By Jonathan Shenkin, DDS, MPH
Children learn by example. Yet, many parents seem to think their youngsters will adopt healthy habits on their own, even when the parents' own behavior sets the stage for disease. For example, to help prevent cavities, I often recommend that children brush their teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and drink less juice or soda. Several times in my years of practice, I have seen parents holding a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew or other soft drink during an early-morning appointment while chastising their children for drinking too much soda. The problem, of course, is that parental modeling is the most significant factor in children developing poor health behaviors.
For years now, we have been aware that children exposed to violence, tobacco use, and alcoholism are more likely to duplicate those behaviors as adults than children who do not grow up with those influences. Children whose parents are physically inactive are more likely to be inactive themselves. Children whose parents have significant tooth decay are at greater risk of developing tooth decay, not because it is hereditary, but because kids copy the behaviors of their parents.
As a society, we often try to pin social failures on our schools. However, studies have failed to show much improvement in the health of children when we make dramatic changes to the nutritional content of foods consumed at school. The reason is simple; children spend most of their time at home.
A study published this year by researchers at the University of Maryland evaluated consumption of fruits and vegetables among school-aged children living in low-income families. The researchers were interested in identifying which factors contributed most to a child’s consumption of fruits and vegetables. Not surprisingly, parents' dietary habits were shown to have the most influence on their children's behaviors. This is further evidence that children model their behaviors on those of their parents, a pattern that has been duplicated time and time again in scientific studies.
Children generally don’t understand health messages or the long-term consequences of poor health habits. Therefore it is imperative that if parents desire healthy children they themselves have to behave the way they want their children to. The take-away message for parents on how to best raise a child relies on reversing a simple adage — “do as
I do, not as I say." When it comes to dental health, that means brushing regularly and cutting way back on sugary beverages like soda and juice.
Jonathan Shenkin is a pediatric dentist and public health advocate who practices in Augusta.