A Few Pointers for Parents

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In honor of Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, here are some suggestions for parents who want to avoid or reverse obesity in the home.

Dr. Dyan Hes, Director of the Pediatric Weight Management Program at New York Methodist Hospital and author of a piece titled “What I Wish Everyone Knew About Childhood Obesity,” is in favor of the baby-steps approach to change. She offers a number of behavioral tips for parents. First, leave the weigh-ins for doctor visits. Weighing a child at home can set the stage for eating disorders and body image issues.

Another recommendation is to encourage the child to drink two cups of water before going to a birthday party or, presumably, any other food-intensive event. A parent can make water interesting by letting the child pick a special superhero cup that is not used for any other beverage. Exploring natural no-calorie water flavorings could be a family project.

Water is, of course, useful for many health-related purposes. There is almost no such thing as too much. Parents might hesitate to encourage more water, because of the hassle of changing diapers, or finding and dealing with a public restroom. At the very least, a parent can try for energetic water promotion on days spent at home. Conscientious parents will soul-search for places where they might be sabotaging their children’s health without even realizing it.

Parents have strong feelings about their children. Of course a mother would pick up a car that was resting on the body of her child. Of course a father would slay a regiment of home invaders to protect his children. But the challenge of long-term parenting is just that — it lasts forever. To make rules is a thankless task, and to stick with them can be a tedious, stressful, ongoing chore. Any parent who has the chance to take a Parent Effectiveness Training course is a lucky parent indeed.

Dr. Hes also recommends packing a healthful school lunch at home, rather than counting on the cafeteria’s offerings to do nutritional justice. And don’t buy breakfast cereal with added sugar.

Perhaps the most important recommendation, and one that goes along with the notion of taking it slow, is to consistently give positive reinforcement rather than the negative type. In a moment we will say unkind things about using food as a reward for kids, but there is perhaps one instance where it is forgivable. If a child who struggles with weight asks for a pint of raspberries rather than a candy bar, it might be a good idea to spring for the fruit, even if it is heinously expensive.

Food rewards for kids

Some parents are defeated by the sheer length of time that parenting lasts. Children just keep on being childish, day after day, until they aren’t children any more, and then it gets even more complicated, because now they’re teenagers. But parents always need to remember to take the long view, and play the long game.

When the focus is short-term, warns registered dietician Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, “we are more tempted to employ feeding strategies that are counter-productive for kids’ eating down the line.” She says:

The more frequently parents use food as a reward or punishment, the more likely it is their kids will grow into adults who eat in the absence of hunger.

The problem is that when kids equate food with winning they tend to become adults who go after food rewards, and even unnecessarily complicate their own lives in order to feel entitled to these rewards. This is how people are trained to believe the advertising slogan “You deserve a break today,” when the so-called break is actually a pile of cholesterol, sodium and grease.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What I Wish Everyone Knew About Childhood Obesity: A Pediatrician Explains,” MindBodyGreen.com, 03/24/14
Source: “What Rewarding Kids with Food Looks Like 20 Years Later,” RaiseHealthyEaters.com, 05/27/11
Photo credit: Public Domain Photography via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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