“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.