We all know that children are impressionable and lack the wisdom to make educated choices in certain aspects of life. For example, most of us know that if we drink and party, our kids watch and learn. And as a teenager when presented with a similar situation, their behavior will emulate or even exaggerate what they saw us doing for the years before that very moment. And we know that they are not old and wise enough to handle these situations intelligently in most cases- heck, neither are most of us and we’re adults!
The truth is that this applies even to our eating and fitness lifestyles. Our children watch us eating and exercising and they are having one of two likely reactions to it:
Emulation– they like what they see and want the same for themselves.
Distancing – they don’t like what they see and are going to do something completely different when they have the chance to make their own choices.
In either case, you must be careful as there are dangers in children missing key points and principles in their desires to either emulate or distance themselves from your fitness lifestyle (or lack of it!). Here are a few examples of ways in which children can easily head down the wrong path:
I have four children and my two oldest are early teens. For the past few years I’ve caught both of them noticing both me and my wife making efforts to eat healthy. One of these children sees that and admires it. It’s inspiring, as he is wanting to be just like his Dad (and/or Mom) and make good choices, see an impact on his health and his musculature as well. And we were proud when we heard he’s ordering off the healthy menu at school- wraps, salads, etc. But some times he makes erroneous calls that could be harmful to a growing child. For example, he watches me skip out on an otherwise healthy snack that doesn’t meet my macro goals for that time of day and he says ‘no thanks’ to the snack as well. The truth is, his caloric needs are very different than mine depending on my goals at the time (cutting, bulking, etc). While his intentions are good, his knowledge of the subject is only superficial and thus he can make dangerous errors in his nutrition and habits.
My other teenager sees the same behavior from his parents and goes completely in the other direction. While we are actually enjoying exercise, and eating healthy – finding a love of vegetables, healthy meats and fish, and unprocessed foods, he sees that as sacrifice and deprivation. And he says to himself, “I don’t want to deprive myself of all those sweets and have to exercise all the time. It’s just not worth the trouble”. And so we find him eating garbage and tons of it- wrappers hidden in his room, empty cereal bowls that he ate late at night with copious amounts of sugary cereals poured in, etc. When my wife asked him if he wanted to be healthy and fit, he replied, “No, I don’t”. Not that he didn’t care if he was healthy or not, or arguing that he was, but rather he did NOT want to be healthy and fit. Certainly not the role model effect we were going after when we adopted the fitness lifestyle.
Today I was watching a video on a Youtube channel Health4Thought (one of my faves!). Joe is struggling with his younger pre-teen brother fighting a serious disease- anorexia. And while he didn’t say it, you could see it on his face that there was some self blame or feeling of helplessness for what is going on. While Joe is eating healthy and making some serious muscle gains while cutting fat, his brother is completely consumed with the thought of getting fat- skipping meals and even going so far as to hit himself because he thinks he is fat.
I don’t think Joe’s behaviors are the cause for his brother’s eating disorder- it sounds like some deep rooted problems are the root cause of it. But there is a chance that a mind that is so self-conscious, so worried about finding his place amongst his peers, and so desiring to do great things, is watching and poorly emulating the good behaviors of his fit older brother.
So what is the solution? Surely we shouldn’t just give up on seeking a fit lifestyle. There are so many problems on the other side of this picture as well- with overeating, unhealthy parents setting up poor role model choices for their own children, and creating the obesity epidemic we face today. Rather, here are some principles I’m trying to implement in my household:
- Letting my kids see me make good choices with eating, but also not seeing me be overly obsessed with macro and calorie goals. I track my calorie intake daily but I’m going to try to keep that out of the conversations that are held in front of them.
- Being quiet about skipping a food item that doesn’t work for me. I have always tried to not be preachy about eating choices, but this is a more conscious effort to not say something to my wife about the choice. I’m going to encourage her to do the same.
- Working out while they are in school much of the time. I want them to see that I am still exercising but I don’t want them to have it on their mind too often.
- When I do have a cheat meal, it will be with them, so that they can see that life doesn’t have to be all about sacrifices of things you love when you choose to make positive choices in your health.
I’m honestly not sure if these will help, but I’m definitely trying to be more cautious of presenting a fitness lifestyle in a way that they’d want to adopt in a healthy fashion in their lives, either now or in the future. If you have any experience with this and any tips to share, please do in the comments below!