If you've got kids in elementary school, you certainly have your job cut out for you as you try to encourage healthy living and help them develop a positive self-image. Throw in the first signs of puberty and some social and emotional bumps along the way, and it is easy to see that some mistakes are likely, if not inevitable.
Kids don't come with an instruction manual, so how do you know if you are making a big mistake with your grade-school kids? It's not a hopeless question. Armed with a heads up and some smart strategies, you may be able to avoid some big mistakes.
1. Denying That Your Kid Is Overweight
Joyce Lee, a pediatric endocrinologist at University of Michigan's Mott Children's Hospital, says that when dealing with an overweight or obese child, "many parents say he or she will grow out of it. Parents may say she is just big-boned or has a different body type."
But this is a big mistake, Lee says. There are a lot of physical changes that occur during the grade-school years, including puberty. But a lot of kids don't "grow out of it." Lee says, "Never be complacent. Now is the time to introduce and encourage physical activity and healthy eating. Good habits start young, and so do bad ones."
Many parents think high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes are health problems for older people. But this is a misconception and it is certainly not true since the rise of childhood obesity
Conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes are now showing up in kids because of obesity. "There is greater awareness of the problem of childhood obesity," Lee says, "but at the same time, many parents may not realize that grade-schoolers are not too young to develop some of the complications associated with it."
If your child is overweight, watch your words. Don't dwell on size or shame the child.
"It is never about a number on a scale or how you look, it's about health," says Children's National Medical Center psychologist Eleanor Mackey.
Beth Volin, the head of the pediatric primary care clinic at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, agrees. "This is an age where preteens become very body-conscious, and there is a lot of stuff in the media about being super thin," Volin says. "It's not unusual for pediatricians to start to see eating disorders in children in fifth and sixth grades."
Don't single out the child either, says Mackey. "Say, 'We want this whole family to be healthy so we are all going to try to eat better and be more active.'"
Again, children learn by example, so if family members or parents are also obese, do not eat healthy, or are not active, your child will not learn healthy behaviors.
2. Not Watching What You Say (and How You Say It)
"Many times, parents think that they are being helpful and come across as nagging or critical," Mackey says.
What should you say and how should you say it? Offer praise when your grade-schooler does something that is great, such as trying a new sport. "Say, 'I am proud of you for going out and trying a new activity,'" Mackey says.
She also says don't praise your child unless you really mean it. "You can't really over praise a child, but there is a danger of not being genuine if you are doing it all the time. It is also helpful to be specific in your praise," she says. "Say, 'Thank you so much for cleaning up your room. It makes me feels so proud of you for being so responsible.' Label what it is and tell them how it makes you feel."
3. Not Practicing What You Preach
Mackey says, "The fastest way to get a child to not listen to you is saying one thing and doing another. Take a really hard look at yourself and make sure you are a good role model and that what you are doing is what you want your child to do."
This includes every aspect of your lifestyle -- from whether you smoke, binge drink, or use other drugs, to how you handle stress and how you treat other people in your family and in the community.
4. Waiting Too Long to Have “the Talk”
"Puberty is happening as early as nine, and it is really important to talk about body changes so your kids know what to expect," says Children's National Medical Center pediatrician Yolandra Hancock. "Some parents have been hesitant to start this conversation during this age range," she says.
Volin agrees: "In girls, we see the age of menarche or first period creeping up earlier and earlier. So ages 10 and 11 are really an ideal time to be sitting down with your daughters and sons and starting the conversation about puberty and body changes."
With girls, this may mean talking about menstruation, underarm hair, and breast buds. In boys, it can mean bringing up pubic hair and voice changes. "It is a difficult conversation to start, and some parents assume that the school will have health education classes on puberty so they don't have to discuss it," Volin says. "That is a really big mistake."
5. Skipping Annual Well Visits to the Doctor
These routine checkups are not just recommended for tiny tots. "You should still come in every year, and sit down with a pediatrician who is monitoring your child's growth and development," Volin says.
"These are the appropriate times for children to be educated about the norms for height and weight and body mass index," she says. "We also start conversations about good nutrition and adequate physical activity." That includes making sure grade-schoolers are getting the calcium they need to support healthy growth.
6. Missing the Red Flags of Bullying
Bullying can, and does, occur in grade school.
"We see it in the context of children coming in with vague aches and pains because of stress," Volin says. "Most of the time the [doctor's] exam is going to be normal, and we can assure the parent that their child is OK and talk about what other things may be going on at school or at home."
Another sign that bullying may be an issue is a child who loves school suddenly refusing to go to school.
If you suspect bullying, take it seriously and talk to school officials. Talking to your child's teacher can also help you find out if anything else is going on. Volin says, "It's a fine line because you don't want your kid to be bullied even more, but an adult needs to be aware of what is going on."
Bullying can also happen on the Internet, with social media, or even via texts.
"Parents should monitor the social networking with preteens," Volin says. "Make sure the computer is in a family room where the parent can monitor what is going on with Facebook, Twitter, or whatever chat room their child is in."
Locks can also be placed within applications, and it is important to have open communication with your child about social media.
7. Overscheduling Your Kids
It may be tempting to sign your child up for this or that, but overscheduling kids can affect their academic performance.
For example, "Fifth- and sixth-graders are entering middle school and the academic rigor is really increased," Volin says. "They go from a single homeroom teacher to going from class to class with multiple teachers and a lot of homework and expectations," she says.
Strike a balance so that they are meeting academic expectations and are involved in select extracurricular activities. Different children have different needs, and there are really no hard and fast rules as to how many after-school activities are too many. Take your cues from your child.