"The things that grandmothers can see while sitting on the ground, younger people cannot see even if they climb to the top of a tree." - Senegalese proverb

Loving your grandchildren comes naturally. But being a good role model requires thoughtful concentration. Indulging your grandchildren may be tempting, and often a very positive thing during their childhood, but we need to assure our indulgences contribute to their health.

Helping parents to raise kids with healthy core values is an important and lifelong influence and is one of the most loving gifts you can give the younger generation. The influence you have with your grandchildren stays with them through their sometimes difficult teen years and as they face young adulthood. According to an article in the Gerontologist, college students' perceptions of grandparent and grandchild roles were generally positive, indicating affection and respect for grandparents.

According to research by Dr. Judi Aubrel, grandmothers and other senior female family members should play a key role in nutrition and health programs for children and women in non-Western societies. However, the new study concludes, they are often overlooked by health organizations in the Western world.

"Despite the fact that grandmothers and other senior women are very involved in the nutrition and health of women and children, national and international policies and programs rarely target or involve them," says Aubel. Her research demonstrates three major points:

1. Grandmothers play a central role in providing care for women and children and in advising younger women and male family members on nutrition and health matters, especially during pregnancy, childbirth and when children are infants or still young.

2. Social networks of senior women provide a collective influence on maternal and child nutrition-related practices, especially when women are pregnant or have recently given birth.

3. Fathers and grandfathers usually play secondary, supportive roles and their involvement generally increases in crisis situations, when special logistical and/or financial supports are required.

As a result of her review, Aubel recommends that health professionals and community workers re-examine their perceptions of both culture and grandmothers, so that they view grandmothers as resources rather than obstacles. Health training curricula should be revised to provide more focus on how local families and cultural systems promote health and nutrition.

Having the grandparents support a new mother who breastfeeds is so helpful and validating. Comments like "your baby is thriving" assures success. But comments that insinuate you don't think the baby is getting enough to eat, or that formula works just as well, not only undermines the mom's confidence, it can affect your grandchild's health far into the future. Science proves that breast milk has many health benefits for infants and mothers and is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children are excellent imitators and copy what they see around them. That's why it's important that grandparents are positive role models with their food choices. Good food is good fuel for children and eating well helps them develop properly and function in school, at home and out in the community. An occasional trip to have icecream can be a positive experience, but serving junk food routinely is not helpful in developing good nutrition habits.

If grandchildren see their grandparents are eating sensible portions of healthy food, they will do the same. If they see you walking with a big smile on your face and a spring in your step, they will try to imitate you.

Nutrition tips for grandparents:

• Eat and drink sensibly. Limit food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar.

• Be consistent. Practice what you preach - don't be hypocritical with your food choices.

• Say "no" when your grandchildren ask for junk food.

• Involve the whole family in meal preparation. Play games as you prepare food and when you go grocery shopping together.

• Cook meals from fresh, wholesome ingredients. Limit food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar.

• Don't give mixed or negative messages about food.

• Support breastfeeding whenever possible. Artificial infant formulas are not even remotely comparable to breast milk in health benefits, both in early childhood and into adulthood.

• Eat at the same time as your grandchildren and make it a happy social occasion.

• Encourage positive conversation and avoid being critical.

• Make meal times a screen-free time.

• Be careful about using food as a reward or as a display of love. Avoid disciplining through food.

• Swap soft drinks for water - children's teeth will thank you, too!

• Take regular exercise together. Make exercise fun, not a chore. Incorporate such things as gardening, raking leaves and building snowmen.

Start off small and build up gradually as you make changes to your grandchildren's food and activity habits. Soon new habits will develop and they may be asking mom and dad for grandma's broccoli casserole or to play hopscotch with them. Never criticize what the parents do in their own homes, but do model best practices for the sake of the grandchildren's health. Give your adult children support, acceptance and encouragement as they begin to incorporate healthy changes in eating and physical activity.

Incorporate creativity and imaginative play as you cook, eat and play together. Talk about how energetic and good you feel after eating a healthy meal. Then go do something together that shows how wonderful you feel. Actions speak as loudly as words and the times you spend together with your grandchildren will create memories worth adding to your scrapbook.

Be honest about your grandchild's weight. If you are really worried, get in touch with your health care provider or a dietitian to see if you have legitimate reason for concern. Ask for written, evidence-based scientific advice and resources that may exist in your community. Don't be confrontational or critical when bringing up the subject of your grandchild's weight for discussion, but be tactful, kind, loving and helpful to the parents.

Perhaps you can help by giving opportunities for fun activities for the entire family, such as a pass to Currents, sponsoring their soccer team, or taking them on nature hikes or a long walk around your old neighborhood while telling stories about the family history. Parents might appreciate you preparing a few healthy options to put in their freezer for those times they are just too busy to cook from scratch.

Talking about weight is a very sensitive issue, so follow the instinct you have developed over a lifetime and your knowledge of the parent's personality. If done with tact and a loving spirit, you may save your grandchildren from dealing with self-esteem problems and chronic disease well into their future.

Years of living and raising children imparts us with wisdom in ways that parents haven't yet seen. And the side effect of contributing mindfully to our grandchildren's health is that we're all winners. Our own health increases as we boomers practice being positive role models.

Booming features a monthly column by a member of the Missoula City-County Health Department in order to help Missoula baby boomer residents to be healthy and resilient. Rebecca Morley provides nutrition services through the Eat Smart Program and can be reached at 258-3827 or at morleyr@ho.missoulian.mt.us.


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