As a pediatrician, I get lots of questions from parents -- but sometimes I wish they would ask different ones.
That's what check-ups are for, really: questions. Aside from questions about illnesses (obviously my purview, as a doctor), I get questions about just about every aspect of a child's life. The parents of babies and young children ask the most -- here are some of the most common:
- Should my baby's poop be [insert color]? (Answer: if it's not red, black or white, which could mean bleeding or liver disease, it's fine.)
- When will my child sleep through the night -- and how can I make that happen sooner? (Answer: I don't know, but it will happen -- and as for making it happen sooner, it takes persistence, patience and for a while even less sleep than you are currently getting.)
- Is my child eating enough? (Answer: nearly always yes, although what they are eating or drinking isn't always perfect.)
- What is this rash? (Answer: usually nothing to worry about.)
I get questions about particular foods, articles of clothing, potty training, preschool, tantrums, biting, strollers, toothpaste, water, sunscreen, bug spray, naps... you name it, I've probably gotten a question about it. Sometimes I feel like my answers are based more on common sense, my own parenting experience or something I read in the newspaper than on anything I learned in medical training.
I totally get it. I mean, of course parents want to be sure they are doing things right. Especially during those first few years, when the fact that you are totally responsible for a human being feels enormous, overwhelming, impossible. I get how it can seem like if you just get the details right (since each day is a succession of details), it will all work out.
Even if that's not exactly true.
And actually, I miss the questions once the kids get to be school-aged and older, when parents begin to have more complaints than questions, and don't always want to hear my suggestions for dealing with the complaints. (If you want them to eat better, don't buy unhealthy foods. You may need to work out a daily communication plan with the school to address your child's behavior -- and have rewards and consequences at home based on what they say. It's normal for adolescents to want privacy and independence.)
But here's the thing. I have watched hundreds of kids grow up. I have watched personalities and situations and families evolve. I've seen lives that blossom -- and lives that play out like slow-motion train wrecks. I'm not saying that I know everything about how to help children grow up to be healthy, happy and successful. But after almost 25 years of being both a pediatrician and a parent, I know a bit more than the average bear about what can make a difference.
I suppose I could just give people the advice, whether they like it or not. But besides the fact that the time tends to get filled up with the standard topics I need to cover (and shots and forms and the other necessary tasks), it feels a bit weird to pontificate. And unless people are actually interested, I don't know that they truly listen.
Here are the questions I wish people would ask, the ones that might make a real difference in how a child turns out:
How can I be sure my child is getting a healthy diet and exercising enough?
I had to get this one in. Sorry. It's just that I am outrageously frustrated with my inability to get people to listen to my advice on this. It's so rare for kids to be eating five servings of fruits and vegetables or getting an hour of exercise a day. Instead, they are sedentary, eating junk food and fast food and sweetened beverages. I know it's not always easy to get kids to eat foods like kale or to shut off the iPad and play tag, but it's possible -- and when it comes to current and future health, a healthy diet and regular exercise are probably the only sure things out there. OK, I'll get off my soapbox now.
How can I nurture my child, and be sure he or she feels loved?
Saying "I love you" often is a good start, but there's more to it -- and nurturing is so incredibly key, not only to helping children be happy, but also to building key brain connections that have everything to do with future success.
How can I play with my child -- and be sure he or she is getting enough playtime and downtime?
I have never been asked this question. And it's not because everyone is playing with their children and kids are getting plenty of play and downtime, trust me. Kids play video games and use apps, but outside of that, most are not getting the down-and-dirty, creative, silly play that is anything but silly when it comes to mental health, physical health and healthy relationships.
How can I teach my child to be polite, respectful and kind?
I do get questions about teaching kids to behave, but most of them are about getting kids to be quiet and do what they are told. Both of which are quite excellent, actually, but there's more involved when it comes to giving kids the interpersonal skills they need to navigate often tricky social waters, be successful in school and the workplace, have healthy relationships and maybe even make the world a better place (wouldn't that be great).
How can I help my child be interested in learning -- and in exploring the world around him?
This can be as simple as playing I Spy on walks, going to the local library or visiting museums. It's all about encouraging the natural curiosity of children, and helping them see that the world is a big and fascinating place -- both of which can make all the difference when it comes to how children do in life. There are so many ways to do this -- I could talk for hours about it.
How can I best support and encourage my child?
This isn't just about telling kids they are great, although there are definitely times when that's exactly what parents should do. This is about being specific with praise, about figuring out a child's strengths and weaknesses, about knowing when to push and when to let things go, about advocating and finding advocates. It's hard and most parents, myself included, screw it up regularly. But it's so important, and I'd love to help more families find their way.
All of this stuff is important -- because it's the stuff that ultimately matters most, the stuff that builds health, resilience and happiness and gives kids what they need to be independent, productive, compassionate people. Which, really, is our job as parents.
That's why I wish more parents would ask these questions. They don't necessarily need to ask their doctor; teachers, religious leaders, mental health professionals -- not to mention various wise family members and friends -- can have great answers, too. Just ask.
Even just asking -- and wanting to know the answers -- is a wonderful start.