Children's health habits shaped by watching us

April 20, 1999|By Susan Reimer

BEING A PARENT is hard work, and you need to stay healthy for the long haul. From the time you are eating for two, through the sleepless nights of infancy and into the combat zone of adolescence, being a parent is as much about physical endurance as it is about enduring love.

But there is another reason for you to live as though you are in training for a road race -- your kids are watching.

Researcher Nicholas Zill, president of Child Trends, a Washington think tank, says in his most recent report that the behavior of parents represents an unexpected but very real threat to their children's health.

If we smoke, drink heavily or lead a sedentary lifestyle, we are giving tacit permission to our children to do the same. We can't blame a toxic popular culture or the bad kids in the neighborhood when our children are learning this stuff at home.

"The health of American parents is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that these are the women and men who are raising the next generation of citizens and workers," writes Zill in his report, "Setting an Example: The Health,

Medical Care and Health-Related Behavior of American Parents."

"How good a job individual parents do depends in part on how physically fit and mentally healthy they are."

The report is based on survey interviews in communities across the United States, and many of the conclusions are almost common sense: low-income parents and parents who lack health insurance are more likely to be in poor health than higher-income parents and those with insurance; more educated parents are less likely to engage in risky health behaviors, but a majority of welfare mothers do.

If you are reading this newspaper, you probably believe you are among those higher-educated, higher-income parents who do not have poor health habits. But my guess is, you would admit to a fair amount of stress in your life, and Zill's research demonstrates that stress can be as big a predictor of poor health as income and education.

"It was a very striking finding in the study," Zill said in an interview. "Higher levels of stress are associated with poorer health and a greater incidence of risky health behaviors.

"The link is that parents and others who find themselves under stress often self-medicate, and they use it as a way to ease the stress, be it smoking, drinking heavily or vegging out in front of the television."

These are the familiar reponses to stress. "But stress also has a way of impairing judgment and causing bad decision-making. That causes accidents, and it might cause you to get involved with people you shouldn't.

"And parents whose life situations are more stressful are more likely to neglect health care."

What qualifies as stress? Zill says it is a self-defining term. You know it when you have it. But certainly those parents who are widowed, divorced, separated or living together in anger qualify, and Zill reports that they are twice as likely to be in poor health as married parents and they are more likely to engage in high-risk health behaviors.

And their children are watching.

Not only do these parents have fewer physical and emotional resources to devote to the task of raising children; not only are they modeling poor health habits in front of their children, but they are also demonstrating for their children -- who will face plenty of stresses in their own lifetimes -- that there is no healthy or positive way to get through the tough times.

"It is the counsel of despair," said Zill.

Modern parents are very often walking the knife's edge of a tightly programmed life. One misstep and things fall into chaos. A health crisis, even a minor or temporary one, is the kind of bump in the road that can knock the wheels off the wagon.

Stressed-out parents may believe they don't have time for routine health maintenance and regular check-ups. Stressed-out parents who abuse their physical well-being may believe they have found short-term release.

But your health isn't anything you can ignore until later because your kids need you now.

"Parenting at certain stages requires a lot of work and supervision and attention," said Zill. "We should remember that staying healthy is one of the things we can do to stay more effective as parents."

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