13 Life Lessons All Parents Should Teach Their Kids

Life Lessons

by the editors of Prevention

Forget the Mom guilt—these basic health, nutrition, fitness, and happiness 101s are easy to impart to your family. In fact, you’ve probably ingrained most of them already! But it never hurts to reflect on how well your kids are hearing—and adhering to—these life lessons, and see if it might be time for a refresh.

1. Eat your Wheaties.

Or another healthy breakfast—the meal is a no-brainer for power days at school and better health down the road.

Landmark studies link even the simplest morning meal (a bowl of cereal, a splash of milk, a few banana slices) with better attention spans, sharper fact recall, and happier moods for kids. Newer research links morning eating with less obesity, stronger bones, and healthier teeth. Yet kids are dropping out of the healthy breakfast club at an alarming rate: Although 95 percent of elementary school kids (and 87 percent of teens) ate breakfasts in 1965, fewer than 86 percent (and fewer than 70 percent of teens) do so today. The reason: rushed mornings and busy families. You can eat a bowl of instant oatmeal and fruit in less than five minutes—so set the clock a few minutes earlier and make sure your children eat up at home before school.

2. It’s OK to worry.

And make sure your kids know that you’re their ultimate sounding board.

The frontal lobe—the part of the brain that handles planning, attention, concentration and reasoning—isn’t fully developed until late adolescence or early adulthood, says Michele Thorne, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “It’s basically like the main onboard computer that directs how an individual makes decisions isn’t fully programmed in children and teens,” she says. Check in with your kids frequently about whatever may be going on—whether it’s West Nile virus fears or concerns about you or your partner losing a job—to see how they’re feeling, and explain how your family is dealing with it.

3. Love your body.

Even a first-grader is likely to believe that “thinner is better,” reports an Australian study of more than 500 school-age girls and boys.

“Studies routinely find that about 40 percent of elementary school girls and 25 percent of elementary school boys are dissatisfied with their bodies,” says Linda Smolak, PhD, a Kenyon College psychologist who studies body image and eating disorder development in children and adolescents. These unhappy and self-conscious kids report more frequent feelings of depression, insecurity, and anxiety. To thwart unhealthy body image, counter the images that bombard your kids. Follow these tips on how to raise happier, healthier kids, including not ripping on yourself with “I feel fat today” or “I have to lose five pounds before bathing-suit season” commentary.

4. Don’t ____ and drive.

Fill in the blank: Drink, text, dial—anything that distracts from the road ahead.

The stats are scary: Car crashes are the leading cause of death for US teens, according to the CDC. In fact, 12 kids age 16-19 die every day from accident-related injuries. Dangerous driving behaviors—like drinking (obviously), but also texting/calling, and having multiple passengers in the car—play a big role in these shocking numbers. Almost 25 percent of teen drivers who died in a motor vehicle crash had blood alcohol levels over the legal limit, but the risk isn’t just limited to kids with licenses. Nearly 30 percent of teens say they’ve ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol in the last month. As for texting, doing it behind the wheel raises the risk of a car accident by 50 percent, according to the American Automobile Association.

So how to instill these safe driving skills? Lead by example—don’t let your kids see you fumbling around in your purse to answer your ringing phone when you’re at the wheel, for example. And when they’re old enough to have friends who drive or are ready for lessons themselves, go over your house rules (over and over, if you have to).

5. Get your beauty sleep.

If your teen is so bleary-eyed and grumpy in the morning that you want to run in the other direction, pay attention.

A Journal of Adolescent Health study found that more than 25 percent of the kids surveyed (they were between 11 and 17 years old) had one or more symptoms of insomnia—and were much likelier to use drugs, experience depression, or have problems with school work, jobs and perceived health.

The most common sleep thief for adolescents is late-night gadget time—texting or talking on cell phones, watching TV, going online. So set a technology curfew with your kids, and make sure they understand why. Shut off the TV and have your children stop using phones and computers at least an hour before bed, advises Susan Zafarlotfi, PhD, director of the Institute for Sleep-Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center.

6. You love veggies!

You can get your teenagers or grown kids to eat healthier—just tell them they did so when they were young!

Psychologists at the University of California, Irvine, convinced several dozen college students that they liked to eat asparagus when they were in their childhood—even if it wasn’t remotely true. That “news” made most of the students more willing to buy, eat, and enjoy the healthy veggie in the future.

7. Get smart about the web.

If you’re clueless when it comes to Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, it’s time to get with it—and figure out what your tween or teen is up to online.

It’s not just about sexual predators and cyber-bullying—both hugely frightening and important issues—but even just the kind of record they make for themselves in their profiles and photos. If your kid’s active online, ask to see her social network profile(s)—and tell her not to post anything that you, a teacher, or a college recruiter shouldn’t view.

8. We eat dinner together.

We don’t need to tell you that dining together is good for your kids.

Research from the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Dallas revealed that kids who had family meals with their parents ate lower-fat foods and more fruits and veggies. And in a Spanish study of 282 teenagers, those who shared at least five family meals a week suffered less anxiety and depression, regardless of their parents’ education level or whether both parents worked outside the home.

A weeknight meal doesn’t have to be the result of your slaving in the kitchen for hours for a perfect dinner. For crazy nights, bring home healthy fast food: try precut, frozen, canned, or microwave-in-the-bag veggies. Turn up the nutrition on canned soups by adding frozen veggies and canned chicken. Buy premade ravioli and spaghetti sauce, and serve it with a precut salad.

9. Ask me anything—even about sex.

Maintain an open line of communication so the big chat isn’t such a big deal.

Start by poking through your kid’s health textbook, recommends Neil Herendeen, MD, a pediatrician at Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “In 5th and 6th grade, children begin taking health classes, but every school covers these topics differently,” he says. “Parents need to understand and know what things are and are not included. Some schools just cover puberty changes, for example, while others also include hormones, feelings and mutual respect.”

When broaching these topics with older kids, get over the fear that talking with children about this is giving them new knowledge. They’ve already heard the term “sex”—or related vocab—from friends or on TV. If your kid comes to you and asks about sex, turn the question back, and ask her what she knows, or what she means, by the term. “Find out where she is to get a better understanding of what kind of answers she wants,” says Herendeen. “And don’t skip the emotional aspect of these questions. It’s natural to reiterate family values into conversations about intimacy and sex.”

10. Skip soda.

The average teenager gulps down almost two cans of soda every day—often purchased from a school vending machine.

The extra 2,100 calories per week contribute to childhood obesity and its accompanying risks for diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Drinking soda instead of milk has also been linked to weaker bones, tooth decay, and caffeine addiction. If you rarely serve soda in the first place, it won’t become part of their daily routine. If your kids are already hooked, help wean them by keeping plenty of healthier options on hand, like flavored water, 100 percent fruit juice, unsweetened iced tea, and more.

11. Move every day.

These days, it seems like the only exercise many kids get is with their thumbs.

Xboxes and iPhones have replaced backyard time, and many schools have cut gym class. The antidote to all this childhood inertia? You. “It’s up to parents to show their kids how good it feels to get moving,” says David L. Katz, MD, an associate professor of public health and director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. Studies have shown that when kids see their parents enjoying exercise, they’re more likely to want to do it, too. Whether you head out on Saturday family bike rides, walk to school or run errands together on foot, or play active video games together, the important thing is that you sweat and smile with your kids. “Exercise doesn’t have to be in a gym—dance, bike, play basketball, hopscotch, hula hoop,” says Karin Richards, MS, director of exercise science and wellness management at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. “Just have fun!”

12. Value your BFFs.

It’s not just about being the most popular kid on the playground

“Parents often teach younger kids that they should be nice to everyone, but that doesn’t mean they have to be friends with everybody,” says Kathryn Wentzel, PhD, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland. In fact, having one or two best friends is more closely correlated with staving off depression and loneliness than is overall popularity, according to a University of Maine study of 193 third- through sixth-graders. Children tend to bond with others who share similar traits so if you spot a potential soul mate at the park or preschool, make a playdate. Do the same for your older child by encouraging her to find pals involved in activities that interest her.

13. Be grateful.

If the days of your preschooler parroting back “thank-you” are long over, consider resurrecting the practice.

Research suggests that grateful people have more energy and optimism, are less bothered by life’s hassles, are more resilient in the face of stress, have better health, and suffer less depression than the rest of us, says psychologist Joan Borysenko, PhD. “People who practice gratitude—and yes, it is something one can learn and improve—are also more compassionate, more likely to help others, less materialistic, and more satisfied with life.”

If you have young kids, giving thanks together before bedtime or around the dinner table can help develop a healthy and loving attitude toward life. For older kids, let them learn from your habits: Make thanking others an everyday practice for you, and they’ll follow suit. Tell people what a good job they do, how kind they are, or how fabulous they look—as long as it’s absolutely true.

Adapted from an article previously published on Prevention.com


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