6 Ways Science Says You Can Make Kids Healthy and Happy

Photo (cc) by Bruno_Caimi

As a parent, you want the very best for your child. And that means doing your part to help ensure that he or she is healthy and happy.

Now, science has your back. Following are six ways to help you raise a healthy, optimistic child — all backed by the latest research.

1. Buy (or adopt) a pet

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Experts increasingly understand the power of animals to make us feel better. That is why animal-assisted therapy is becoming more common.

Case in point: Denver International Airport recently introduced its new Canine Assisted Therapy Squad (CATS) to help alleviate passengers’ pre-flight anxiety.

Pets can work magic in a child’s life, too. Research published last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that pet dogs can calm your children’s nerves.

Having a pet can also help lower their asthma risk, according to a separate study of more than a million children in Sweden published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. It found that children who were exposed to pets and farm animals during the child’s first year of life were less likely to have childhood asthma at age 6.

According to a JAMA news release:

Dog exposure during the first year of life was associated with a 13 percent decreased risk of asthma in school-age children. Farm animal exposure was associated with a 52 percent reduced risk of asthma in school-aged children and 31 percent reduced risk in preschool-age children respectively.

2. Feed kids a good breakfast

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Want your children to be star students? Make sure they have a healthy, satisfying breakfast.

Experts have long espoused that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and a recent study of 9- to 11-year-old children by public health experts at the United Kingdom’s Cardiff University found that starting the day with a healthy meal is associated with better grades in school.

In fact, according to the research — published in August in the journal Public Health Nutrition — kids who ate breakfast were up to twice as likely to earn an above-average assessment score. It’s important to note that the key word here is healthy. The study found no positive impact on scores when children began the day with sweets.

According to the study authors, there is an “emerging body of research” that suggests eating foods with a lower glycemic index “may have a positive effect on students’ cognitive functioning, health, school attendance and academic outcomes.”

Foods with a low glycemic index release energy steadily through the day. According to the American Diabetes Association, such foods include:

  • Dried beans and legumes (like kidney beans and lentils)
  • All nonstarchy vegetables
  • Some starchy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes
  • Most fruit
  • Many whole grain breads and cereals, such as barley, whole wheat bread, rye bread and all-bran cereal

3. Encourage children to exercise

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It’s no secret that exercise offers a host of health benefits. Regular physical activity can help boost energy, improve mood, control weight and ward off a wide variety of conditions and diseases.

Here’s one more advantage to add to the list: A 2013 study by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that aerobic fitness can boost both memory and learning in kids. The study’s authors conclude:

Reducing or eliminating physical education in schools, as is often done in tight financial times, may not be the best way to ensure educational success among our young people.

So the next time your son or daughter sprawls out on the couch to binge-watch television, suggest taking a family bike ride instead.

4. Be loving, but don’t praise excessively

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Want your child to have healthy self-esteem? Don’t treat them as if they are special.

Earlier this year, researchers from both The Ohio State University and the University of Amsterdam published findings that treating kids like they are better or deserve more out of life than their peers may backfire, resulting in narcissism rather than positive self-esteem.

Brad Bushman, study co-author and a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, says in a press release:

“Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society.”

The best way for parents to foster positive feelings in children? Express warmth and let them know they are loved, according to the study authors.

Also, let your children make their own decisions, and give them a little privacy. A separate study from University College London published in September found that asserting too much psychological control over your children can limit independence and impede their ability to form secure attachments in adulthood.

5. Instill a love of reading

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If your child is a bookworm, you’re already ahead of the curve. If not, try to help him or her develop a love of — or at least a healthy appreciation for — reading, which is linked to higher intelligence as adults, according to a 2014 study by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and King’s College London.

The study looked at pairs of twins to uncover whether reading ability was linked to later differences in intelligence. According to a University of Edinburgh press release:

The scientists used a statistical model to test whether early differences in reading ability between pairs of twins were linked to later differences in their intelligence.

Because twins share all of their genes and grow up in the same home, researchers were able to pinpoint any differences attributable to experiences the twins did not share. These might include a particularly effective teacher, or a group of friends that encouraged reading.

Findings of the study, published in the journal Child Development, indicated that in addition to improving vocabulary, childhood reading impacted nonverbal intelligence.

A separate 2012 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that teenage girls with lower-than-average reading levels had higher pregnancy rates than girls who read at average or above-average reading levels. The effect was particularly pronounced among African-American and Hispanic girls.

6. Engage with teens on social media

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Want to strengthen your bond with your children? Send them friend requests on Facebook.

A 2013 study from Brigham Young University found that kids who connect with their parents through social media feel more bonded and had higher “prosocial behavior” (meaning they are more generous, kind and helpful to others) and lower levels of aggression and depression.

By contrast, children who used social media without parental involvement were more likely to experience negative outcomes, including increased delinquency, decreased feelings of connection and more inward focus.

In a press release, lead author Sarah Coyne, associate professor in the Brigham Young School of Family Life, said:

You can do a lot on social networking sites. Your kid might post a picture, and you might show support by liking it or making a nice comment, or a status update that does the same kind of thing. It gives more opportunities to give positive feedback or show affection.

The takeaway for parents? #TimeToTweetYourOffspring.

What are your tips for raising healthier, happier children? Sound off in our Forums. It’s the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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