As we saw in a previous column, negative childhood experiences can have a lasting effect well into adulthood. The same is true of positive childhood experiences.
Recently, I saw a commercial for a popular brand. It used a theme song that flooded my brain with childhood memories the instant I heard the first few notes. That song was Chicken Fat, also known as "The Youth Fitness Song." It was the theme song for President John F. Kennedy's youth fitness program and was used in school gymnasiums across the country in the 1960s and '70s in order to influence America's youth to be more active. I was around 10 at the time and remember playing the record repeatedly while gleefully performing toe touches, situps and pushups. My favorite part was marching to the beat of the catchy and invigorating tune.
Fast-forward more than 50 years, when I was suddenly struck by the realization that exercise didn't become a part of my lifestyle in college, as I had thought. That had actually happened when I was a child thanks to Chicken Fat. I viewed "dancing" to the song as a fun game rather than exercise. The government program set up to try to influence me to be more active worked.
But I'm not the only person to have benefited from such childhood experiences.
Chuck started running as a child with his father, who was a supportive influence and his biggest cheerleader. As an adult, Chuck would get flashbacks of his father cheering him on from the sidelines when he doubted his ability to finish a race. Just as they did years before, his father's words would spur him on to the finish line with renewed energy. Chuck attributes his active lifestyle to those positive experiences with his dad and running as a child.
These two examples reinforce that what happens in childhood can stay with us well into adulthood. Whether your interest is in influencing the collective lives of children (as in President Kennedy's program) or the life of your child, the simplest things can have a major impact.
Government programs that encourage healthy lifestyles in children — addressing what they are fed in schools, introducing them to nutritious food and exercise, teaching them about where whole foods comes from and even showing them how to fix healthy meals and desserts — can have a profound effect.
If you're a parent or a significant adult figure in a child's life, you have the power to positively influence him or her. Consider this: Most positive memories about how someone helped us in life don't involve big things. It may be as small as attending a child's sporting events, taking her to explore the outdoors at the neighborhood park, including him in healthy meal preparation at home. Granted, big things can be memorable and lasting, too. Taking your children hiking in the Rockies can also affect the healthy decisions your children make in the future.
What's the best way to start having a positive influence on a child's health? Here are a few tips:
Be consistent and regular with your positive messages: John remembers that, as a child, his favorite aunt would regularly talk to him about how to have a happy and healthy life. When he is confronted with choices today, he thinks about what his aunt told him and most often takes the healthy route.
Make it fun: Everyone likes good feelings, and fun feels good. When you make an experience fun, even if it's a serious teaching moment, it's more likely to stick.
Show unconditional acceptance: All people want to be accepted and valued for who they are. When you show youngsters their imperfections are accepted, and reflect on their uniqueness, you give them a gift that fuels an adulthood strengthened by self-esteem and a desire for good self-care.
Leave perfectionism behind: Being a perfectionistic with children doesn't do them any favors. The end result is usually a child that grows to be an anxious and unhappy adult
It's never too late to start providing lasting positive experiences with young or old children, as well as with your inner child.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at [email protected]