"Do as I say, not as I do!" kind of went out the window around the same time as martinis while pregnant and smoking on airplanes. The old, hands-off, dictatorial style of imparting values is SO not yummy. Don't get me wrong, I can raise my voice with the best of them, but I firmly believe that leading by example is the best way to lead my family.
There are so many behaviours I don't want my kids to inherit from me—my tendency to bite my cuticles, the way I cluck my tongue when I'm about to speak—but instead of telling them not to do these things, I tell myself and, in the process, I edit their model and thus their behaviour.
OK, maybe it takes a bit more effort than that and, if we're being honest, I still bite my cuticles but try to do it less when they're around... it's a work in progress. But it does work.
It works the other way around, too. There are a lot of behaviours I definitely want my kids to pick up from me—eating healthily and being physically active and fit are two of the most important to me (surprise, surprise). Eating healthily is really a no-brainer: eat with your children as frequently as possible, and choose healthy foods. You can tell them to eat their broccoli until your face turns blue, but if you don't eat it, good luck to you.
Being active, enjoying your body and keeping yourself physically fit are some values that are a little trickier to impart to the under-5 set, in my experience. I've dreamed of the day that my daughter, 5, will be big enough to jog alongside me. I tell her all the time that she will soon be able to join me and it is something she looks forward to. I'm hoping this summer we can begin, haltingly, to build up her endurance and jog around the block together. I know we will stop to look at bugs and that I'll probably end up piggy-backing at some point, but the idea of actually exercising with my little buddy is so exciting. My son, 2, is nowhere near the jogging stage. So how do you fill in those years between birth and school, and inspire fitness in little people who can't do "traditional" types of exercise yet?
Here's what I've done, and it works. My little ones understand that exercise and sport are fun but have also learned that fitness is not optional. And, I did it without resorting to the "Drop and give me 20" mentality. Here's how:
Toddler gymnastics, soccer and swimming are not just a nice way to break up your ho-hum week, they are getting little ones excited about using their bodies and building basic skills (jumping, floating, running, balancing) that are necessary in order for them to progress to team sports they might excel in and even just to playground play without being harassed because they can't complete the monkey bars. You don't have to overschedule yourself, either—when I was a kid, we had two activities per season/year. Unstructured active play can fill in on other days. On days we don't have a scheduled activity, we try to always hit the local playground and I will often make up little games and challenges for them.
You don't have to bring them to the gym daycare in order to demonstrate the importance of regular activity. Why not pop in a CD and dance around the living room with your little monkey or put in an exercise DVD and let them try a few moves while you get your sweat on? They don't have the attention span you do and they may move on to something else after a moment or two, but seeing you exercise is the important thing here—you teach them what is normal behaviour, so teach them that finding joy in activity and setting time aside to exercise is normal behaviour. Even hearing you say "Be good for Daddy because Mommy is going outside for a jog" can help build their perception that exercise is a normal behaviour.
I am a big believer in running. Human beings possess some of the best endurance of any creatures on the planet, and kids are the perfect runners. They go in spurts, rest when they need to, then go again. Why? They love to run! Take your kids to a park and encourage a game of tag, or organize foot races up a hill and you might be surprised when they give you a run for your money. Don't force a young child to run a long distance—intervals and spurts are natural and appropriate for their ability level, and way more fun! I'll let you decide whether running in the house is kosher but I tend to think, when a kid wants to move his muscles, let him.
Swimming lessons were never optional when I was a kid. We do swimming lessons but you'll find most lessons for the 4-and-under set are basically about familiarizing little ones with water and with moving their limbs in a way that will eventually translate to a lifesaving swim stroke. You can work on these skills at home in a splash pool and even a full bathtub! We visit our local wading pool several times per week in the summer months and practise floating, splashing and dunking. This is the first summer where I'll have two potty-trained kids bobbing around in the pools. For 4 years, we've relied on Huggies Little Swimmers—in fact, the wading pool staff won't let the diaper set into the pool unless wearing a swimming diaper. The best part: slather with sunscreen, find a shady pool and no suit required! Partial nudity is perfectly acceptable and oh-so-cute at that age.
You don't need a toddler treadmill (yes, that exists) but you can choose toys that engage their bodies as well as their minds. Think old-school. Hula hoops. Tricycles. Sand toys. Water toys. Scooters. Balls. Make these the toys you supply year-round and save the "coolest" toys for birthdays and special occasions. I firmly believe active toys are like clothing: kids need appropriately-sized active toys supplied as they grow, in order to grow. After all, you want your little one's muscles and motor skills to advance along with her age, don't you? Make it fun! Kids are motivated by play. What you supply, they will play with.
Visit a park and hike (even if it's a slow one) on a sunny weekend or hit the local pool for some splashy fun—spring and summer are the perfect time to start building those active family routines and getting little ones excited about exercise. In the winter, you don't have to spend thousands on skiing each weekend; rent skates at your local rink or build a snowman in the front yard. A daily walk before or after dinner, even for 10 or 15 minutes, builds lifelong walking habits. With tiny babies, bring them along on walks and jogs, get a toddler seat for your bicycle, or participate in postnatal fitness classes or postnatal aquafit classes—babies are watching and learning before they are talking. What's good for you is also good for them.
Inspiring your children to be active and fit is about so much more than just telling them how important it is. Childhood is about play—spark their interest in exercise by showing them how fun it can be. Show them that exercise and play are a part of adult life as well by getting involved at the pool and the playground, or just playing a game of tag in your backyard. Start modeling healthy habits in infancy. If you're doing it, so will they. And you might even get a little fitter yourself, in the process.