Trusted medical advice from the
American Academy of Family Physicians.

Passing Healthy Habits on to Your Children

Teach your children how to live healthy. Start when they are young. This helps them avoid making unhealthy choices and developing lifelong bad habits. It is important that parents set a good example. Telling your kids what to do won’t always work. They need to see you choosing healthy habits too.

Path to improved well being

There are many ways to develop healthy habits. Consider the following.

Nutrition, physical activity, and sleep

Children in the United States weigh more than they used to. They eat too much food high in fat and sugar. They spend less time being physically active. Children who struggle with weight have an increased risk of future health problems. These can include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and cancer.

How you can help:

  • Pay attention to the kind of food you buy. Serve a variety of healthy foods. Limit junk food. Keep fresh fruits and vegetables available. These make for healthy snacks and meal sides. Low-fat foods may contain unhealthy items, such as added sugar.
  • Use proper portion sizes. Read the nutrition facts label to find 1 serving size.
  • Eat meals and snacks together as a family. Eat at the table and not in front of the television.
  • Give your children plenty of water and milk to drink. Limit or avoid sweetened and regular-calorie drinks. These include fruit juice, soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk, and sweetened iced tea.
  • Monitor your children’s activities. They should have no more than 2 hours of screen time per day. Screen time includes the television, computer, tablet, and video games. You should also set time limits on smart phones as a part of screen time. Promote physical activity instead.
  • Make physical activity part of your family’s routine. Take a walk, visit the community pool, or go on a bike ride. Encourage your kids to try group activities, such as team sports or martial arts. These can help a child’s growth and self-esteem. Find other aerobic activities to add to your children’s day.
  • Teach your children healthy oral health habits. This includes brushing their teeth twice per day and flossing once per day. Take them to the dentist for regular cleanings every six months.
  • Make sure your children get plenty of rest. Talk to your doctor about the amount of sleep your child should get for his or her age.
  • Teach your child the importance of regular health check-ups.

Tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs

Kids may become curious about drugs at a young age. Some children try tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs by the time they are in middle school. Studies show that kids are less likely to use these if you talk to them early.

How you can help:

  • Make it known that it’s not okay or allowed to smoke cigarettes, vape/use e-cigarettes, chew tobacco, drink alcohol, or use drugs. Set clear consequences if they break these rules.
  • Explain why these substances are harmful. Encourage your children to ask questions. A true story may get their attention more than facts and statistics alone. Give real-life examples of people who have had bad things happen from using alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.
  • Talk to your children about peer pressure. Role-playing can help prepare them to say no if someone offers cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs.
  • Get to know your children’s friends and their friends’ parents. Build trust with them. Let other parents know the rules you expect your children to follow. Always ask your kids what they’re doing, where they’re going, who they’re with, and when they’ll return. Make sure there is a way you can reach them.
  • Set a good example. Pay attention to how your actions affect your children. For example, if you use tobacco or drugs, they may think it’s okay for them to do the same.

Sexual behavior

Each year, about 750,000 teenage girls become pregnant. One in four new sexually transmitted disease or infection (STD or STI) cases occur in teenagers. Even though it may be awkward, talk to your kids about the risks and responsibilities of being sexually active. This includes how to protect against pregnancy and disease. Do not depend on schools to teach sexual education. You can help your kids understand sex in terms of love and respect. You can teach them the meaning of consent. They should understand the importance of consent by both people involved.

How you can help:

  • With younger children, answer questions about sex when they ask.
  • With older children, discuss sex in advance to help prevent harm. They need to know the risks of being sexually active before they start. It’s important to talk about this even if you don’t think your children are sexually active.
  • Be honest with your children about your family’s values, opinions, and expectations of sex. You may want to ask your family doctor for help in talking to your children. They can provide information and facts to share.
  • Think about the sexual messages your children get in school and from the media. Talk to your children about these messages to help them understand what is real. Urge them to be open with you and ask questions.
  • Keep an open mind. Your children are more likely to talk to you if they aren’t afraid of your reactions. Let them know they can come to you if they feel pressured or concerned about issues related to sex.

Things to consider

Most children look up to their parents. It’s important for you to set a good example. Being healthy should be fun for everyone. Get your kids involved by giving them choices. Reward their good behavior with healthy treats or activities. Staying positive and supportive can help them develop confidence and a lifetime of healthy habits.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I calculate my child’s BMI?
  • At what age should I start talking to my kids about sex, tobacco, alcohol, or drugs?
  • What are examples of healthy rewards?
Visit our interactive symptom checker