By Qin Sun Stubis
Children these days receive a lot of education on physical and mental health, especially during their middle and high school years. In fact, I often see more required courses on health-related topics than those on the arts or foreign languages. Subjects range from the food pyramid to understanding the body, family planning to peer pressure, or teen smoking to drug abuse prevention.
Nevertheless, they are designed to support one strong purpose: To help our kids understand their physical development and warn them of potential hazards in life. We want them to grow to be strong and confident.
If adequate health education can serve as a sort of inoculation against bad habits, it seems that our kids should become robust teenagers, well on their way to successful adulthoods. And, having been taught how to avoid unhealthy practices and say “no” to alluring but harmful addictions, they should be smarter about their lives and develop fewer teen-related problems than we did when we were their age.
Take me as an example. While growing up in Shanghai, China, I was given very little health-related information, so little that I once believed children could be “planted” and “grown” in large rocks. Many boys around me watched their fathers chain-smoke and couldn’t wait to grow up to try their first puff. Food was often scarce and a thin child was considered “sickly,” while a fat child was often praised as cute and healthy.
When my children entered their teens a few years back, I was pleased that their schools were teaching them everything vital to their physical and mental development, including those “awkward” topics that I didn’t want to explain myself. At the same time, I also couldn’t help but notice that in spite of all this health education, many teenagers still chose to do what teenagers normally do–be rebellious and indulgent, tempting themselves with the very “forbidden fruit” they were warned about. As a result, teen pregnancy, obesity, smoking, drinking, drug abuse, and gang violence are still widespread.
For one reason or another, many of our youngsters fail to see the relevance of the health education they receive to their own lives. Smoking, for instance, is regarded as “cool” and socially necessary by many teens, though health classes have taught them otherwise. While living in Great Neck, New York, I often observed clusters of high school seniors gathered outside the school gates, smoking and socializing during their recess time. It may be puzzling to many. Is our health curriculum that ineffective?
To understand a teen’s mind, we need to go back a few decades and re-live the time when we were teens. We need to look into the very nature of puberty, to understand what our children are going through, and how they test the limits of their minds and bodies. Teenagers are rebellious by nature. They don’t consider themselves children anymore, always on the receiving end and listening to orders all the time. Teens are often overconfident, daredevils armored with invincibility. What they love most is to tempt fate without thinking about consequences. Telling them that something is not good for them will not stop them from trying it.
It should also be noted that health education can’t just consist of classes in school. The home is often where teens learn real-life lessons. Role-modeling and open communications within the family are essential to affect our children’s behaviors. Help them understand your own life and show them how you make important decisions. If you’re a smoker, for instance, you may want your children to get involved in your quitting, providing a precious real-life example on how to be courageous and fight an addiction.
We don’t want to become disappointed and disgruntled parents who are always unhappy about everything our kids do. In the end, it will cost our kids their happy memories of growing up and our relationship with them.
Always remember, understanding our children is just as important–if not more so–as educating them.
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