You’re looking at the most complete, probably exhaustive, list of tips you’ll ever find for raising a healthy kid.
It’s a monster list, and at any given time you might be doing better in certain areas of parenting than others. But as long as you keep these tips in mind (especially #22), you’re already on your way to raising a healthy child.
Let’s start at the top!
#1: Play, Play, Play
Play stimulates brain development.
Play encourages laughing and joking.
Play is a form of physical fitness.
Play sparks both current and future creativity – which we all know is a vital 21st century skill.
For all these reasons, playing is essential if you want to raise a healthy kid.
The most important thing to remember is that play must happen at all ages and stages of development.
If you’re like most parents, you probably have a good sense of how to start engaging with children — first by reading them books as infants and then by playing with them as toddlers.
The problem hits around the age of five, when most parents stop feeling the need to play with their child. I want to encourage parents to continue playing with their kids throughout childhood.
Be proactive about fitting playtime into your day. Eventually you will find that you and your child play through cards and board games or skiing and biking.
#2: Model Healthy Eating Habits
Parents want their kids to eat really healthy. Yet these parents don’t eat healthy themselves. I see this happen frequently.
Kids pay attention to you over time. The Diet Coke you drink every morning is a habit that your child will observe and likely pick up. Kids tend to mimic our habits, so don’t be surprised when your child starts asking for a Diet Coke with breakfast.
Or maybe you eat when you’re stressed. Kids make those associations, too.
On the flip side, think of the behavior you model for your children when you’re hungry and reach for an apple or grab some hummus and pita. Kids will want to mimic that habit. That means they’ll make healthy decisions, even when you’re not around.
If you model good eating habits, you not only do yourself a service, but you’re also increasing the likelihood that your child will make those decisions when nobody’s watching.
#3: Get Outdoors As A Family
Drive through a neighborhood. How many kids do you see playing outside?
That number is shrinking more and more every day, and we all know why. Today’s modern family doesn’t spend much time (if any) outdoors.
Once it was only the adults who lived sedentary lives. Now our children are joining us.
We can’t ignore our nation’s obesity epidemic. We can’t ignore the fact that diabetes rates are through the roof. But we can’t figure out how to ignore our screens either.
We can, however, confront these issues by encouraging outdoor playtime as a family.
“Outdoors” doesn’t necessarily mean in nature. It literally just means outside.
- Shoot hoops
- Ride bikes
- Play catch
- Learn how to rollerblade or skateboard
- Build an igloo
- Go for a hike if that’s realistic for you and your family
The most important thing is to find an activity that the entire family enjoys.
Lastly, don’t let the weather dictate if you become a couch potato. Teach your kids that with the right clothes, they can play outside in the rain, snow, or cold weather. We have everything to keep us warm and dry.
Think of it this way: playing outside is good for our health. “Dancing in the rain” is like super-health.
There’s no way around it. Part of raising a healthy child — a child with a love for nature, a sense of wonder, and one that embraces an active lifestyle — means that they spend time outside.
P.S. Encouraging outdoor time also foundationally switches how our kids handle stress. When kids find themselves in stressful situations down the road, they’ll automatically think to go outside because they’ve practiced this behavior when they were younger.
#4: Limit Screen Time
Nowadays our toddlers spend up to 3 hours a day on a screen. For school-age kids that number jumps to anywhere from 4 to 6 hours a day on a screen.
Kids get screen time before school, after school, in the car on the way to school, and even at school. They go to bed with a screen in front of them.
The HOURS of daily screen time add up, but it’s not just about the quantity of screen time I’m worried about. It’s also about the quality. What type of TV shows, YouTube channels, and commercials are you putting in front of your kids?
Raising a healthy kid in the 21st-century means controlling screen time. All of it. For yourself and for your kids.
Don’t use the screen as your personal babysitter. Find time to disconnect and reconnect.
#5: Provide Wholesome Foods
For those of you who might not know, whole food is food without a barcode. It’s unprocessed and purely from nature. You don’t buy whole foods in a box.
Feed your kids whole foods as much as possible to improve physical health, mood regulation, and cognitive functioning.
Yes, whole foods are “healthy,” but more than that, whole foods aid in the development of the physical body, including organs such as the brain. Since the largest time for brain development is between the ages of 0 and 5, it’s crucial to feed your child whole foods during these years.
#6: Teach Your Kids Basic Skills At Every Age
Just the other day my kids said to me:
“Hey mom, you forgot to bring our water bottles.” (My kids are 10 and 7 years old.)
A light bulb went off in my mind, and I responded:
“Sorry if I forgot your water bottles. How about you be responsible for filling up your own water bottles from now on?”
We frequently underestimate our kids. As parents we either forget how much our children are capable of or simply prefer to do things quicker ourselves.
It takes time and repetition to develop skills, but it’s important to help your kids learn basic skills at every age. You need to think of yourself as a parent and a teacher.
Basic skills you can teach your kids include:
- preparing food
- cooking meals
- doing chores
- folding laundry
- eating properly
- turning off lights
Yes, I wrote “turning off the lights.” Teach and reinforce the little things because you’ll want your kids to emulate these behaviors when they go to a friend’s house, right?
#7: Control Snacking
I urge parents to control snacking for 2 reasons.
First — most moms nowadays say they cannot cook home-cooked meals from scratch. So instead of snacking on Doritos and Oreos to supplement lackluster meals, we can provide our kids 5 mini-meals every day.
These mini-meals don’t require elaborate prep and can still be healthy and whole.
Second — as we spend more and more time staring at screens, mindless eating is becoming easier than ever.
Boredom + Screen Time+ Unhealthy Foods = Obesity
Healthy kids don’t graze mindlessly throughout the day. They eat at structured times throughout the day.
What about the fussy eaters … those kids that only eat mac n cheese, frozen pizza, and pb&j sandwiches?
I recommend seeing a food specialist for these kids, or be very diligent with food behaviors at home. One way to do this is to pair a limiting food (like mac n cheese) with something that’s whole and healthy (maybe an apple or Greek yogurt).
#8: Develop A Healthy Parent-Child Bond
A healthy attachment and bond is the foundation for your relationship with your child and determines how they approach the world. No pressure.
It starts with attachment, or basically how an infant feels towards a parent. The bond is how the parent feels back toward the child. It’s this foundation that determines how your child approaches other relationships — whether they are trusting, secure, insecure, ambivalent, etc.
You develop a healthy parent-child bond by separating your child’s behaviors from their innate personality.
This helps preserve your bond when things get tough. (And they always do.)
You can also develop a healthy parent-child bond by spending quality time with your child.
Yes. Quality trumps quantity. Studies on studies on studies prove this point.
If you have one more really long email to send out or call to make, it’s actually better to sacrifice the 30 minutes and sit in your car or stay at your office to get it done.
That way you’re not walking in the door and striding around your kids but completely preoccupied on your phone or your laptop.
Worry less about rushing home just to be with your kids and focus more on how you can be present with your kids. Even if it’s just for dinner and bedtime.
Being with your kid for a focused 2 hours a day is much better than being with them for 5 hours a day but tied up and stressed out.
#9: Encourage Independence, Risk Taking & Failure Whenever Possible
We think we are showing our kids love by saying things like,
“Don’t climb too high,” or
“Mommy’s right here underneath you.”
But what that really signals to our kids is that you don’t trust them. If you can’t trust them, then they begin to think they can’t trust themselves.
You actually SHOW your child security when you’re able to separate from them.
“Go say hi to that little boy that you don’t know…”
“Go climb to the top of those monkey bars…”
“…I’ll be right here on the bench.”
We all want our kids to be happy, healthy, and secure. You can do this by facilitating and encouraging appropriate times to separate from your child.
#10: Teach Your Kids Respect & Manners
We talk about this a lot but don’t expect much.
We teach our kids to say please and thank you, but what’s the repercussion when they don’t use their manners? Nothing. They still get their lunch, glass of milk, or dessert.
Teaching your kids respect and manners is more than just saying the words and reminding your kids to use them. You actually need to follow through with real consequences when you don’t see the manners in action.
It means being in a restaurant and handing your child’s drink back to the server when they don’t say thank you. It means dealing with a meltdown at the end of a long day. It means finding yourself in a few slightly embarrassing situations.
We’re pretty soft with our kids. We don’t want to hurt their feelings or make them cry.
Because of that we don’t do what we know we should be doing as parents.
#11: Accept Your Child’s Personality
My daughter used to be painfully shy. At times it was embarrassing for me because she wouldn’t look at people and she talked really softly. It triggered a bunch of stuff within me.
I would make excuses for her all the time when we were out. “I’m sorry, she’s just shy.” Then one day I decided to stop. Instead I started to say things like, “When she warms up she’s very talkative.”
That gave my daughter the message that she’s okay with who she is. I stopped resisting her shyness and taught myself to embrace it. That’s key.
Don’t try to change your child. Embrace the positives aspects of being strong-willed or shy.
Kids are born with temperament. You’re not going to change that. You can mold and shape them, but you can’t change a personality. Your strong-willed child will always be a strong-willed child, so embrace whatever part of your kid’s personality you don’t like.
#12: Be Present
Notice that the sun is setting. Notice the Christmas lights. Notice whatever is happening around you. This is so critical for kids to learn how to do from a young age.
Life gets busy and we’re often multitasking, but you don’t always have to be in rush.
Take the time every day to notice and comment on something around you, even if it’s just the colors of the leaves.
Modeling this behavior for your kids sparks their curiosity, and curious kids are healthy kids.
Encourage them to look out the window instead of at a screen when you’re driving in the car.
#13: Confront Gender Roles & Stereotypes
When a boy falls off his bike we tell him to stand up, dust off, and keep going. When a girl falls off her bike we give her 20 kisses to make it feel better.
Parents enforce gender stereotypes without realizing it, but these strict gender stereotypes have long-term repercussions and every parent needs to be aware of it.
Girls are generally the caretakers and nurturers. They’re not encouraged to take risks and fail, but we should encourage this behavior. Boys should be allowed and encouraged to cry, too. Boys can absolutely label their feelings as sad instead of mad. They can talk about disappointments and play with dolls.
A parent’s job should be to encourage both the “masculine” and “feminine” pathways in their child — especially while the brain is developing.
#14: Avoid Typical Mother Vs. Father Roles
Parents also fall into gender stereotypes, but part of raising a healthy child is showing how mothers and fathers play multidimensional roles.
Fathers can be the nurturer. They can cook, clean, and scrub the dirty pans. Mothers can work and earn money. They can take time away from their kids and still be respected.
It’s important to send those messages to your kids inside the home, especially when we don’t always get those messages outside of the home.
#15: Multitask Less and Mono-Task More
Our brains are not wired to handle all of the technology-driven data we get on a daily basis. There’s just too much information to process and act on.
It’s going to take evolution (and a lot of time) before our brains fully adapt to the incoming stream of data it receives on an ongoing basis. For right now, know that we are a long way away from having brains capable of simultaneously talking to another human, looking at a screen, answering a call, doing dishes, and cooking dinner.
For you to be present in anything you do – like spending quality time with your kids, you have to focus on one thing at a time. That’s why it’s much better to mono-task than multitask.
#16: Accept Tantrums As Part Of Childhood & Adolescence
Kids learn how to manage their emotions, disappointments, and frustration with tantrums and meltdowns. It’s all part of the learning process, so stay calm and avoid yelling during these times.
The ideal way to deal with our children’s tantrums starts by validating their frustrations and disappointments instead of shaming them. We should acknowledge their frustration and the fact that they don’t have any other skills to deal with their emotions.
Then we can offer our kids an alternative solution to express their feelings.
I warn parents to avoid yelling, especially now as we’re learning more about the adverse effects of it. We’re finding that yelling sends negative messages to kids by triggering amygdala.
It causes them to feel that fight or flight response. Imagine: when you’re already in a tantrum and emotions are escalated, someone yelling at you is completely overwhelming.
From a mental health perspective, when 1 in 4 kids experience depression by the age of 15, we’ve got to start taking a look at every potential contributing factor.
#17: Affection is the Secret to Keeping Teens Off Drugs
The secret to keeping teens off of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes in 4 words:
This isn’t always easy. It’s hard to show warm, attention, affection, and involvement when you’re busy and hurried. But we have research that proves how that’s the best way to keep kids away from abusive substances.
Warmth can be verbal as well as physical. Make sure to hug your child because we need touch to grow.
Really, it’s true. Physical touch helps young ones grow. Baby animals or kids that weren’t touched very often are undersized as adults. Their brains are undersized too. Kids who’ve suffered trauma, abuse, and neglect are smaller than the average child.
#18: Be Comfortable In An Authoritative Role
There’s a distinction between authoritative and authoritarian.
Being authoritarian is telling a kid exactly what to do and restricting their choices.
Being authoritative means that you know when to step into a role that says signals to your kids that they’ve crossed the limit.
It means you can make a decision and not second-guess yourself in front of your child. Authoritative means you don’t have to explain every decision to your children or ask their permission.
You can be both a loving and authoritative parent. It means that you can make a decision and stick to it. Maybe you tell your teen that they aren’t allowed to go to the dance because of their behavior.
…Now it’s 6 o’clock on Friday and you’re second guessing your decision. That weakens your role as a parent.
Be authoritative by being comfortable in your role as the ultimate decision maker.
#19: Model Friendships
Model and facilitate friendships for your children. Social connection is good for our health.
Kids observe our behavior all the time. Your kids see that you call your friends when you’re stressed or take the time to meet a friend for coffee.
Kids will learn that friendships are for sharing both the high times and the low times of life. They’ll also understand that friendships play an integral role even as we’re living incredibly busy lives.
#20: Be Optimistic
Simply put, optimism is correlated with happiness. Optimism is having positive thoughts. It’s having an inner dialog that doesn’t constantly tell you how much the world sucks.
Optimistic parents see the bright side of things. They’re quick to jump to Plan B when the time calls. This sort of behavior and happiness permeates in their kids.
… And so does the opposite behavior. Kids know when parents are angry and think the world is going to end.
We all want to raise happy kids. By choosing optimism we are choosing happiness.
#21: Take Breaks When Frustrated
Just like it’s important for kids to see their parents apologize after making a mistake, it’s equally important for kids to see their parents take breaks when they’re frustrated. We shouldn’t ask our kids to do things that we don’t model ourselves.
Whenever I’m frustrated, I simply say to my kids that I’m going to take a break because if I don’t, the next decision I make won’t be a good one. I’ll walk upstairs or into an empty room for a little bit. I return only after I’m relaxed.
It’s not about being on the same level as our kids. It’s about being humble and showing our kids that we have flaws and learn from our mistakes. It builds trust.
It’s showing them that hey, I’m human too.
#22: Self-Care Is Critical, Not Optional
Self-care is not something you do when you have “free time.” Self-care is something you prioritize. I wrote an entire article about it because I firmly believe this.
Practice self-care by taking time for yourself – whether that’s spending time alone, with friends, or with a spouse. It’s whatever you need in the moment.
We all burn out and need to rejuvenate. Read a book, step away for a few hours, or just excuse yourself for a nap.
And when you practice self-care, go out of your way to verbalize that to kids.
Tell them something along the lines of: “I had a really long week, I’m going to go exercise.” or, “I’ve had to stay up late several nights this week, so I’m going to go take a nap.”
Try to spell it out for your kids so they understand that life gets stressful but we need to take care of ourselves.
#23: Let Your Kids Transition With Confidence
Take opportunities at different ages and stages to let your children make decisions for themselves. It develops leadership skills.
When you give them the freedom to make their own decisions, follow through on it. Avoid second-guessing yourself.
This means different things at different ages and stages. For an 8-year-old, it might mean letting him decide who he wants to invite to his birthday party. Instead of inviting the whole class, let him pick a handful of classmates and friends.
It doesn’t have to be about invitations and birthday parties. It could be letting your 6-year-old decide her hairstyle, her clothes, or even the football team she cheers for.
#24: Make Time For Your Marriage
In the context of raising a healthy child, making time for your marriage helps your children understand their place in a family. There’s a mother, a father, then the children. That system stands the test of time.
A healthy marriage → healthy parents → healthy kids.
Not everyone’s on equal footing in the family system because parents are always the authority, making their marriage the most central relationship.
Celebrate an anniversary as much as you’d celebrate a birthday. Show attention and warmth in the house and your kids will feel more secure in relationships down the road.
#25: Don’t Take Everything Personally With Teens
Don’t take everything so personally once your kids hit the teen years. Their mood swings are natural and part of development.
Understand that there will be a grief period when your child starts getting moody, irritable, and snaps at you. Especially if your kid was always the easy going, happy-go-lucky kid. Now they’re telling you how you don’t know anything and they’re 14.
There’s a sinking feeling in your heart, but please don’t take it personally. It’s part of development and completely natural.
#26: Trust Your Parenting Gut
With all the information we have at our fingertips, parents just aren’t trusting their instincts anymore. They’re trusting the “experts” …
Social media groups.
They go see people like myself and ask so many questions. Usually part of my work is just getting parents to trust their own instincts!
Every parent is pretty well equipped to raise their child without a whole bunch of outside expertise. We all have to learn, and I encourage people to pay attention to their own instincts.
Do that most of the time and you’ll have the best answers to your questions. Once in a while you could use some extra help. In those situations it’s important and healthy to rely on other resources.
#27: Don’t Try To Be Perfect!
Don’t do everything on this list.
You can try to be the mom who does it all, but your kids will still have their unique genetic makeup. They’ll still experience unexpected stress.
Even if you tried to do everything on this list, it doesn’t make you a perfect parent and doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a perfect child.
Our goal should never be perfect. Our goal should be healthy. Part of being healthy means getting sick sometimes.
If you ever feel overwhelmed as a parent, you’re not alone.
My last piece of advice I want to leave you with is to find a sense of belonging to your community. There’s a wealth of support out there and you’ll find commonality among other moms when you belong to something. We’re all in this together.
Let’s stay together. >> Learn what I’m really thinking when my clients leave the couch. >> Subscribe to Notes from the Couch.