The keys to raising a healthy child

Between physical, social and emotional health, there is much to consider for a well-rounded kid

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

These words by prominent social activist Frederick Douglass unquestionably ring true, but they still beg the question: what are the best ways, then, to build up those strong children?

“You’re going to know that your child is doing well because they’re going to feel good about themselves,” Camden County Freeholder Carmen G. Rodriguez said. “They’re going to be balanced. They’re going to feel better in different environments.”

As the liaison to the county’s Department of Children’s Services and a former teacher and administrator of 21 years, it’s safe to say Rodriguez knows a thing or two about child development. She also understands a healthy child isn’t one who is only physically well; mental, emotional and social health are just as important.

“It’s all tied together,” Rodriguez said. “A physically healthy child is one that is totally healthy, one that is getting exercise, which is very important for mental development … it makes you feel good when you’re up and moving and getting around. And usually when you’re doing some type of physical activity, you’re also given the opportunity to interact socially. That social interaction is very important also.”

Dr. G. Lee Lerch of Advocare Lerch & Amato Pediatrics echoes these sentiments. Throughout his nearly 40-year career, Lerch said he discovered fairly early on that the emotional needs of the family unit were, many times, more important than the physical needs. Over the last decade, he has seen well care visits revolve around social issues much more than physical ones.

“Dealing with these issues helps the child and family cope and grow as the pressures are much more intense than (they were) a generation ago,” Lerch said. “Family values and the integrity of the family has been under attack, as I see it, in recent years. Spending time helping families bond and strengthen as one has been very rewarding.”

Helping parents understand how much a child changes as they age is key to supporting a healthy child, too. Physically, children change rapidly, and they will respond differently at different ages, Lerch explained.

Annual well exams are important. Lerch, who has practices in Gibbsboro and Sewell, said children don’t only change yearly, but day-to-day.

“For example, a 5-year-old entering kindergarten is so different with unique needs than the 6-year-old entering first grade,” Lerch said. “A 10-to-12-year-old is so different than a 13-year-old. That is very obvious to us all. There are more subtle changes, but no less important at preceding and following years.”

As far as mental and emotional health, these needs are ever-changing as well.

“Every child has different needs. Some children need more physical help. He or she may not be athletic and needs more time practicing their chosen activity,” Lerch said. “Some may need encouragement in social situations. One may need more mentoring when dealing with difficult friends. I think all of us can understand dealing with difficult people.”

The “drama” for some children can cause them to shut down, which can cause them to be socially isolated, Lerch explained.

“We need to bolster their egos, give strategies and encouragement when necessary,” Lerch said.

Rodriguez noted that it’s important for children to learn how to negotiate a situation and problem-solve. It’s also important for a child to fail.

“When there’s failure, they’re also learning. Failure isn’t the end all. Failure is just another chance to try again. It strengthens them as well,” she said.

A healthy child also needs to play; this is how a child learns.

“Play is the work of the child. The most important learning that happens is through play,” Rodriguez said. “Every child must play. That’s how you learn how to act socially. Language begins with play.”

And a child at play, according to Lerch, is not only learning.

“Play is the way the child can express themselves, relieve their stress, show their interests in certain activities, demonstrate their abilities and show their insecurities — and so much more,” Lerch said.

Remembering every child is different is key to helping them grow. It’s important to know a child’s strengths and weaknesses, Rodriguez noted, and be able to elevate them.

“When we see a weakness,” she said, “give them opportunities that are fun and exciting and teach them to continue to get better.”

The bottom line? A parent needs to interact with their children, to do their best to understand their children to help them develop and maintain their health.

“We as parents need to learn about our children by listening, playing, watching our children, especially our teens and adult children,” Lerch said. “The job of parenting never stops.”

Editor’s note: Want to explore what local businesses and organizations have to offer to support the whole health of your child? Check out the free South Jersey Kids Expo on Wednesday, Aug. 22, from 3 to 7 p.m. at Cooper River Park between LaScala Birra and the Camden County Boathouse. The event, hosted by The Sun Newspapers and the Camden County Parks Department, will be filled with fun for kids, including carnival games and blow-ups, character appearances, face painting and crafts, as well as great learning opportunities for parents and guardians. Pre-registration for this free expo is requested at www.nmg.ticketleap.com/cckids.