As parents, we want our kids to be as healthy and happy as possible, and enforcing good habits plays a big role in their overall well-being and academic success. But helping our kids actually stick to beneficial behaviors can feel like a Herculean task. It may be that your picky eater refuses vegetables, or your teen isn’t getting enough sleep. Maybe you’re constantly on top of your kids to do their homework, or you’re grappling with how to inspire them to pick up a book. No matter what you’re struggling with, you’re far from alone. There’s good news though; it’s possible to help our kids establish healthy behaviors. The key, experts say, is motivating our children to practice those good habits by taking initiative on their own.
MAKE HEALTHY EATING AUTOMATIC
A healthy diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and other protein sources, and lowfat/nonfat dairy products, says David Krol, MD, a Somerset pediatrician and the medical director for Connecticut Children’s Care Network. He says we can encourage better habits by making sure our kids see us eating healthy food.
If you have a picky eater, don’t get into food battles or force them to eat. Instead, offer plenty of healthy options and let them choose. As much as possible, “involve kids in meal planning or preparation and make mealtime a positive experience,” he says. “Eating together as a family allows parents to role model healthy eating and encourage new foods. We know that children who eat with their families regularly are more likely to eat fruits, vegetables and healthy grains. We also know they are less likely to snack on unhealthy foods,” Krol says.
To promote a healthy relationship with food overall, don’t use it as a punishment or a reward, says Krol. “We shouldn’t be harshly restricting certain foods or forcing foods on kids, but providing food to them in a variety of different ways.” This way, our kids will naturally gravitate toward healthy options.
ENCOURAGE A LOVE OF MOVEMENT
Regular exercise has incredible benefits. It helps kids maintain a healthy weight, increases bone health, improves balance, helps with focus and behavior in school, reduces stress, promotes sleep and boosts self-esteem, says Krol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kids need about an hour of physical activity each day to optimize health, but less than 25 percent of children are meeting that guideline. To boost your child’s exercise habit, make sure you’re modeling an active lifestyle yourself. Actively play with younger kids and let your kids see you having fun, he says.
“Physical activity can be a family thing, where [everyone is] healthy and active,” says Krol. “Make it enjoyable, whether it’s a sport your kids love or a game that they enjoy playing. Provide choices and vary the activities.” Exposure to nature also has health benefits, so go outside to exercise whenever possible, he adds. By making movement a gratifying activity, our kids will learn to crave it.
CREATE A SOLID SLEEP ROUTINE
In addition to healthy eating and plenty of exercise, sleep is a pillar of health. “Those three things together can really contribute to healthy development and healthy growth for kids,” says Krol. For young kids, be sure to establish a regular bedtime routine such as “brush, book, bed,” says Krol.
It can be harder to get older kids to go to bed on time because they tend to be night owls, he says. “Sleep is almost like a U-shaped curve. Very young children need a lot of sleep. Then, as children get a little bit older, they need less sleep. As they enter into the pre-teen/adolescent years, they go back to needing more sleep, so it’s really important to make sure they’re getting to bed at a reasonable hour,” Krol says. If we expect our kids to prioritize sleep, we need to do the same. Being a role model of a healthy sleep routine is the best way to get our kids to follow suit.
PROMOTE A PASSION FOR READING
Start early, reading to your kids regularly and modeling your own practice of reading, says Ned Johnson, president and founder of test preparation and tutoring company PrepMatters and co-author of What Do You Say? How to Talk to Kids to Build Stress Tolerance, Motivation, and a Happy Home. “So often as parents, we want to try to talk our kids into doing things, which doesn’t tend to be very effective,” Johnson says. “Instead, make [reading] a fun thing you do together. Go to the bookstore or library to pick out books and tie it up with as much positive emotion as possible.”
When it comes to reading, parents should let kids take the lead, says Johnson. That means allowing children to choose a book that might be too easy for their current reading level (even a graphic novel). “It’s the reading equivalent of comfort food,” says Johnson. “And if we force them to read something that we choose, they’re probably not enjoying it.”
It’s a great idea to implement a reading routine before bed (together with younger kids, and independently if your child is older), says Johnson. “We are all often moving so fast and kids are so overly stimulated when they’re on their screens. Books have a much slower cadence and are a nice way to slow down.” If we create a family ritual around reading that’s purely about the enjoyment of books, our kids will actually want to read more on their own.
CULTIVATE GOOD STUDY HABITS
We cannot make our kids do their homework, nor should we want to, Johnson says. “Our goal should be to help them find their own reasons to want to work hard at school. In my experience, when kids don’t want to do the work, the harder we try to convince them why they should, the more they resist our reasoning.”
To encourage strong study habits in your child, help them to evaluate their short and long-term goals. Next, find out how they’re doing. Are they on track toward reaching those goals, or are they coming up short? Finally, ask your child what obstacles are making that goal hard to achieve before giving advice, Johnson says. “If we offer advice and help instead of forcing it, we nurture our connection and help [our kids] feel in control,” he says. “They are free to consider our ideas, perspectives and offers of help, and then decide for themselves what they want to accept.”
Be sure to pay attention to your child’s interests outside of academics, Johnson says. “Doing that signals that we care about them, not just their grades,” he says. “It lowers their stress, increases our connection and flames their motivation, including for school.”
No matter what habit we’re encouraging our kids to adopt, it’s key to focus on a growth mindset. “Focus on kids’ strengths, not their limitations,” Krol says. “Don’t focus on what they aren’t doing, focus on what they are doing and how they can continue to grow. Having a strength-based approach is incredibly important.”
—Heidi L. Borst is a mother, writer and nutrition coach based in Wilmington, NC.