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By Rob Benson:
I’ve made loads of mistakes and I’m not a perfect parent. I’ve learned through experiences and mistakes. I’ve seen incredible examples and I’ve seen terrible examples of how to raise children… all of these experiences (including raising three kids for over 13 years as of this writing) have led to this.
These are just my opinions.
Kendra (my wife) and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to better health. We’ve managed this blog for years and we (at our core) believe in the ancestral way of eating food and attempting to live our lives. This basically means that we try to be outside a lot, we stay busy and lift heavy things on occasion, we keep active, eat real food, learn new skills that take effort, and get as much sleep as our bodies ask for. We tend to eat in cycles, most of the time this means a diet high in fat (ie Keto), however we eat with the seasons and try our best to avoid processed foods, refined sugars, grains, hydrogenated and processed vegetable oils. All in all, we make an effort to live outside of our common stare at a screen lives while also focusing a lot of effort on eating whole foods we make at home.
Our way of life comes in to play with our kids, they’re forced (in a sense) to do like we do. We believe in teaching by example. And if at the end of the day they’re doing something to damage themselves, we step in (they usually don’t know any better). We’ve never made them special meals, if they don’t like something… we teach them how to like it (food for example). We’ve dealt with a child’s real eating disorder, it’s been an eye opener and we’ve learned a lot through it all. When we have a kid that makes a bad choice, we attempt to offer support and we adjust and plan. It’s a process and we’re always adjusting to a better understanding than we had the day before.
This blog post is my strongly held beliefs on how to raise a kid, what things should be avoided and what should be added to make a healthier, better rounded childhood experience.
This post grows, adapts and may change.
Teach Them to Eat Healthy
When kids don’t know the difference between broccoli and cauliflower, you’ve got a problem. We hear it all the time on the website, “how do you get your kids to like all the vegetables?”- the answer is always the same: they don’t have another option. They eat what we make. We eat meat and veggies. We talk about specifics on where the meat comes from. We garden (more on that later) and talk about where vegetables come from. We eat like our ancestors. All of this is a big part of our normal conversation. We speak to our kids about why and how foods can hurt or heal them.
I want to be clear about a few things in relation to food. Food is a tool. You can’t develop a relationship with it, it won’t love you back. You can’t cheat on food (remember: no relationship). Stop saying words like “cheat” in relation to food, it’s training your kids the wrong way.
The biggest parenting mistake in relation to getting kids to eat real, nutrient dense and beneficial food (not: bread, goldfish, pasta, sugar, mac n cheese, pizzas, etc.) – is making them something different than what the parents eat. STOP IT!
And if the parents are eating foods with a lack of nutrients cause they’re easy, stop it. If you don’t like veggies, grow up and act like an adult. It’s time you learn to like food that won’t drive you to pre-diabetes and worse. When you eat mass amounts of carbohydrates with no restriction on when you eat them, you’re going to be forced to call up insulin and store those carbs (ie: sugars) as fat (it’s just how the body works), you’ll also exacerbate other ailments you may have or develop.
We have diabetic kids in America, that’s crazy! This is all so new, kids weren’t diabetics before. And we like to pretend that eating healthy is more expensive. NO, eating out is more expensive, stop eating out. If you believe you don’t have time to make your own food, prioritize food prep over Netflix.
Make good food a priority in your home and eat as a family, laugh and create memories around the dinner table.
One thing about eating food: it’s okay to eat crappy food on occasion. Let your kid’s eat the cake at a birthday party, it’s okay. Get the popcorn, nachos and ice cream at the game, it’s okay. What we are looking to avoid is two fold: making the staple of their diet bad (food you have at the house) + (and we’ll get in to this in depth later) making food a reward.
We’ve also found that gardening is an incredible way to teach your children how to appreciate and eat good, real food. Build a garden (you don’t need much room) to grow tons of salad greens. Teach your children at a young age to appreciate the process, have them pick their own food (it always tastes better when you pick it yourself).
Remove these foods from your home ASAP:
- Crackers (Goldfish, Grahams, Ritz, etc)
- Pudding & Jello
- Cereal, Granola, & Oatmeal
- Potato Chips
- Granola Bars
- Fake Cheese Slices
- Sugar-Filled Jellies/Jams
- Fruit Rolls-Ups & Gummy Snacks
- Fruit Juice & Sports Drinks
- Nutella & Sugary Peanut Butter
- Marshmallow Treats
- Candy Filled Trail Mix
- Mac & Cheese
- All Pasta
- Frozen Waffles
- Food Coloring
- Popsicles & Ice Cream
- Flour & Corn Tortillas
- Fruit Packs in Syrups
- Yogurt & Chocolate Covered Raisins/Nuts
- Frozen Dinners
- I’m sure there’s more that could be added, you get the point though.
Consume Real, Whole, Nutrient Dense Food!
When you remove the store-bought, pre-packaged foods from the house a few things will happen (especially to kids that are used to eating that empty food): They’ll behave better, sleep better, focus better, and improve their ability to learn.
Let Them Sleep
Stop telling your kids they’re lazy cause they sleep too much. If they’re actually lazy, provide them with opportunity. Development and growth occurs (for children and adults) at such a high level when good sleep is occurring on a regular basis. Note: kids need more sleep than their parents. Also note: your life (in nearly every aspect) will improve with good sleep patterns.
It’s not that hard, enforce a bedtime and stick to it. If your child can’t settle down at night, 9 times out of 10 it’s due to their diet. They get too much sugar and refined carbohydrates. Eliminate those and you’ll have a child that can take control of themselves and settle in to a good night’s sleep without a fight. It’s also useful to cut out the use of screens (computer, iPad, phones, tv, etc) at least an hour or two prior to bed.
Pay Them Allowance
Pay your kids allowance and don’t buy them stuff (unless it’s a special occasion, like a birthday). Set up tasks (chores) they must complete and keep a running balance either in their own personal bank account or the Bank of Mom (a note keeping track of balances on the phone).
Here’s exactly what we do:
- Each child in our family gets their age in dollars per week if all of their tasks have been completed (For example, Katie is 7 – this means that Katie earns $7 per week for doing her chores).
- When they want to buy clothes or toys or go to the movies, they use their own money. This makes it very appealing to save and not spend (they learn this lesson very quickly).
- When they get a friend a birthday present, Mom and Dad pay for half of whatever they want to buy (up to $20 in total cost of the gift / meaning we’ll chip in up to $10. If the gift is $25, they pay $15 and Mom and Dad pay $10). Same goes for Christmas gifts.
- If there’s a large item they want to purchase, we’ll occasionally offer to pay half (so they will have to save up half of the cost).
- If we happen to eat out (sometimes) we’ll let the kids make that decision. This means they have to pay for their meal… or we can go home and have dinner.
- We’re Mormon so 10% of their income goes to the church. We discuss what this money goes to. They learn a little about selflessness and giving. They’re honored to provide this, they get excited about it. The biggest lesson here: we owe everything to our Heavenly Father for all we have. Giving 10% is an opportunity for our children to grow (in many ways).
Teach your kids the value of money and saving by giving them the power. Emphasize the saving and let them make decisions with your guidance.
Stop the Over Protection
When a child is constantly told to slow down, be careful or watch out they’re internalizing that there’s danger everywhere. This isn’t a healthy way to think, it causes massive self doubt. If you want a kid that can think for themselves, let them think. Most kids have a built in governor, they’ll naturally do what they should be doing. Yes, you need to teach them the danger of falling off a cliff or what that rattling sound is when they’re hiking. But no… you don’t need to make every decision for them. Let them fall, eat dirt, poke a bug, jump, climb and get dirty.
Encourage them to try everything, they’ll grow in confidence and that confidence will stick around when they really need it.
Quality Time & Difficult Discussions
A lot of self worth is gained through time spent with those you love. As a parent, the one precious gift you have to give that won’t wear out or become uninteresting to your kids is your time and attention (especially when your kids are young). And it doesn’t need to cost anything! It’s such a simple premise, one that eludes me at times – Just do stuff your kids want to do. Not only are you building healthy children, you’re growing closer to them and sealing a stronger bond. The growth your children get from consistent interaction with you is more important than money, projects, or planned events.
When kids don’t have an open dialog with their parents (ie: a strong relationship) they lack the ability (or comfort level) to seek your advice when needed. When a relationship isn’t constantly fostered with a feeling of love and purpose, how could you possibly expect your child to want to turn to you for help? They’ll naturally turn to who they believe understands them best: their friends if not you (and this may not always be their best resource).
I like to think in terms of a real and growing problem: pornography. Kendra and I have a close relationship with our kids and we talk about a lot of things. At an early age we’ve had an open dialog about what pornography is and why it’s harmful. We’ve discussed the different formats pornography is viewed on and why some people think it’s not a big deal. Having these (awkward at first) discussions enabled my children to not feel ashamed or strange about bringing up incidents that happen around or to them. The ice is already broken, we’ve had the initial conversations and they know it’s okay to talk about it. The same goes for drug use, sex and all other hard to discuss topics.
If we didn’t spend a lot of time together and if we didn’t have an open dialog about difficult subjects, I’m confident my kids would have a hard time coming to me or my wife about something so difficult. Don’t think that you’ll magically keep the trust of your children if you’re not fostering and nurturing the relationship. Have the tough conversations early so your kids know it’s okay to talk. A child alone in their struggles will develop a shame that’ll damage their self worth and will root itself like a malignant cancer. Shame isn’t healthy; shame is accompanied by secrecy, and words left unspoken can damage lives.
Conduct Monthly Interviews
I have a scheduled day each month where I sit down with each child (one-on-one) and we have a structured interview. It’s very formal, we start with a prayer and then I ask them questions (relating to their lives).
Through my experience conducting these interviews I’ve observed something interesting. I learn something new nearly 100% of the time. As involved as we think we are as parents, we’re probably not aware of everything. This special time set aside every month opens a new dialog that may otherwise never be there.
My kids understand that if there’s a difficult aspect in their lives, they have an opportunity to bring it up during this formal interview. They know the interview is coming so they can plan for it. They know that I’ll leave them time to (without any feedback) explain how they feel about how Mom and Dad are doing. They have a chance to bring up concerns with minimal to no fear of recourse. It’s their chance to be honest and open and it’s powerful.
During their interview I ask them specific questions: Are you having any conflicts with kids at school? Are you comfortable with the conversations you overhear or are part of on the bus? What can mom and dad do better on? And others…
The feeling of unity is stronger during these interviews than I had ever anticipated.
There’s power in faith, in fact it’s essential in nearly every action we take. We don’t grow due to chance, it’s faith; we grow thanks to our faith. Faith will not demand answers to everything that comes to mind, rather it seeks courage to keep going.
Faith by scriptural definition is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith is a choice, teach your children to choose by faith.
Encourage Projects and Skills
So here’s what we do with our kids: skill hour. This is an uninterrupted hour during the day (typically during the summer) where they focus on one skill. They pick the skill and work hard to become better by practice. This gives them an opportunity to devote time to one specific skill (with no distractions). They’re able to feel the satisfaction of learning a new skill and they’re able to better develop their mind to focus.
These skills range from archery, flips on the trampoline, sign language, carving, and the list goes on. Get creative, reward focus and watch your children grow through accomplishment.
Set aside the time, get specific and be the guide.
Encourage Lots of Activity
Aerobically fit teenagers (and developing children) have higher executive function scores than those kids who aren’t aerobically active. An interesting book written by John Medina Attack of the Teenage Brain! Understanding and Supporting the Weird and Wonderful Adolescent Learner explains the science of why this is true (and a bunch of other interesting facts about the teenage brain).
If we knew that being more active was not only making our kid’s bodies more healthy but also making them better able to mentally plan and reason, why wouldn’t we make this a priority?
Physical activity not only allows a mental and physical benefit, it also helps to develop a sense of work ethic. This is especially true of how we do things at our house. We’ve got a bunch standard and not so standard workout equipment (ie: outside / home gym Crossfit). Our kids see us struggle through workouts and see our sense of accomplishment. If our work ethic stays strong as parents and our kids see this, our children learn and follow.
Some of our best memories as a family are doing workouts together, we’re cheering each other on, we’re all fighting hard, it’s incredible! Lead by example and everyone benefits.
Food is NOT a Reward
Applying good practices for a lifetime of health and happiness might mean making a big change. One of the hardest changes is removing the reward of food from your life. We probably all grew up with food (particularly treats with sugar) as our reward after nearly anything significant. Didn’t seem like a big deal… but let’s look at how we react to situations now because of it:
Why is it bad to reward with food?
First off: food rewards are almost 100% bad for your health (ice cream, cookies, cake, candy bars). When you emphasize the reward “you did a good job” you’re saying – when you do good, you should eat like this (insert favorite treat). It’s a subconscious training that bleeds in to (as an adult or older youth) the thought: “I had a rough day, I need ice cream to reward myself for the struggle”. This thought process leads to unhealthy food choices, over-eating and ultimately, metabolic problems (like diabetes). And we were trained this way in our youth.
Children when rewarded constantly with bad foods also tend to overeat. They could easily make the decision “I deserve a reward” and they’re not even hungry but they eat anyway. They also start to see food as a way to break up a boring day – I’ve learned from experience: kid’s eat waaaay more food when they’re “bored”. Being bored feels like a struggle to them, what can they do? Eat all the sugar to fix my problem! – that’s just how they’ve been trained. And what food are they reaching for? The sugary, processed and pre-packaged foods that offer limited nutritional value and are super easy to find.
Learning to cope: When your child gets hurt they shouldn’t be given a treat to settle down or feel better. This lines them up for a life of “hey, when stuff goes bad, I eat (insert favorite treat here)”. Children need to learn to cope with issues and problems, rewards as an adult are not naturally occurring immediatly each time we fail. The failures in life are most of the time how we grow, we’re able to keep going with a better understanding, we’re able to develop empathy and become better equipped to handle struggle.
We also should avoid penalizing our children by withholding sugary treats due to bad behavior. “You’re not getting dessert unless you clean your room!” Again, this is training our children via a very powerful drug (sugar). You do this thing, you get this treat. Remove it, learn a better and more effective way to reward obedience.
Treats as a Reward: they’re addictive and for the sake of your sanity, your child’s health and the economy: stop eating sugar and rewarding with treats!
Better idea: reward them with your time.
Learn Their Love Language
Kid’s are a little version of you. However, they also have a lot of differences, they’re totally, 100% unique. In the book The 5 Love Languages we learn that each person has a unique way they feel loved. When we understand our child’s love language we’re better equipped to help them feel valued, loved and needed.
The 5 Love Languages Are
- Words of affirmation.
- Quality time.
- Receiving gifts.
- Acts of service.
- Physical touch.
Take the test here.
Once you figure out what love language(s) they identify with, you’ll be ready to show them love that they can understand.
Restrict Digital Media
We gave our oldest daughter a cell phone way too soon. She’s a very mature girl (baby sitting at age 9, read War & Peace before she turned 10) so we thought she’d be smart with the phone. WE WERE WRONG and the phone was taken away.
During my interviews with the kids I’ve learned that one of their pet peeves with friends that have phones is: they’re so distracted by their phone that playing / hanging out with them is really boring. These kids with unrestricted smart phone usage are developing a habit at a very young age. The habit isn’t of any worth and can be very damaging long term.
Social Media (one part of the digital media landscape) is a gateway to pornography – plain and simple. It’s also a gateway for lowered self worth, emptiness and distrust. Social media isn’t evil, don’t get me wrong, in fact, I love Instagram. I’m a digital marketer and utilize social media as an income source. I get it, it’s got value and it’s pretty great for many reasons. However: children and unrestricted social media use has a ZERO net benefit ratio. The negatives far outweigh the positives during this developmental stage.
Restrict usage and hold out as long as you comfortably can. Kendra has a really great post on an app that allows you to restrict iPhone usage. We’ve just recently allowed our daughter to have a phone and the big deciding factor (that gives us complete comfort) is the use of this restriction app.
In another vein, when it comes to little kids and the iPad: watch their behavior. There’s no one size fits all recommendation on iPad usage with little kids (in my opinion). There are apps that teach. In fact, we have an amazing app that teaches the kids how to play piano – it’s incredibly valuable. We love it and so do they. However, a majority of a child’s time should be spent without a device in their hands or a blank stare at a screen.
Stop Using Sunscreen
Spend time outside and get sun-adapted. The sun offers healing properties including vitamin D (you need this – and it’s not actually a vitamin it’s a hormone). Our ancestral lineage didn’t wear sunscreen, why should you?
Avoidance of melanoma (skin cancer), that’s the big scare… However, sunscreen shouldn’t be an option. Cases of melanoma have tripled since the 1970’s. What’s interesting? The use of sunscreen has also grown at an incredible rate.
Up until about the 1950’s, melanoma was pretty rare. Then in the mid 1960s it started to accelerate and grow in to the current epidemic today. Melanoma rates start to soar, all the while health authorities are screaming: USE SUNSCREEN TO PREVENT SKIN CANCER! So we listen and the growth / sales of sunscreen really takes off! 1972 the sales figures were $18 million and started growing… up and up to $500 million in 1996 – fast forward to 2013: 1.7 Billion (in the US alone). Interesting correlation that in 1980, an American’s lifetime melanoma risk was 1 in 250. Today? 1 in 84. Are we not using a bunch of sunscreen today? Yes, yes we are and it’s not working.
And what about the chemicals?
Our skin is porous, it absorbs what you slather on. While studies all differ on the rate of absorption, we can all agree that most chemicals you put on your skin will absorb.
Let’s look at a couple standard chemicals found in many of the most popular sunscreens (that do absorb):
- Hormone disruption
- Potential to damage cells – may lead to skin cancer.
- May mimic hormones, cause endometriosis and can pose a risk to reproductive systems.
- Early puberty in girls and low sperm count and male infertility
- More strongly estrogenic than BPA
- Biggest offender of allergic skin reactions
- Was named “Allergen of the Year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2014.
- May increase exposure to skin-damaging free radicals
- May have a negative impact on the endocrine system
- May mimic hormones, cause endometriosis and can pose a risk to reproductive systems.
- Early puberty in girls and low sperm count and male infertility
- So easily absorbable by the skin it has the ability to have other chemicals absorb (that normally wouldn’t on their own).
+ Many more chemicals not listed here, chemicals that do not provide any benefit and in fact, may provide terrible health consequences.
We know a few things, sunscreen doesn’t keep you safe from too much sun exposure and the chemicals in many sunscreens are absorbed easily and cause a host of issues.
What you should be worried about: SUN BURN – Don’t let your child get a sunburn! Get adapted by being outside often.
So here’s the trick: avoid sunscreen and let your kids be outside all the time, they get a tan and that’s the body’s natural way of avoiding sunburn (the real culprit) – if they’re not adapted to being outside a lot (too white) then cover up. This is free, effective and better for you and your child.
Ditch the Store Bought Bug Spray
You may be one of those families that eats organic, that’s great! However, if you’re so worried about chemicals (pesticides) via what you eat, how could you be okay with bug spray? It’s the ultimate pesticide! Similar to sunscreen (as mentioned previously) – your skin absorbs what you put on it and well…
What’s in Bug Spray?
- Absorbed quickly in the skin – one study shows 48% applied is absorbed within six hours.
- Skin blisters
- Has been linked to neurotoxicity which could lead to physiological and behavioral problems (ie: motor skills, learning and memory dysfunction)
- Has been shown to cross the placenta: in animal studies, DEET was found in the fetus and in newborns up to three months old after exposing the mother to the chemical.
- Linked to neurotoxicity, interfering with sodium and potassium ion channels in the nerves
- Possible disruption of liver function
- Behavior changes after exposure in the womb
As you can imagine there are many more ingredients found in bug spray (just not all listed here). Bottom line is: you shouldn’t use store bought bug spray, make your own and stop spraying your children with poison.
Early Introduction to Common Food Allergens
This falls in line with the over protective nature of new parents… your baby should be exposed to allergens. If you believe in the effectiveness of vaccines (and even if you don’t) it should be very easy to understand that exposure to allergens at a very young age reduces the risk of severe and life threatening allergies at an older age.
New guidelines from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology suggest that at age 4-6 months you should be exposing your baby to peanuts, eggs, and fish (for example). There’s a lot of evidence out there supporting the prevention of dangerous food allergies starts with exposure (as an infant).
Understand that if there is an allergic reaction you’re going to know right away. It’s not going to be a gradual change you need to monitor. Start slow and do it yourself at home.
A Final Thought
The primary focus in your life, what should give you the most joy, the greatest purpose, is a healthy relationship with your family. There are no successes in life that are of worth at the cost of your family. Show love by spending time. Don’t add unnecessary threats (whether it be food, chemicals or phones).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything I missed or disagreements in the comments!