It’s pretty easy for kids to grow up not having a clear understanding of health. Hey, most adults don’t get it either. If I’m not sick, I must be healthy, right? Health as a concept can be a random swirl of disconnected images for kids: food pyramids, sweaty gyms, sports icons, a salad bar. How do they put it together? What does it mean to be healthy? To feel healthy?

In the vast array of images and messages out there, kids have to be pretty thrown by the paradoxical shape of it all. On the one hand, there’s infinite fun to be had in downing every variety of fast food, sodas, energy drinks, chips and other snack abominations (just look at the youth-centered commercials). On the other, there are tabloid articles about celebrity crash diets and stories of their three hour a day workout routines. Our culture encourages either disregarding or punishing the body—making a joke of physical health or exercising/depriving ourselves into the ground. The result? As a culture, we don’t have the most comfortable relationships with our bodies. It’s little surprise that many of our kids absorb this mindset.

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Parents, unfortunately, have a lot of ground to fill in. Find a chance to talk about what health means to you personally. How did you come to learn about healthy eating? Why do you make the choices you do? What gets you motivated to stay active, to keep your stress under control? When do you feel the best physically? Ask them what makes them feel healthy, strong and rejuvenated? Is there a way you can help support those experiences (e.g. emotional support or family activities)? Let it be an open and continuing conversation. Let it be a catalyst for healthy changes and experimentation. Let it be a challenge to your family to play more, cook more, do more, get out more.

This website is all about health, yes. Nonetheless, I put health squarely into a large picture of happiness and vitality. Too often the messages kids get come off as instructive but less than relevant and inspiring. In the midst of navigating the social scene, figuring out an identity, and finding their way through school and other responsibilities, dry details can quickly fall on deaf ears. Consider a different angle.

We hear a lot of success stories from people who have overcome serious health issues, dropped weight that they’d wanted to lose for years (or decades), and/or turned around their lifestyle to gain a whole new sense of energy in their lives. A common thread in so many of their accounts is a sense of self-investment. Whether a serious medical scare that made them realize how precious (and endangered) their lives were or the culmination of a deep soul-searching, something sparked a novel sense of ownership. Their health mattered more because they’d chosen to see it and value it in a new way.

Maybe talking to kids about real health ultimately means talking about life. Owning your health necessitates—on some level—knowing and respecting yourself. It’s a self-commitment after all. The more self-confidence and self-respect we have, the more likely we are to invest in ourselves.

For kids who struggle with weight and body image, too often the goal is outside themselves, remote and elusive. How can the goal finally be authentically personal? What does it mean to dig down and learn to tune out the noise in life—the social clamor, the media messages? What’s there to listen to once you reach the other side of the commotion? How, finally, do they see themselves there? What does their vision of a healthy and happy life look like from that vantage point? Kids, like the rest of us, shape their health a step at a time. Maybe a parent’s best role is to help them start down their own path.

Further Reading on Kids’ Health:

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