Children are natural imitators. That means parents have lots of opportunities to help make sure their kids are copying good health habits, according to Surabhi Mehrotra, MD, an internal medicine and pediatric physician at Rush University Medical Center. She offers this age-old advice: Show, don't tell.
By modeling healthy behaviors, she says, parents can help kids develop good habits now — and set the stage for healthy aging later.
You set the standards
Nutrition. Parents need to be trendsetters and gatekeepers as well as role models when it comes to food, according to Mehrotra. "Your kids tend to eat foods that you eat and expose them to," she says. So even though fast food is convenient, you can teach priorities by carving out time to make healthy meals at home.
To get kids to buy into healthier meals, involve them in the process. "Make an effort to shop together, and talk about good choices," Mehrotra says. "And if your kids are eating too many chips or cookies, substitute them with healthier alternatives."
Exercise. Parents can show kids it's possible to fit exercise into even the busiest schedule. For example, combine family time and fitness time: Turn off the TVs and computers and opt for daily after-dinner bike rides or weekend walks. Those activities offer parents yet another chance to model healthy behaviors: Strap on bike helmets and slather on the sunscreen whether the sky is cloudy or sunny.
Matters of the heart and mind
Relationships. Having strong connections with others promotes longevity. That means parents can prepare their kids for healthier golden years by nurturing loving family relationships and showing kids how to make — and treasure — friends.
Positive thinking. Negative thinking can actually harm people's health. And kids who see themselves, their friends and the wider world in positive terms are less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. One simple way to accentuate the positive: Sit down with your kids once a week and list what each of you is grateful for.
Finally, for parents struggling to motivate their kids to adopt healthy habits, resist the temptation to nag. Instead, Mehrotra suggests finding a reward system that works — other than food or money.
"Something as small as a sticker or creating a star board is a good visual cue for positive behavior," she says. But the best motivation, says Mehrotra, is attention. "Kids of all ages love attention. And it's that positive attention that will encourage them to form good habits that can help them age well."