If you're like most moms, you want your child to develop helpful habits like putting away her toys and clothes.
It's just as important that she cultivate habits that'll help her stay healthy—physically and emotionally. "Healthy practices really do begin at home, where there are teachable moments in everyday life," says Donald Shifrin, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle.
An easy way to start: teach by example. Young kids love to copy Mom and Dad. But role modeling can take you only so far. If no amount of broccoli chomping on your part seems to inspire your child to eat her veggies, for instance, you'll want to get a little creative. Here, some important health practices to encourage, and easy ways to get your child started:
1. Get moving
The whys are convincing: Being active can slash your child's chances of becoming overweight, lower her risks for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes down the road, and help her mood stay on an even keel. Yet fewer than one in four kids gets even 30 minutes of physical activity a day. The key to making it a habit? Stop stressing "exercise." Have fun! Play with hula hoops. Go hiking. Race around the park to catch falling leaves.
Every morning, my husband makes a game out of getting on the floor with our sons for a round of sit-ups and push-ups. Nate, 8, decides how many Dad should do, and the deal is that Nate has to do half as many. Nicky, 3, loves to join in the contest.
If nothing motivates your child to move, try a system that limits couch time. "My son gets three plastic tokens—each representing thirty minutes in front of the TV or computer—to use during the day," says Dena Dyer of Granbury, Texas. "He can earn an extra token for playing outside."
Stacey Colino, a mom of two in Chevy Chase, Maryland, writes about health and psychology for many national magazines.
Ways to chill, and stay safe
2. Chill out!
Your child needs downtime, just as you do. Art classes and soccer games are fun, but too many activities can take a toll, and kids often can't articulate feeling stressed. Consider how much time your child has to do absolutely nothing. If it's less than an hour a day, you may want to increase her leisure time, when she's not involved in any structured activity, says Jack Wetter, associate clinical professor of family medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
If you notice your child starting to feel overwhelmed, distract her with a quiet activity like reading or coloring, or do deep-breathing exercises. Diane Umansky of New York City calms her 5-year-old by doing "balloon breaths" with him. "I have him breathe in, make his belly big like a balloon, and slowly let the air out." You could also blow bubbles or on a pinwheel.
3. Put safety first
They may not have been de rigueur when we were kids, but using car seats, seat belts, and bike helmets are essential now. One eye-opening statistic: Safe Kids Worldwide estimates that 75 percent of fatal head injuries among kids on bikes could be prevented with a bike helmet. Wearing your own seat belt and bike helmet goes a long way toward making kids less likely to balk at being made to wear their own. It also helps to point out to your child when people are being unsafe (by skateboarding or scootering sans helmet, for example).
Another trick: Deputize your child by making it his job to let you know that it's safe to start the car or a family bike ride after everyone's buckled up or helmeted. The responsibility becomes a badge of honor.
4. Pamper those pearly whites
Your child may brush his teeth, but he's probably not doing it long enough. You should brush for two minutes twice a day, says Amy DeYoung, a pediatric dentist, in Grand Rapids. "Most kids brush for thirty seconds, if we're lucky."
Help your child go the duration by encouraging him to brush for the length of a favorite song. Angie Koenig of Lincoln, Nebraska, started humming the chicken-dance song for Ryan, 1, during teeth-brushing time. "Once the song's over, he can stop. Now every time he brushes, he hums the song to himself." She also lets him brush while he's still sitting in the tub, so it's a part of his bathtime routine, rather than an extra step afterward. You can even put a CD player in the bathroom (but not near any water, of course).
To make sure Lucas, 4, hits all of his teeth, Maura Rhodes, a Parenting staffer, lets him brush first, and then tells him she needs to make sure he got all the "sugar bugs" out of his mouth. "I pretend with the toothbrush that I'm chasing them around all over his teeth. He lets me do this for as long as it takes to make sure we get every nook and cranny," says Rhodes. "Plus, he's usually laughing, so his mouth's open." If you want to boost the novelty quotient and effectiveness, consider buying an electric toothbrush for kids over 3. It's been shown to do a considerably better job of removing plaque than a manual one does. Just be sure to limit your child's use of toothpaste to no more than one pea-size drop twice a day until you're sure he won't swallow it.
Go overboard... on produce, soap, and self-esteem
5. Pig out on produce
If you and your husband eat fruits and veggies, your child has the best chance of eating them too, say studies. And if your child isn't a copycat? Make it fun for him. Nichole Bernier Ahern of Chevy Chase, Maryland, put a "vegetable high five" chart on the fridge for Connor, 5. When he's reluctant to eat veggies at dinner but does it anyway, he gets a smiley-face sticker on the chart.
You might also take your child shopping and have him pick out a fruit or vegetable of the week—a new food for the family to explore. Together, you can figure out ways to prepare, say, mango: cutting up pieces and putting them on a skewer one day, making smoothies with them the next. Or challenge him to eat five different colors of the rainbow in a day.
Jayne Drew, a mom of two from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, discovered a good approach one night when she was late getting dinner ready. "I quickly microwaved some frozen peas for my two-year-old to tide him over, and for the first time, he ate every last one." Since then, she's served such appetizers as baby carrots or a bowl of corn every night, and her kids eat them up.
6. Lather up
Regular hand washing can dramatically reduce your child's chances of getting sick. The right technique: At least 20 seconds of hand rubbing with soap and warm water (don't scrub under running water), followed by thorough rinsing. To make it less of a chore, you might have your child sing the "ABC" song while he's scrubbing up. My kids are better washers now that I let them pick out cool liquid soaps—super-foamy varieties and ones in kid-friendly fruity aromas—when they come grocery shopping with me.
"We introduced a little competition to get our three-year-old to the sink," says Seattle mom Laurie Almoslino. "Before dinner or after coming home from the park, my husband will say, 'I'm going to wash my hands first,' and my son races him to the bathroom."
7. Boost body image
A study from the Harvard Eating Disorders Center found that half of girls and one-third of boys ages 8 to 10 don't like their size. Girls typically want to be thinner; boys, heavier or more muscular. Get your child off to a confident start by laying the foundation for a positive body image.
"Kids develop feelings about the way they look by identifying with their parents, so it's important not to criticize your own body," says Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., author of Change Your Mind, Change Your Body.
But go a step further and actually say what you like about your own body and others'—by commenting on how good you feel since you started going for walks, for instance, or how much stronger your arms are since you started lifting weights.
You can also help your child focus on what her body can do rather than how it looks. You might point out how much energy she has during family hikes. Or say, "You seemed strong and flexible when you were climbing the monkey bars today." Rebecca Brooks's 6-year-old son wants to be good at soccer, so "we talk about how exercising makes you strong and agile," says the South Orange, New Jersey, mom. Scoring goals or hitting home runs may be a bonus, but feeling good is the best feat of all.