It's always hard to say goodbye to summer. And what a glorious end-of-summer we've had -- days of lazing about together, good food, wonderful books (I have to mention Ann Patchett's remarkable "State of Wonder", which put me in a an utter state of wonder) and a few glorious hiking days in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. My kids are back in schooI and I, too, feel the beginning of a New Year - time to get focused and get a lot of work done, but also time to give some thought to reflect on education and child rearing.
The 5-a-day for raising healthy young kids
I recently came across a report from the British think tank CentreForum that pulled my attention. Drawing directly on the science of early childhood experience, the author, Chris Paterson, suggests that 5 steps are proven to be vital to kids' developing their full potential:
- Read to your child for 15 minutes- being read to regularly from a young age is extremely important to language skills, fosters bonding and develops the young brain.
- Play with your child on the floor for 10 minutes - the adult and the child need to be on the same physical level, and to have fun together.
- Talk with your child for 20 minutes with the television off - switching off external distractions, such as the TV, is crucial, and we all know what distracts us, don't we?
- Adopt positive attitudes towards your child and praise them frequently - this speaks to the quality of the parent-child interaction, where the previous guidelines were more about quantity. Adopting a positive parenting approach doesn't mean the child isn't criticized, but rather that criticism is constructive.
- Give your child a nutritious diet to aid development - kids need good food to develop and grow, but as importantly, tastes and eating habits are formed early in life, therefore emphasis on healthy nutrition in early life can lead to healthy eating habits throughout life, and to prevention of obesity and disease.
The report calls government to support high quality parenting, and implement a 5-a-day parenting campaign - in much the same way governments established and supported the '5-a-day' concept in relation to fruit and vegetables.
I'm sure much of the reaction to this proposal centered on "nanny-state" type of criticism. CentreForum is a liberal think tank, and for some, any suggestion of governmental influence in the home reeks of loss of liberty, and many believe that parenting is a private matter. But politics aside, it's hard to argue that adopting these 5-a-day wouldn't be a positive step, and it is so fundamentally unfair that some kids don't experience these 5 elemental needs daily.
In many ways these 5 pieces of simple guidance are so basic that I doubt they're news to parents, but I do think that it's helpful to have a memorable, automatic way to remember these guidelines. There's something about announcing a new 'norm' and breaking up the big job of being a good parent into a few small manageable actions that I do like.
A healthy diet
Parents have been in charge of feeding kids from the beginning of time, but parents' role in nutrition in our times is shifting, and we need to learn and readjust.
Parents of previous generations had to think about getting enough food, enough calories, enough nutrients to support growth and development. In the past few decades the food landscape has changed so much, that besides providing adequate food for growth it has become imperative for parents to teach kids how to edit their food environment: How to tell food from junk, how to say no to frequent, unrelenting opportunities to snack and overeat all the wrong foods, how to resist and dismiss the marketing and advertising messages kids are bombarded with from a very young age.
Because if you just go with the flow, and don't actively create a sanctuary of healthy eating at home and in your kid's mind, your kid is more likely than not to eventually end up struggling with weight, and suffer from overconsumption of sugar, fat and salt.
Not just for babies and toddlers
There's ample evidence to support the investment in early childhood - early investment pays off big time. But I find that my parents still pretty much extend the 5-a-day gift to me every time I interact with them. I am no longer read to, but we'll share a good read over the phone and exchange books. My parents really listen - no distractions - I can count on that, and their positivity lifts me up. We still play together - whether it's a board game or a visit to a garden, we concentrate on having fun together. And I credit my mom with teaching me the fundamentals of how to eat healthily in a world full of junk and highly processed foods, and to this day we learn something new about food whenever we share a meal.
The 5-a-day of fruits and veggies is a huge success in that most adults and kids know what the advice behind the 5 is. It's an utter failure in implementation - very few Americans (only about 11 percent!) actually eat the minimum daily-recommended fruits and veggies.
But awareness is a good start, and suggesting to us moms and dads that what parents do, every day, matters so much to our kids' wellbeing is both empowering and humbling.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Read more from Dr. Ayala at http://herbalwater.typepad.com
Follow Dr. Ayala on Twitter