toddlers to teens

Raising a Happy and Healthy Child

by Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

mom and daughterA few days after you bring that beautiful bundle of joy home from the hospital, it hits you: Oh. My. God. I'm responsible for this child for the next 18 years! What do I know about parenting? How am I going to make sure this child turns out OK in today's world?

  • Relax. You may not know much about parenting, but there are plenty of experts who do. Here are some things they found that can increase your odds of raising a healthy, happy, independent, successful kid.
  • Maintain high expectations. If you expect your child to make Cs, he will. If you expect your child to make As, he might not always make them, but he will certainly come closer than if you only expected Cs. The same is true for all other aspects of your child's life. For instance, researchers found that the more positively parents viewed their children and the higher their expectations, the less likely the kids were to use drugs or drink alcohol in middle school. The same held in the teenaged years. Think of positive parenting as a kind of vaccine to protect your children against the negative effects of peer pressure.
  • Provide a spiritual life. Researchers find that high schoolers who perceive religion as important in their lives are less likely to smoke, drink and use marijuana. Religion is important in many ways: boosting kids' self-esteem, providing a sense of community and offering a healthy option for problem solving. That self-esteem thing matters: girls with high self-esteem are much less likely to have sex at a young age than those who think little of themselves.
  • Encourage relationships with other adults. Researchers find that kids with a strong "mentor" in their life (think coach, teacher or counselor) are less likely to engage in risky behavior, such as drinking, using drugs, violence and sex, than those without one.
  • Eat dinner together at least five nights a week. Even if it's takeout, the simple act of sharing a meal as family leads to well-adjusted kids who do better at school, have better relationships with their friends and are less likely to do drugs or become depressed. They also have healthier diets than kids who don't eat with their families and are less likely to be overweight or obese.
  • Be active together. Your kids won't become physically active if they see you lying on the couch all the time. Find activities you can do together, such as swimming, biking, playing on a family softball team, etc. And get your kids involved in team sports early on—the recreational level is fine! A sport teaches teamwork, puts them in contact with other authority figures and provides an innate sense of accomplishment.
  • Be a parent, not a friend. Whether she's 2 or 12, your child needs boundaries. It is your job to provide them. Although it's harder to set and enforce rules than to give in and be their "friend," the results will be worth the effort.