We live in a super-connected world, where technology has forced our attention span down to less than 3 seconds. However, our brains haven’t changed much since we lived in caves, and although technology is changing our lives and what we pay attention to, some things don’t change.
One of those things is the way children learn from their parents how to ‘be’ in the world. In fact, prior to us telling them anything, they are watching what we do. As a parent, you may very likely have a few choice examples to share about your child’s ability to see better than they hear.
Children watch and follow what we do because their brains are primed to do so from a very young age. Why? Because parent’s actions and behaviour are a ‘living-in-action’ example for their children to copy to ensure survival.
Tiny, specialized cells in our brains, called mirror neurons, get activated under specific circumstances. Mirror neurons are one of the reasons we yawn when we see someone else yawn.
Mirror neurons are very active in children’s developing, ‘sponge-like’ brains because it’s during childhood that we learn the basics of what’s safe and maximizes our chances of survival. So, our children’s eyes, coupled with their mirror neurons, process vast quantities of information automatically when a parent is just going about their daily lives.
This automatic process is part of the wisdom of Mother Nature, allowing children to copy what their parents are doing without having to think about the behaviour. So, your child’s brain is always ‘on,’ and alert to what you are doing – you’re teaching 24/7 without being aware of it.
Their mirror neurons ‘mirror’ their parents’ behaviour regardless of whether we planned for that to happen or not.
It’s therefore clear to see that one of the primary ways we can influence our children’s health and well being over the long term is by showing them how to live a healthy life, rather than telling them how to do so.
Firstly, you need to ask yourself two questions: ’why does being healthy matter to me?’ and ‘what does being healthy look like for me?’ If it doesn’t matter to you, but you want your child to care about their health, whatever you tell them to do is not going to be effective. And if you believe in being healthy but haven’t been doing what you know you should be doing to this end, then you have to action your beliefs.
Get clear on what being healthy means for you, and what you’re prepared to do to gain improved health. Then think about and act on the following suggestions:
What does your fridge look like?
When your fridge is filled with healthy foods, that you also eat, your children learn about eating healthy food directly. Too many sauces, and processed foods, give them the message that you prefer food that is available immediately, rather than the message that making food from scratch is preferable. By replacing the unhealthy foods in your fridge with healthier alternatives you’ll automatically be showing your children what foods are good for them to eat. This is not an overnight transition so be patient with yourself and with them as they get used to eating different foods.
What does your pantry look like?
As with your fridge, when your pantry is filled with foods that support health, your children will automatically be exposed to such foods. Unfortunately, many pantries are filled with foods that are highly processed, which contain lots of added salt and sugar, and other nasties like preservatives and flavorings. Replacing these kinds of foods with healthier alternatives can be trickier because foods with loads of additives are naturally addictive. However, there are healthier options, and over time you and your children will begin to prefer whole foods to highly processed ones. Again, this isn’t an overnight transition.
Do you have a ‘treat’ draw or cupboard?
If you already have a special place where treats are kept then your children have already learned that some foods are ‘treats.’ If you all tuck into such ‘treats’ regularly then it’s important that you start replacing them with healthier options as these foods also contain vast quantities of unhealthy ingredients. Keep in mind that having a special ‘treat’ spot is sending a message to your children, although you may not be sure what that message is. Maybe it’s that ‘when you’re feeling upset a treat can offer comfort’ or maybe it’s ‘when I need a snack because I’m tired this is my go-to spot?’ If the message is emotionally laden, over time, food can be seen as a source of fuel rather than as a source of emotional comfort. Regardless, a healthier message maybe ‘after a healthy meal we can share a treat because it’s fun to share yummy treats with each other.’
What does food shopping look like in your family?
Going shopping with children can be a time-consuming process but every once in a while it can convey important messages. For example, you don’t need to tell your children that certain food choices are poor – all you have to do is quickly glance at the label, shake your head, sigh and put the item back on the shelf. Wait for your child to ask you why you’ve replaced it and tell them that the manufacturers have added so much rubbish to the food that you can’t bear to feed it to them. Of course, the age of the child and the amount of time they’ve been eating the less healthy food will impact how readily they accept your verdict. If they’re older, it may be wiser to go shopping without them, replace the food in and mention that you thought a change may be a good idea.
How do you spend your leisure time?
When parents are active and use their leisure time to move their bodies, the chances are very high their children will mirror this behaviour too. So, if you’ve been slack and haven’t been active enough it’s time to start moving more. Again, showing your child this positive behaviour and expecting them to mirror it will depend on the age of the child and whether they are playing computer games or using social media as a replacement for physical activity. It may be time to invest in an app that the family can use to track movement during the day thus introducing a competitive element to movement goals.
How is your home set up to improve physical activity?
Again, depending on the age of your child, and their personal sports/activity preferences, you may need to invest in a new set of sports clothes and some basic equipment, or you may simply have to have some sunscreen, and a handball at the back door for younger children. Regardless, ensure physical activity can be an easy, ‘spur of the moment’ occurrence, versus a long and complex process in getting ready to get active. Children can be spontaneous – become more so yourself in relation to exercise and capitalize on their enthusiasm when they show it! Sometimes, you don’t even have to leave home to get active if you’re creative.
- Commit to being the parent and making some hard decisions regarding what you and your children eat daily
- Commit to replacing every unhealthy food choice when it runs out with a healthier option
- Commit to making exercise and physical movement as easy as possible and part of your daily routine and get creative to encourage activity
Although changing foods and introducing exercise can seem like challenging changes initially and it’s normal to feel despondent while your children take time to embrace change, remember that you are the parent. Parents have a responsibility to model the kind of behaviour that will allow their children to thrive physically and mentally as adults.