6 Ways to Talk to Your Kids about Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a hot topic in schools, but it's tricky to discuss with your kids. Consider these six conversation starters to kick the discussion—and a healthier lifestyle—into gear.

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The numbers can't be ignored: Roughly a third of children in the United States are now overweight or obese. In response, a growing number of schools are rolling out initiatives aimed at reversing the trend. Some have begun including children's body mass indexes on report cards; others are holding classroom fitness challenges. The downside of such programs is that they can cause kids of all sizes to feel judged, says child development expert Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (Jossey-Bass). Take a tactful approach with these encouraging openers.

  1. “Should we go for a hike or shoot hoops
    this afternoon?”
    In addition to helping
    your child build muscle strength and torch
    calories, physical activity boosts self-esteem and
    academic performance. But for kids, the greatest
    motivator is fun. So instead of making exercise
    seem like, well, exercise, have them choose a
    physical activity they’ll enjoy—and get in on the
    action yourself. “Despite their reputation for
    crankiness, teens and tweens do want to spend
    time with their families,” Borba says. “Turning
    exercise into a group activity is a great way to get
    them on board.”
  2. “Help me map out your lunches.” Older
    kids are a lot like toddlers when it comes to food:
    They’re more likely to eat something they’ve
    had a hand in preparing. Tap your teen’s desire
    for independence by going one step further
    and teaching her grown-up skills such as meal
    planning and grocery shopping, Borba says. First,
    discuss what goes into a balanced lunch—lean
    protein, whole grains, fresh produce, and low-fat
    dairy—then shop for food together.
  3. “What nights will you be home for
    dinner this week?”
    Kids who regularly eat
    meals with their families tend to have healthier
    diets and better grades than those who often
    eat on their own. Try using a central calendar to
    track everyone’s schedules and pinpoint times to
    get together. If dinners aren’t doable, breakfasts
    and snacks can work, too. When your child sees
    how much you enjoy fruits and veggies, she’ll be
    inspired to make better choices, Borba says.
  4. “Let’s open a savings account for you.”
    Does your child squander his allowance on candy
    and sodas? Try portioning out his pay in bigger
    bills (think fives instead of ones). The larger
    denominations kids carry, the less likely they are
    to make unhealthy impulse purchases, according
    to a University of California study. While you’re
    at it, set up a savings account for him. When he
    sees his balance grow toward a bigger goal—
    such as that video game he’s been bugging you
    for—he’ll have even more reason to skip the
    vending machine.
  5. “What TV shows should we watch this
    In a survey from the Kaiser Family
    Foundation, 45 percent of young people said the
    television is left on most of the time in their
    homes. All that idle viewing can chip away at
    sleep, schoolwork, and staying active. Instead,
    turn TV watching into a planned event your
    child can look forward to, Borba suggests. Have
    her pick a few favorite shows, and keep the tube
    turned off the rest of the time.
  6. “I’m glad I went for a walk today. I feel
    ” What you say about your health and
    body has a powerful trickle-down effect, Borba
    says. When you meet a healthy goal, stick to
    positive statements about how you feel, not how
    you look. And if you experience a setback, don’t
    beat yourself up. “Your kids will pick up on the
    message—even if it’s subtle,” Borba says, “and
    follow your good example.”
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