Children growing up in North America today are at risk of being the first generation in modern memory that will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
—Dr. David Katz, heart expert
The alarms have sounded. Health experts are greatly concerned about the overall health of our children and teenagers. They’re worried about how sedentary our kids have become. They’re concerned about our kids’ eating habits. They’re bothered that too many kids don’t get enough sleep. As a parent, it’s easy to become paralyzed by what the health experts are saying, especially since many kids seem to slip in and out of good health habits (while others seems to gravitate toward more bad health habits than good). Yet there are many things you can do to help your kids get on the right track and keep from sliding too far into bad health habits.
For more advice on keeping your family healthy, see Health and Nutrition.
Tips for . . .
- all parents
- Recognize that health habits constantly change—for kids and for adults. Some people tend to slip into bad health habits when they’re stressed. Others get lazy when life is going well. Know when your child is more tempted to let health habits slide: when things are going well—or when they’re not going well. Be aware of what steers each family member off course.
- Make health habits fun. Find exercise that family members enjoy, such as going to a pool, playing soccer together, or going biking. Healthy eating can also be fun if you have an international night that features a meal from another country, or you have a taste testing of unusual fruits or vegetables. (Even if something doesn’t taste good, you can compete to make the most agonized faces.)
- Celebrate the small successes. When your child tries a new, healthy food, applaud that. When your child wants to go out to play, encourage that. When your teenager wants to go jogging, point out that you’re pleased about it.
- Be patient with picky eaters and with kids who don’t enjoy exercising. Instead of making health habits a power struggle, continue to invite your child to try new foods and new forms of physical activity. Check out Cooking with Kids for ideas.
- parents with children ages birth to 5
- Encourage healthy habits from an early age. Instead of sweets for snacks, serve fruits or vegetables. Include physical activity as part of your daily routine, even if it’s as simple as having a game of chase.
- Check out The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin from your library and read it aloud. In the late spring or summer, plant some vegetables or fruits, even if it’s just a tomato plant in a pot.
- Do physical activity together. Put on your child’s favorite music and dance together.
- Encourage your child to create a colorful plate of food. Fruits and vegetables are the most colorful foods, and sometimes you can even create a rainbow with red strawberries, orange slices, yellow squash, green lettuce, blueberries, and purple grapes.
- Be aware that power struggles can occur during the preschool years and that preschoolers often go through food phases. Be patient during these times but continue to be firm about healthy eating.
- parents with children ages 6 to 9
- Create a chart so your kids can keep track of the fruits and vegetables they eat each day (aim for five). Even if your kids eat only bananas and carrots, they’re more likely to be healthy if they have five servings.
- Find a physical activity that your child is interested in, such as a team sport (soccer or tee ball), a martial art (karate or kung-fu), or an individual sport (gymnastics). Sign them up to participate.
- Talk to your child about the importance of learning how to swim. Once you both agree, sign up your child for swimming lessons. See how many levels your child can master during elementary school.
- Have your child help you cook. Talk about the different elements of a healthy meal, such as a salad, main course, vegetables, grains, and fruit for dessert.
- parents with children ages 10 to 15
- Monitor your child’s consumption of soda. Many start drinking too much at this age, and they can get lots of cavities (and also kill their appetite for healthy foods).
- A lot of kids pick up unhealthy habits at this age as puberty starts. Continue to encourage your child to get some exercise (even if it’s just walking or biking to a friend’s house) and to eat healthy foods.
- Be careful that your child doesn’t start staying up too late and getting too tired during the day, especially on school days. Even though you can’t make your children go to sleep at a certain time, you can set limits on when the computer and TV go off, when the light goes off, and whether or not she can go to a sleepover on the weekend.
- Invite your young teen to cook with you and prepare a meal together. Find out if there’s something new your teen would like you to try to cook, such as sweet-and-sour chicken or baked potato skins.
- parents with children ages 16 to 18
- Continue to monitor healthy eating habits and healthy physical activity. Talk about the health habits you have adopted and why. Ask your teenager which health habits and goals he has. For other tips on helping teenagers be healthy, check out health articles on Parenting Teens Online.
- Even though your teenager may be on the go a lot, make family meals a priority. Try to eat together as a family at least four times a week (if not more). Serve healthy meals.
- If you’re concerned about your teen cutting short her sleep time, say so. Some teenagers pull all-nighters before a major test, and others try to see how far they can push their bodies by not getting enough sleep.
- Ask your teenagers about the kinds of physical activities they enjoy with their friends. Maybe they like walking to a lake together. Or they like to go biking, sailing, canoeing, or kicking around a soccer ball. Continue to encourage physical activity—even if your teenager isn’t doing it with you.