Having children comes with great responsibility. Babies are completely helpless and largely unable to communicate except through crying. They aren’t born knowing how to be a person—they learn it, largely from their parents. Most parents’ goal is to raise their children to be happy, healthy adults, yet despite this, many today suffer from childhood obesity and the health problems that go with it. Why?
A Child’s Mind
One thing I’ve learned since becoming a parent is that kids hear and see a lot more than you think they do. Most everyone has heard the saying that children are like sponges, and there is a reason for this.
When a baby is born, they are almost a blank slate—their brain is still not fully developed (although many traits are “built in” through genetic inheritance). Much of that wiring occurs after birth in response to what they experience: every sound, touch, sight, taste, smell, and emotion plays a part in forming who they will ultimately be.
Psychology Today notes that children’s minds are constantly reshaping themselves as a direct effect of many factors. What does this mean for diet and exercise? It means their minds are malleable enough that they can be “trained”, so to speak, to positively relate to healthy food and exercise.
Many parents strive to teach good values and set a good example for their kids, but it’s easy to forget that every moment in a child’s life is a learning experience. We are always teaching our children, whether we are aware of it or not, and they learn indiscriminately—meaning they soak up bad habits just as easily as good ones. For this reason, any behavior we want to ingrain in them, we must exhibit ourselves.
Nutrition, Exercise, and Childhood Obesity
According to the CDC, the rate of childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970s, resulting in almost one in every five children in the US being obese—even as young as two years old. Barring any genetic factors, what has direct influence over a two-year-old child’s body fat percentage? Their nutrition and activity level, which is largely controlled by their parents.
Children are notoriously picky eaters. After struggling night after night arguing with your kid to have at least three bites of peas, it can be tempting to cave in and just make those staple meals you know they’ll eat: chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, pizza, chips, and other junk foods. Not only is this not good for your child, it’s not good for you, either. It’s easy to polish off what they don’t finish, too, and pretty soon, poor eating habits will have snuck up on you and your kids before you know it.
Unfortunately, although kids have way more energy than adults, making it easier for them to burn off the calories they consume in junk food, they are playing outside less and less, while playing videogames more and more. Reinforcing this behavior is seeing their parents plop down in front of the TV every night.
Be A Role Model
To battle a plague like childhood obesity, it’s not enough to lecture your kids to eat healthy and exercise; kids are known to be stubborn and quick to notice if you say one thing but do another. The best way to positively influence children to eat healthfully and exercise is to be right on board with them. And start early—as soon as your child is ready to try solids. This way, you set the tone early, before their mind has been programmed to want only unhealthy foods. They won’t like everything you put in their mouth, but it’s easier to get them to eat something if you pretend to eat it too, and even better, exaggerate how tasty it is. Already have an older child? It’s still not too late to start steering them in the right direction, so long as they see you’re along for the ride, too.
As they grow older, continue to make healthy eating a family affair, and make regular exercise a part of your family’s daily routine as well. Go for walks after dinner and visit the park or go swimming once in a while on nice weekends. It doesn’t have to be an everyday thing; we’re all busy, and sometimes relaxing and watching a favorite show is just what the doctor ordered. The key is to make it a point to reserve time for fun activities that encourage movement.
Don’t really know where to start? Here are six easy ways to get the whole family on the road to healthier lives.