Tuesday, February 9, 2010

But What Happens When You Turn Them Loose?

I was reading the latest survey of US Families Organic Attitudes and Beliefs conducted by the Organic Trade Association for 2009. It is encouraging that 73% of all families buy organic products at least occasionally. It further stated that families that buy organic choose organic for health reasons. We are concerned about our children’s health. But what about our own health? We seem to get serious about two things after we have children – health and religion, OK and maybe finances. I won’t touch the topic of religion for a multitude of reasons and discussing finances makes my mind glaze over, but I am curious why it takes the miracle of childbirth for most of us to turn our attention to matters of health.

I’d be the first to admit I didn’t take very good care of my own health prior to having children. I exercised some, but only to have fun or lose weight. My diet was dictated by what I could afford more than anything else. I ate a lot of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, drank diet sodas like water and loved good, greasy “bar food”. I never thought about the connection between what I ate and my mood, health, or energy level. It took having children, and having a sick child at that, before I really began to take care with my own health.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t wish I’d wised up much earlier. I worry about the long term damage done to my body. But, being a person who tries not to dwell on things I can’t change, I focus on now. Now I eat whole, clean, unprocessed food, exercise my body and mind daily, and avoid caffeine, chemicals, and mean people. I relish my sleep time and guard it carefully. I’m pretty healthy and as far as I can force them to be, my kids are too. But why did it take having a sick child to get me to this place?

Why is it we don’t see our bodies as the temples they are until we have children depending on us? I’d like to think that is changing, but I don’t know too many health-conscious 20-year-olds, (besides my niece – you go Mary!). How do we change this trend? I’m sure lowering the cost of organics might be a first step, but since that is largely out of our control, I’ve been trying to come up with other ideas.

How can I teach my own children the importance of taking care of their health? I worry that the moment they are free of my restrictions they will spend their days glued to a screen of some kind, stuffing their faces with cheese curls, tastekakes, artificially sweetened pancake syrup, and Coke. These are the things they feel deprived of on a daily basis. I’m terrified my oldest will drink strong coffee, stay up all night, and live on cheezits, my daughter will maintain a constant high brought on from a diet of straight sugar, and my youngest will enter the first hot dog eating contest he encounters (and win!). I’ve told you before that I am a “mean” mom. I comfort myself by envisioning them as parents some day when they will come to me and say, “Wow, Mom, how did you do it?” But what if they don’t?

My own parents were pretty strict about food, refusing to buy sugared cereals and withholding dessert unless you ate your dinner. I remember my mom making yogurt and growing sprouts. I distinctly remember not appreciating those endeavors. So how do I break the cycle? How do I help my kids do what I didn’t – care about their own health? Maybe it’s not possible, maybe it’s part of the evolutionary process. Perhaps no matter what I do my kids are destined to rebel against my ways. I’m holding out hope that’s not the case. Just in case my children (and yours) aren’t as hard-headed as I was in my youth (no comments please), here are a few ideas I have to help all of us raise healthier humans from start to finish:

1) Help children see the connection between what they eat and how they feel. If my son comes home from a party with a tummy ache, we talk about what he ate at the party. We connect the dots between 3 hot dogs, 2 pieces of cake, half a bag of Doritos and the pain he is in now. He might do it again, but he’ll realize as he does it that there will be consequences. When my daughter came in from sledding yesterday and grabbed a jar of almonds to munch, my husband said, “All that sledding wore you out. Your body is craving the protein and good stuff in almonds.” (I could have kissed him! It’s wonderful not to always be the parent they roll their eyes at.)

2) Set an example. None of us is perfect when it comes to a healthy lifestyle, and you don't need to be either, in fact your kids will probably learn more if you're not. When I’m tired and grumpy, I apologize to my kids and I explain that I didn’t get enough sleep or I ate too much sugar. It’s not the kids fault I’m so grumpy, it’s my own. And it can be prevented. I try to serve and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables at every meal. I almost always have a salad bigger than the rest of my meal at dinner. And I get up every morning to run. They may not say anything but they notice (especially when I’m not back in time to cook their oatmeal). Will it make a difference down the line? I don’t know, but I’m a firm believer in the adage, “Children do what you do, not what you say.”

3) Allow them to have the forbidden stuff once in a while. I still buy that nasty syrup they love on special occasions. You can usually find a box of cheezits in my pantry, but it’s rationed for packing lunches. This time of year, Cadbury Crème Eggs are my favorite splurge. Hopefully, I’m teaching them that it’s OK to have this stuff occasionally but not a good idea to make it a part of your daily diet.

4) Make it easy for your kids to get exercise. Invite them for a hike, ask them to walk the dog, sign them up for organized sports (don’t worry if they aren’t the most valuable player – it’s exercise you’re after, not trophies). Believe me I know about all the driving (and waiting) and hassle and late dinners involved in organized sports, but think of it as an investment in their health, not your sanity. Plan a vacation that involves exercise. Install a basketball hoop. Build a soccer goal. Organize a kickball tournament. A lot of kids won’t move off the couch voluntarily. Move them!

5) Buy a variety of healthy foods so kids are well-versed in what is good for them. Don’t just keep apples in the fridge, you’d get bored of them too. Try cherries, raspberries, clementines, mango, kumquats (my favorite), and pineapple. Same goes for veggies. Every kid eats baby carrots, but sweet red peppers are even better. Take your kid to the grocery store and explore the produce aisle. Find something neither of you has tasted. I buy lots of different nuts for my kids to snack on – pistachios, almonds, cashews, peanuts, and walnuts. We love it at Christmas time when we can get the big nut assortment and go to town with the nut crackers. Offer lots of new things, but don’t ever force your child to eat anything. Yes, I know fresh fruits/veggie/nuts are expensive, especially if they’re organic, but try skipping the fast food or the processed food and you’ll be amazed what you can afford.

6) Complement your kids when they do good things. If your kids make a good choice when it comes to eating or bedtime or exercise, let them know it. This might be the most important thing you do. Positive reinforcement – we all respond to it.

Will this work? I’ll get back to you in 15 years. It’s very hard to say. But that’s part of the process of parenting. It’s really a lot of seed planting. The germination time is painfully slow and you won’t know if any of those seeds took until much later. Plus it’s unlikely that anyone will acknowledge your efforts for a very long time. Come to think of it, I probably need to thank my own mom for the seeds she planted with that soupy yogurt and those smelly sprouts 30 years ago. Thanks Mom!

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