For the first time in history, there’s data that suggests current adults may outlive their children. Early onset obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related health pathologies are currently wreaking havoc on the prognosis for our kids’ long-term health.
There has never been a more important time for adults to “step up.” Kids need parents, teachers, coaches and other positive health influencers more than ever. If you’ve ever worked with kids, however, it becomes clear pretty quickly that their psychological needs are different than those of adults.
I’ve been mentoring kids and consulting with youth organizations for more than 20 years. During this time, I’ve identified five key steps in the process of helping kids improve their health-related decisions. These components of youth communication and behavior change have helped kids from five years old all the way through college.
Step #1: Walk the Talk
A mentor once asked me if someone were to watch me all day, without hearing me say a word, could they tell what’s important to me? As a mentor, your actions speak louder than words. As adults, too often we expect more from kids than we do from ourselves.
Before helping guide others’ lifestyles, it’s important to audit your own. What do your kids see you do? It’s a confusing message when they are told to stay off technology by parents who have their noses buried in a device. You can’t tell them to “be more active” from the couch. A speech about healthy eating is not as effective with a mouth full of fast food.
When your beliefs, actions and message are aligned, kids can see that. This increases trust, which is a critical element of effective mentorship.
Step #2: Make Healthy Habits Relevant to Kids
We can all agree that different things have been important to us during different periods in our lives. During these times, the things that are important to us shape our beliefs and behaviors.
When addressing healthy habits with kids, the outcomes of these habits should impact metrics that are currently important and relevant to them. “Healthy” vs. “not healthy” means very little to a seven-year-old. However, if a child’s goal is to “grow,” certain food choices can help him or her do that. There are other foods one can choose, but these likely won’t help a child reach his or her goal.
If you aren’t sure what’s relevant to children, default to “fun.” Odds are, if your activities or messages make them smile or giggle, they’re engaged. Kids are naturally imaginative, so indulge their imagination. “Measure” them before and after eating greens. If they like video games, craft some physical activities after popular video games.
For older kids, facilitate a discussion about how attaining their goals would impact their lives. Some kids may have a difficult time articulating what is important to them. Make sure you listen carefully and observe their actions and interactions. What they say and do unprompted will offer important insight into what they currently value. Adjust your influencing message and actions appropriately.
Step #3: Focus on Short-term Rewards
Adult brains develop over time to have the capacity to link short-term actions with long-term consequences or rewards. This capacity is largely governed by the prefrontal cortex, which doesn’t fully develop until well into our twenties.
While research has demonstrated that some young children have a greater capacity than others for linking short-term actions with long-term outcomes, most young brains are programmed for short-term outcomes. This is why it’s important to help kids draw a short-term link between positive health choices and positive short-term outcomes.
Obviously, making activities fun is a fast and direct way to do this. When the concepts are a bit deeper, look for opportunities to pair an activity or action with the immediate outcome. “Bad day at school? Let’s go for a walk.” “Feeling angry or sad? Let’s take five “balloon” breaths together.” “Before practice, drink this cup of water to hydrate your body.” After the positive action, have a discussion about the outcome.
It’s critical to keep things simple. If you’re a coach or teacher, simple statements such as “Eat three green things before I see you next,” or “See if your family can do a combined total of 30 push-ups” are simple to do and easy to remember. Laying out a complex behavior-change plan is too overwhelming for most young kids.
Step #4: Make Your Environment Reflect Your Message
Whether you are in the home, in the classroom or on an athletic field, consider how the environment you create impacts your mentorship. Does it reinforce the message you are sharing? If at home or in the classroom, are there opportunities to be active? What foods are the most readily available? How is technology positioned as a free-time activity? What are the most prevalent attitudes around healthy behaviors?
The language you use when discussing healthy habits is critical. If healthy eating is presented as “Daddy has to eat yucky food because he has to lose weight,” or exercise becomes “Mommy has to run so she doesn’t get fat,” healthy habits are positioned as punishment for “crimes.”
Regardless of the environment in which you influence kids, create a culture and environment of wellness.
Step #5: Suspend “Good” vs. “Bad”
In even the healthiest lifestyle, there is room for imperfection. That’s why the notion of “good” vs. “bad” foods, behaviors, etc., should largely be avoided. There are actions and behaviors that are tied to goals, and those that aren’t. Discuss the impact of behaviors that don’t deliver them to their goals. However, help them understand that when these things are done occasionally, it's fine. Obviously, there are some exceptions (smoking, dangerous behavior, etc.), but help kids understand that a healthy lifestyle is not a “behavior prison.”
Even if kids don’t always make the right decision, understanding that they do have a choice can be the most important thing you can teach them. Furthermore, focusing on what they should do vs. what they shouldn’t do is far more effective than providing a laundry list of “don’ts.” When an adult comes across as judgmental, it creates an “us vs. them” mentality. In this case, healthy habits appear more as an assignment than a guide.
More than ever, we need passionate, educated influencers to help change the unfortunate course that has been set for our kids’ health. The next time you have an opportunity to impact a young life, consider these five steps to inspire them to take positive ownership over their healthy lifestyle habits.