Do you want your child to be healthy or to be happy?
Before you get completely frazzled trying to pick one over the other, we’ll let you off the hook. Expecting any parent to answer that question would not be fair. Yet, many parents waver between these attributes as they are making decisions about their child’s health and nutrition. To explore why parents inadvertently might feel torn between raising a healthy versus a happy child, we sat down with ZisBoomBah psychologist Beth Lonergan, PsyD, who helps us to better understand what, in fact, a parent’s objective should be in feeding, exercising and educating their child.
Set a happiness goal for your child — together
In asking yourself, “What do I really want to achieve for my child?” build on what you and your child are already doing well, instead of focusing on your child’s deficits. So, rather than saying “I want you to stop eating junk in front of the TV,” say, “I am proud of you for being so independent. That’s why I trust you to choose your own healthy snack from an approved bin in the pantry.” Without taking on too much or setting expectations too high, involve your child in setting goals — goals she can relate to. “That’s when you get into the area of balancing healthy and happy,” Dr. Lonergan says. “Instead of focusing on healthy as the goal, healthy becomes an element of being happy; something that happens on the road to being happy.” To illustrate, our expert uses my own 7-year-old daughter, who has type 1 diabetes, as an example: My goal for her is to enjoy an active life and be able to do the things other kids do (= “happy”), but the way to get there is to have balanced blood sugar levels (= “healthy”).
For inspiration and tips on setting goals for 2013, read “Making Healthy New Year’s Resolutions with Your Kids” and “A Parent’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2013.”
Find the middle way — what’s realistic for your child, in your unique environment, within your schedule?
One essential building block of a happy childhood is balancing moderation against total deprivation. “The way you bring those things together is to have an ultimate goal, and then a path to get there,” Dr. Lonergan says. She encourages parents to consider what the child’s interests and strengths are, and how the goal fits into that. For example, if your child loves soccer, being healthy enables him to be good at it, and to be fit and successful. “Being healthy allows kids to be included, be active, explore their world, be fully engaged — and thus, be happy.”
Know when to let go
Another building block is flexibility. “If you are too restrictive, too controlling, that leaves your child on the outside looking in,” Dr. Lonergan cautions overly vigilant parents. “If they can’t go to a pizza party, that doesn’t make them happy. And the truth is, going to a pizza party once in a while doesn’t make your child unhealthy.”
So remember, set happiness goals for your child and pave the way to get there with healthy decisions!