trying.
Learning to make good choices is the same way. You can tell them the theory, help them see risks and benefits, weigh consequences, etc. But the best way for kids to learn to make choices is simply to make them. And start making them EARLY.
Do you know any kids in your life whose parents make ALL the choices? Yep, I do too. How do you suppose those kids are going to learn to say no to drugs, alcohol and sex? If all the decisions have been made for them their whole life, they may be content to continue to let others tell them what to do.
Start early. Even one-year-old babies can help choose their clothes. Offer two outfits and see if they will pick. Toddlers can choose their breakfasts. Schoolkids with birthday money to spend can choose the toy or game they want to buy. Teenagers should be actively involved in important decisions that affect them, like choosing their high school and what car they will drive.
As your child grows, the importance and freedom they have with their choices should increase in a way that matches their problem-solving skills. For instance, toddlers don’t get to choose chocolate cake for breakfast (even if it does contain eggs and milk, LOL!). As they get older let them deal with consequences if they regret their decision later. That schoolkid who decides later they don’t like the toy they bought will learn a valuable lesson when they have to save up to buy something else.
There is a great parenting book series by Foster Cline and Jim Fay called Love and Logic. Anyone struggling with the “terrible threes” should check out the early childhood book. (I need to get the book that deals with teenagers, LOL!)
Now we come to a sticky point. How do you teach someone something that you don’t know? You can’t right? So if you want your kids to learn to be healthy and adventurous eaters, YOU have to be willing to eat healthy foods and try new things, right? If you want your kids to learn the value of physical fitness, YOU have to model a willingness to participate and get sweaty.
You are the most important teacher your child will ever have. They listen carefully to what you say (even when it seems they won’t). But they watch what you do as well, and what you DO speaks much more loudly than what you SAY.
Seek out opportunities to connect your family to your community. Choose a church or temple to attend. Join groups that have the same interests as you. Volunteer. Spend time with your extended family and with your neighbors and your kids’ friends’ families.
Show your kids how you make decisions. Think out loud with them and talk through alternatives and possible consequences. Be up-front with them when things don’t go as planned. They will learn that making a bad decision doesn’t make you a bad person.
Everyone wants their kids to be happy. In my opinion, giving your kids the skills to be healthy and fit, make solid decisions and be secure in the love of their family and community will go a long way towards making that happen.