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Getting Happy with Health

We are lucky to live in an era when we know so much about human health and ways to prevent disease. However, it’s often difficult to know what information to give children and at what age so that we don’t worry or confuse them.

“My father’s grandfather died!” a boy announced during preschool lunch. “He really did.” A little girl proclaimed, “My Grandma smokes.” Her tone of voice implied that her grandmother might be the next to go. “And now the president smokes,” another child added in alarm. “The president smokes?” someone repeated as if this was too much information to handle. How do children process the deluge of warnings that surround them about health risks? 

We are lucky to live in an era when science continues to provide so many discoveries about human health and ways to prevent disease. However, a tidal wave of health warnings sweeps through our lives. It’s often difficult to know what information to give children and at what age so that we don’t worry or confuse them. When I was a child, parents would say “Eat your carrots so you can see well” or “Drink milk, it will make you grow” or “You have to spend time in the fresh air.” Little sound bites like these allowed health to seem simple and, even more important, positive.

Parents today are aware that they need to be cautious about exposing children to the latest headlines on the news. Recently kindergarteners at our school were worried and rushed up to ask one of their teachers if she was going to get swine flu. Her family was originally from Mexico. It’s very difficult for parents to filter the information their children get from friends or even newspaper headlines. The old admonition “Little pitchers have big ears” is hard to heed in an era of instant communication.

We need to start by asking children’s thoughts about a topic so that we can understand their level of thinking. Preschoolers asked what makes people healthy or unhealthy thought deeply about their answers. “Shots make you healthy.” “Eating shark meat or breathing colored glue makes you unhealthy.” Their thoughts on smoking were detailed: “Smoking pushes your food down into your lungs so you can’t breathe well.” “Smoking turns your bones black, and then you drink milk and it turns them white again.” In The Safe Child Book, Dr. Sherryll Kraizer offers many guidelines and specific examples of talking to children about important topics in ways they can understand.

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 It’s also important to check in on children’s feelings. “Are your worried about Grandma smoking?” a parent might ask. We don’t want to deny that “everyone dies someday,” but telling a child Grandma smokes and it’s really bad for her can trigger alarm. One question we can ask ourselves is whether a given piece of information would make a child feel empowered or helpless. When children express worry, we can ask them questions that help them process their fears. “How do you think doctors help people get better from the swine flu?”

Making positive comments about people’s health—“Grandma seems like a strong walker, doesn’t she?”—lifts everyone’s spirits and sends wishes for well-being into the universe. On the other hand, talking about someone who smokes, eats unhealthy foods, or “looks fat” teaches divisive attitudes and fear that come out in children’s social groupings at an early age. In her job working with children with eating problems at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Ciara Mansour has learned that an overemphasis on bad food versus good food can cause children confusion, and they can become picky eaters. Let’s get happy with health and praise our children when they make healthy choices. Start by helping them learn to care for their own bodies. That’s the foundation they will need in the future.

Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.


When to Intervene

Books often advise us against intervening, for example, when a child is having a tantrum or siblings are fighting. However, these “blanket rules” for interacting can easily mislead or confuse us.

Asking the Right Questions

Positive queries lead children (and adults) to pause and think and even call on their highest understanding. As one six-year-old commented, “Sometimes questions help you learn what you already know.”

Venturing Into the World Together

Many children have difficulty in public places. However, keeping children out of situations that challenge their self-control reduces their opportunities to practice public social skills.

The Power of Compliments

It’s helpful for children to be taught not to “crush” someone else in order to value themselves. We are all happier when we appreciate and aid the efforts of others.

Looking Beyond Physical Appearances

Most magazines hit the stands with at least one diet or exercise feature. The relationship between good health, eating well, and exercising has become part of our knowledge base. But what about our culture’s fear of aging and its effect on our children?

Guiding Play Away From Aggression

Batman swoops in, shocking his enemies and knocking them ferociously to the ground. This scene sizzles on screen. However, played out by four-year-old boys eager to feel powerful, it quickly ends in tears.


Creative Alternatives to Violent TV, Movie Content

One of the ways we try to rid ourselves of unpleasant images on TV or in movies is by telling ourselves what we’ve seen isn’t real, or at least not in our lives. That’s a technique we traditionally use with children too.

Honoring the “Greatest Calling in the Universe”

Affirmations are like compliments we give ourselves in order to inspire our highest responses. If you are a caregiver, try telling yourself, “I am fulfilling the greatest calling in the universe,” and notice what happens to your consciousness.