Child’s Play: What We Learn as Children Has a Lifelong Effect

Those of you with children are no doubt very aware that you are your children’s first teachers.  Babies begin modeling behavior almost from the very start.  We smile at our babies and they learn to smile back.  They are little sponges and watch us constantly to see what we do, how we do it without even wondering the why behind the action.  My cousin’s son used to sit at the breakfast table with his dad and “read” a magazine (even though he was still a baby) because his dad read at the table. (FYI the “baby” is now studying robotics someplace back East.) But the idea here is that his parents were readers and put a value on books and learning and so little Alex did too.

This parental modeling covers everything in our lives: how we deal with friends and family; how we handle stress and problems; how we drive; and of course, how we eat.  Most of us either follow in our parents’ footsteps or we go the other way, ie our parents taught how not to do something well.  As children we don’t really know any different and just tend to follow the path they’ve laid out for us, but as adults, our discretion and hopefully our better judgment takes over and we begin to make choices.  Either we do it like dear old mom and dad, or we do it our own way.  I know for me, one of the things that sticks out is that we never had any band-aids in the house.  I was forever cutting myself, sticking myself (I still have a scar on my thumb from when I was 12) and I was always stuck rummaging around in the bathroom drawer for a loose band-aid.  It probably wouldn’t have stuck out in my head so much except for the fact that my mom was a registered nurse and in that bathroom drawer would be her kelly clamps, rolls of tape and packets of gauze, but rarely any band-aids.  Instead of the cobbler’s kids having no shoes, it was the nurse’s kids having no band-aids.  As an adult, I make sure I have a box of band-aids in my house along with hydrogen peroxide (small bathroom, middle shelf).

One of the other things I learned growing up is to put my keys and purse in the same place every day when I come home.  It makes it so much easier when I need to go someplace.  In fact, in one instance, it may have saved my dog’s life.  My Yorkie started choking and I had to rush him to the emergency vet.  I remember grabbing my keys (I don’t recall grabbing my purse, but I must have since I had it with me in the car).  It was what EMTs call a “scoop and run”: I grabbed him and ran out the door.  I learned to put those things in the same place after years of listening to my mom rant about about how she can’t find her keys and/ or purse and is going to be late for work and why aren’t we helping her find them??  Years after this choking incident I remember thinking what would have happened if I just left my keys wherever when I came home and had to spend ten minutes looking for them?  Scary thought! (FYI my Yorkie was okay- apparently, throwing him in the passenger seat dislodged the piece of meat he was choking on!)

Our eating and fitness habits are no different than everything else.  We either learn to eat and exercise the way our parents did or we go the other way.  Sadly, I pretty much followed in my parents’ footsteps in that regard.  It wasn’t that they have horrible eating habits; they eat the standard American diet, and while my mom used to make a habit of using her treadmill, my dad got plenty of activity at his job.  I learned to eat the way they ate but my activity was not like theirs.  I got a lot of walking and physical activity as a kid and as a college student, but my eating was way over the limit and I slowly gained weight as I grew older.  By the time I reached high school, I was very overweight, and although I got more walking in as I went to college (the campus was huge and I crossed it multiple times a day), I still continued to gain slowly until I graduated and went to work- then the weight loss really skyrocketed!  My parents’ eating and activity pretty much stayed the same over time (neither of them is overweight), but my eating was slowly increasing and worsening and my activity was dropping rapidly.  These were the changes I made over time as an adult, and they were obviously not good for me. I didn’t learn good eating and exercise habits as kid and it wasn’t for my parents’ lack of trying.  My dad made a habit of having brussels sprouts and broccoli on a regular basis because they were vegetables he enjoys. I saw a lot of vegetables in my house as a kid and my parents ate a lot of them.  My mom was always using some kind of exercise equipment, but I was never interested in using any of it much.  The habits were there for me to follow, but as I grew up, I chose different activities (soccer and basketball) until my adult schedule interfered and my activities came to a screeching halt.  (One of the good food habits I learned from my mom was trying different kinds of foods- I learned as a kid to eat Japanese, Indian, and other exotic foods. This was a big advantage once I went Paleo- different foods are normal to me!)

One of the reasons I think there was such a disparity between my parents’ eating habits and activity and my own as I grew up is that there was a fundamental shift in both “everyday foods” and “everyday activities” sometime in my adolescence: 70’s-80’s.  (Yes, I really am that old! ugh!) While there were things like hamburger restaurants and drive-ins, most of the processed foods were foods you had to go out to get.  When I was a kid, one of my fondest memories was having burgers at the McDonald’s on the main street, and it was mainly because we’d sit in the car, feeding the fries to the squirrels in the vacant lot next door.  We didn’t eat a lot of McDonald’s because it was “going out” and so most of the foods we ate at home still came into the house in their raw or natural form: the broccoli, brussels sprouts and other veggies, the meats from the butcher section, rice, even the “pasta sauce” pretty much came in as plain tomato sauce.  The pasta was about as processed as most stuff got, at least until the late ’70’s.  Then there was shift to more processed foods.

Things like boxed dinners and frozen foods became cheaper and more accessible.  I remember when Eggo waffles hit the market and they were really popular at our house! The same with frozen bagels, instant oatmeal and boxed rice/pasta mixes.  They made cooking easy!  No more standing over the stove making sure the rice didn’t burn or the waffles didn’t overflow out of the waffle iron.  Dinner was a snap and so was breakfast and even lunch wasn’t complicated anymore since processed lunchmeats and white bread were cheap and easy!  So, as I grew up, I was eating way more processed foods than my parents’ when they were my age.  My eating habits revolved around what came in a box or a bag, and while my parents and I still ate a lot of the same things, they still leaned more towards the whole foods they had grown up on and enjoyed.  My favorite foods had a wrapper; theirs usually had a stem.

The other big shift was activity: it was the dawn of the electronic age.  Atari and Nintendo hit the marketplace and ‘playtime’ slowly went from chasing each other around the yard to chasing Donkey Kong all over the tv screen.  As I grew up, I (along with most of my generation) became more and more sedentary. I wasn’t very active to begin with.  I was always more of a reader than an athlete or a outdoorsy type. I have always been more at home in front of a typewriter than a computer. [For those of you who don’t know, a typewriter is an old fashioned hand operated word processor- only kind of kidding here since I’ve met twenty-somethings who say they’ve never seen one before.]

Both of these fundamental shifts- cheap processed food and a more sedentary lifestyle- led to a lifetime of unhealthy habits and poor dietary choices.  I grew up eating processed foods full of easily metabolized carbs and few nutrients (besides being low fat and high in sugar) and I spent most of my time seated, either in front of the computer, tv or with a book.  Looking back, it’s no wonder I gained weight along with most of my generation.  We all grew up doing a lot of the same activities: tv, computers, music, books and eating a lot of the same foods: snack cakes, candy bars, chips, microwave popcorn, lunchmeats and other processed and fast foods.  Obviously not all of us grew up to weigh over 400lbs, but many of us grew up overweight.  When epidemiologists talk about the “epidemic of type 2 diabetes and obesity,” my generation is the one they are talking about.  While our parents were used to getting out and doing physical things, most of us grew up with less active pursuits.  The habits our parents learned as children pretty much stayed with them: being active, eating whole foods and not sitting for hours in front of electronic devices, and while they may have leaned to more sedentary habits as they aged and became more familiar with technology, they didn’t become as overweight as we did.  My generation and I grew into our sedentarism and found more ways to exploit it: instead of getting up and driving out to get food, we can now get it delivered from our computers.  We don’t even have to get up to use the phone plugged into the wall: if we can’t order online, our cell is right next to us! Then we grouse about getting up to get the food brought to our doorstep.

To be fair no one saw these kinds of lifestyle shifts coming and I for one know my parents promoted healthy activity (I just wasn’t good at it!) But now, most of us are parents (and some of us grandparents) and we are the ones doing the modeling for the younger generations.  At the grocery store, I see parents with their kids in tow pushing carts full of processed foods: frozen prepared meals, boxed meals, bags of bagels, chips, buns and boxes of snack cakes, sodas and “juice drinks.”  These are what they are feeding their kids and these are what the kids are learning to eat.  I do see parents with carts full of fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits and more whole foods, but they are far outnumbered by the ones with the easy to eat and metabolize processed foods.  At one store I saw a little girl following behind her dad: she looked about 8 years old and was already extremely obese, and her arms were full of boxes of macaroni and cheese. I feel bad for her, because I know what is coming her way: a lifetime of struggling with her health, her weight and a lot of emotional pain.

Our challenge is to change a lifetime of bad habits and in doing so, we can model better habits for our families.  When we make a habit of limiting our time at the computer/ phone/ tv and spend more time being active, we are teaching it to our kids.  The activity doesn’t have to be something labeled “exercise”; it can be gardening, taking the dog for a walk, or just playing with the dog, playing outside with the kids; it can even be going shopping and just walking around the mall for a few hours!  The point is to get up and move!  We can do the same with food: when we eat, make a habit of choosing whole foods.  Don’t think in terms of “diet” (which will teach the kids not to eat it): think in terms of nutrition.  Choose foods for their nutrient value, not their calories.  This teaches kids (and some older ‘kids’ too) that healthy food tastes good and is good for you.  It also teaches them that real food takes a little time to prepare, too!  Cooking can be family time too!  At holidays, most of our family would crowd into the kitchen as we prepared the meal, because most of our food took time to cook or even just warm up!  These are the happiest memories of holidays with my grandparents.

As we realize the consequences of a lifetime of processed foods and sedentary habits, there is more of a push to change them. Obviously computers, phones and Facebook aren’t going away but there is also a growing trend to spend time being active: take the phone out and make a video of you doing something! Body cameras are really fueling this idea: that way you can record your ski trip, hike, bike ride, whatever without having to hold your phone! You can be active and be on your device at the same time! Just because we grew up with bad habits doesn’t mean we have to live with them all our lives; habits can be unlearned as well.  The trick is to learn something new and better for you and hopefully, teach it to your family.

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