Parenting Solutions: Five Healthy Habits to Instill in Children

Teaching these behaviors with diligence and discipline will reduce illness, promote safety, and encourage healthy living through diet and exercise.

Children who start to practice healthy habits early in life are much more likely to continue those habits through their teen years and into adulthood. “Young children haven’t had a real opportunity to develop a concrete preference in their likes and dislikes, as well as their behaviors, so it is easier to start them off on the right foot than it is to stop a bad habit later in life,” says Lawrence Balter, a New York University child psychologist and author.

With mom and dad playing the key role in educating their offspring in healthy habits, here are five important ones that parents should instill in their children:

REGULAR HAND-WASHING

The simplest way to avoid infection as well as reduce colds and flu bugs is by washing your hands, say medical experts. The Mayo Clinic notes that while it is impossible to keep hands totally germ-free, children should be taught to wash at these times:

  • before preparing food, setting the table, or serving food.
  • before eating meals or snacks.
  • after visiting a bathroom.
  • after sneezing or coughing into their hands.
  • after blowing their nose.
  • after handling money.
  • after playing with a pet.

Mary Sandell, occupational health and epidemiology nurse at Tallahassee Community Hospital, stresses the importance of hand-washing, saying: “Organisms enter your body through mucous membranes. Your fingers touch your eyes, nose, and mouth,” which are all points of entry.

Most experts agree that the type of soap used is incidental because the benefit of hand-washing is more mechanical than chemical. Any soap and water used acts as a lubricant to loosen up dirt and bacteria on the hands. Thus, when hands are rinsed, the debris is rinsed away.

In addition, Sandell further cautions parents to remain vigilant about other hygiene issues by reminding children never to put pens or pencils in their mouths.

“Think about where those pens have been,” she says. “It’s like putting coins in your mouth.”

SAFETY BELTS

“If seat belts were medicine, they’d be wonder drugs,” says Chuck Hurley, spokesman for the National Safety Council. “Instead they’re like aspirin—so common that people forget how beneficial they are in preventing death and serious injuries.”

Consider the good fortune of parents Nikki and Edward Brown of Detroit, Mich. They have buckled their children, ages 1 and 2, into child safety seats since their births, no matter how much they protested. That’s why the Brown toddlers were dangling upside down—but alive—after the family’s sport-utility vehicle rolled over in a potentially fatal crash on one of Detroit’s busy freeways. “The Lord and the child seats saved them,” Nikki Brown says.

Nevertheless, too many parents give in to the complaining and resistance from their children and drive without having them buckled into their seats. Six out of every 10 children killed in crashes are unrestrained by either seat belts or child safety seats. In 1997 an astounding 1,244 of the 2,087 children under age 16 killed in crashes were completely unrestrained.

Even driving a block down the street warrants strapping on the seat belt or placing a child in a safety seat. “It’s a national tragedy, because the majority of children killed in crashes would be alive today if the adults who loved them would have buckled them up properly,” says Janet Dewey, director of the Air Bag and Seat Belt Campaign, a nonprofit group supported by auto makers, insurers, and the Federal government.

DAILY EXERCISE

Sadly, today’s children are among the most underexercised and overweight youths in the nation’s history. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, one in five American youths, ages 12 to 17, is overweight. Increasingly, researchers are growing alarmed because childhood obesity has escalated alarmingly in the past decade.

In a 1976-80 NHANES study, the rate of overweight youths was only 15 percent. Today that figure is at 21 percent. Furthermore, two-thirds of our children can’t pass a basic physical fitness test. Forty percent of boys and 70 percent of girls, ages 6 to 17, cannot do more than one pull-up. Half the girls and 30 percent of boys are unable to run a mile in under 10 minutes. In addition, 40 percent show early signs of heart and circulation problems, according to a recent report by The President’s Council of Physical Fitness and Sports.

An effective way to get children exercising daily is by turning physical activity into family time. Take walks together after dinner and stargaze. Go for a family bike ride. In the winter, do indoor aerobic workouts together utilizing the many fine workout tapes which are available. Invite the entire family to a roller or ice rink for an evening of skating.

HEALTHY NUTRITION

The Cancer Research Foundation of America (CRFA) urges parents to teach good nutrition to their children because developing healthy dietary habits in childhood greatly reduces their cancer risk in the future.

“Teaching children the ABCs of good nutrition gives them an essential tool for living a healthy life,” notes Oliver Alabaster, a member of the board of directors of CRFA. In analyzing foods for cancer risk, he points out, “there is no element in food more damaging than fat.”

CRFA recommends that individuals eat less than 20 percent of calories from fat, or about 30 to 40 grams per day. However, the average child’s dietary fat is double what it should be, about 36 percent.

To help parents promote lifelong healthy eating habits, CRFA offers these suggestions:

Switch the family to skim milk and thereby reduce considerably the amount of fat in a child’s diet.

Bake, broil, but never fry food. For example, a baked potato is one percent fat while French fries contain 43 percent fat.

Make meat a minor player. When meat is served, it should enhance the meal, not be the centerpiece. Even the leanest meats may derive more than 60 percent of their calories from fat. Use vegetables, grains, and pastas as the centerpiece of the meal. For example, serve chicken stir-fry instead of fried chicken or spaghetti in a meatless red sauce in lieu of a meatloaf.

PROPER SAFETY EQUIPMENT

Children love outdoor activities such as scootering, skateboarding, biking, and in-line skating. In order to prevent injuries and even loss of life, they must be instructed and motivated to wear the proper safety equipment.

The most important protective gear for such activities is a safety helmet. Scrapes and bruises heal, but head wounds can impact a child for life. Safety helmets reduce serious head injuries by 88 percent, yet only 15 percent of children under age 15 wear them. It is estimated that the use of bike helmets would prevent 135 to 155 deaths annually of children ages 4 to 15.

According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI), a child will wear a helmet if peers and parents do, if a schoolteacher has talked about the importance of the helmet, and if the child has picked out the helmet he or she really wants. Fashion, not safety, is often a key motivator of helmet use by kids. Spending extra money on a child’s own selection could be a good investment, making certain that the helmet is approved by either the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the Snell Memorial Foundation.

Parents who are diligent and disciplined in teaching these and other healthy habits are most likely to see their children continue them into adulthood.

Victor M. Parachin, a parent, a former newspaper reporter, and an ordained minister, contributes frequently to this column. He lives in Tulsa, Okla.

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