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One of the bigger challenges parents face concerns setting appropriate limits. If your child is like most of our students or campers, he or she has demonstrated a strong desire to spend hours online, at, or playing videogames. If these appear to be getting in the way of weight control, it’s time to begin setting limits.

Establishing these limits gets easier if you are able to negotiate them with your young weight controller. For example, you may have a number in mind, like two hours of screen time per day, but your weight controller currently averages six hours per day. You could suggest the limit of two hours, but have in mind a willingness to negotiate up to three or even four in the early stages. This negotiation process and clarity of establishing the contingencies will minimize reactance. You’ll be treating your young weight controller in a more adult fashion and this will produce greater cooperation.

At least three areas that have direct impact on weight control are worthy of consideration for setting limits:

Limit Screen Time
In a recent paper on the use of screen time and its impact on child development, Dr. Kaveri Subrahmanyam and his colleagues from California State University quoted a 16-year-old computer maven as claiming, “I really want to move to Antarctica. I’d want my cat and Internet access and I’d be happy.” Surveys have indicated that children between the ages of 2 and 17 with access to home computers and video games spend an average of five hours per day in front of a screen. In contrast, parents reported that children without computers or video games spent less than four hours per day in front of a screen.

As you might expect, screen time, a remarkably sedentary activity, is strongly correlated with weight problems in children and adolescents. Similarly, studies show that reducing screen time via limit setting can significantly reduce excess weight.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents consider taking the following steps to control the screen time of their children:

  • Watch only specific programs; do not turn the television on and let it run.
  • Remove televisions and computers from bedrooms.
  • Limit screen time viewing to two hours or less daily.
  • Do not watch television or computer screens during meals.
  • Watch shows with children and discuss what is shown.
  • Substitute reading or play time for television or screen time.
  • Teach children the difference between advertisements and program content.

Limit High-Fat Foods in the Home
If you have an older, argumentative teenager who doesn’t accept this, ask him or her to consider what would happen if one of the adults was an alcoholic. Would the adults in the household drink alcohol at dinner in that case? The same approach applies to weight controllers.You’ll want to make it clear to every household member that such foods are contraband and forbidden in your home. If they emerge, for whatever reason, you will toss them as soon as you find them.

When you present this limit, emphasize that this alternative style of eating will improve the health of everyone who participates. One way of making this clear even to very young children involves using your fingers for a demonstration. Ask them to feel the pad of the fingertip of the middle finger of the left hand. Ask them to flick that finger with their other hand and notice how soft it is. Then ask them to turn over their left hand and flick their middle finger’s fingernail. They’ll notice the hardness and they can actually hear the clicking sound upon flicking that finger. Advise them that their arteries, the main blood vessels in their bodies that carry nutrients to all of their cells, are supposed to feel like the soft part of their fingers. When people eat too much fat their arteries become like fingernails instead of the soft parts of fingers. This is what causes most heart attacks.

Some Wellspring parents say to their kids, “As your parent, one of my major jobs is to protect your health. Eating this way will do that. We’re also going to have a lot of fun with it and make sure the food tastes great. After a while, you won’t miss the higher fat foods at all.”

Limit Drinks with Calories
The vast majority of Americans drink hundreds of calories per day in the form of fruit juices, specialty coffee drinks and other liquids. Studies show that consuming calories in this way actually can increase appetite and result in consumption of hundreds, sometimes even thousands of extra calories per day that do you no good and that do not reduce hunger. For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends drinking diet soft drinks instead of regular (high sugar) soft drinks.

The Wellspring rule on beverages is simple: Eat your calories. Don’t drink them, except for skim milk. It’s a simple rule that every child can understand.