From Helpless to Heroic: A Parent’s Guide to Changing the Statistics One Child at a Time

I was reading the latest issue of one of my parenting magazines when I came across an article on children and food.  The author suggested offering dessert only two to three times a week instead of every day.  I laughed aloud.   

Today’s parents struggle daily with their children.  A typical meal for any child is usually laden with what should be dessert-only (occasional) ingredients, like lots of sugar, saturated fat, and abundant sodium.  Dessert isn’t the problem parents need to combat.  The issue is much greater.

Various sources report that today’s children will be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, despite the progress of modern medicine and the prevalence of nutritional education.  The diabetes statistics are staggering.  In 2003 it was reported that for Caucasian children born after the year 2000, one in three will develop diabetes in his or her lifetime.  African American, Hispanic, and American Indian children have a one in two chance.  

As a society, we blame a myriad of people and situations for the obesity and diabetes epidemic:   clever food advertising campaigns, genes, unhealthy school lunches, video games, lack of physical education classes, lavishing grandparents, high fructose corn syrup, specific ethnic cultural traditions, unregulated food industries, the Internet, and many other factors. But the truth is, eating and staying active are complicated.   There are many factors that play into how and why and when parents eat, which of course trickles down to the next generation. 

I’ve heard many parents say, “I buy the sugary cereals because it’s all my children will eat.”  This reminds me of the bliss I encountered this summer at a local water park, where I would get into an inflated tube and float around in the cool water. That particular attraction is often referred to as the Lazy River–it’s the easiest, least risky ride in the entire park. Likewise, parents all too easily give in to their children’s begging and whining–taking the easier route for the sake of an few moments of peace. However, the easy route is leading to deadly diseases and early deaths.

So why not stand up and fight?  Parents want what is best for their children, of course, but they often aren’t sure how to combat the pressures of unhealthy foods and an inactive lifestyle.  The parents themselves are often overwhelmed by their own busy lives, some barely staying afloat everyday.    

I won’t dare simplify the challenges parents face into an easy 1-2-3 solution.  However, I do believe parents must do something.  Here are ten practical steps parents can take to guide their children to make better choices so their children will live longer, healthier, happier lives.

  1. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you effectively follow through on what you tell your children in all areas, you will be more successful in guiding them to eat healthfully and enjoy an active lifestyle.  
  2. Model good behavior. A popular adage says that you can’t give what you don’t have. If you aren’t pursuing a healthy lifestyle yourself, how you can convince your children that they need to do the right things?  Remember, actions speak louder than words.
  3. Get encouragement. Seek the assistance of a motivated friend or a trusted medical professional. When you are confident in yourself as a person and as a parent, you can better encourage your children to get active and make better food choices.
  4. Limit electronic exposure. Not only do video gaming, television watching, and Internet surfing encourage a sedentary lifestyle, but these activities also expose adults and children to hundreds of manipulative advertisements. Advertisers convince children to desire their products by offering incentives like prizes and sweepstakes. They use attractive colors, celebrity sponsorships, and catchy songs to attract young consumers.    
  5. Get outdoors.  Try a farmer’s market, a farm, the zoo, a children’s museum, or the park.  Some of these places are free, and some promote outdoor fun, which provides vitamin D exposure, exercise, and teamwork.
  6. Involve the family.  Planning meals, shopping for groceries, cutting coupons, preparing meals, and setting the table can become family activities. Turn on some favorite music and get started.    
  7. Purchase wisely.  Try buying your child a bat and ball instead of a video game. Choose to purchase healthy cookie ingredients over packaged cookie dough. When your child wants something, think of the healthiest way to turn their wish into a reality. And if it’s truly unhealthy, be prepared to say no and offer a healthy alternative. 
  8. Utilize free resources.  Check out health-related books and exercise DVDs from your local library. Have fun looking through cookbooks with your children. Ask your doctor for website suggestions. Beware of anyone who tries to sell you “quick and easy” solutions. 
  9. Turn chores into opportunities. Grocery shopping is a dreaded task among many parents; however, parents know that distraction is an art that can benefit everyone. The product aisle can be used to teach young children colors and textures. Older kids can be given the responsibility of finding certain items on a list.  Talk about where foods come from (milk from cows, for example), read nutrition labels, and play the “which is healthier” game.  
  10. Say yes sometimes.  Healthy living is about balance. Give yourself and your children permission to enjoy junk foods on occasion–cake at a birthday party, a hotdog at the ballpark, or take-out pizza while on vacation. These eating opportunities are more enjoyable when they are not the norm in your household.  

Parents heavily influence their children and shape their beliefs, values, habits, and traditions. By choosing better, one day at a time, parents are offering  their kids more than just an apple or a hiking partner. They are offering their children an abundant, healthy life.

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