The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

5 ways my pediatrician dad taught me to keep myself, and my kids, healthy


During grade school and middle school, I envied my friends who were snuggled in their warm, fluffy beds as they recovered from a cough, a virus or a suspicious “get out of a test” illness. Less than a mile away, I sat at my cold classroom desk with the wooden seat, seething. As the daughter of a pediatrician who always seemed to cure my siblings and me by morning, I rarely missed a day of school. It wasn’t until I had my own children and was able to use his techniques myself to keep them healthy, that I appreciated these habits my dad had passed along.

To each his own cup. My dad’s medical office often overflowed with families who passed colds, coughs and the flu to one another, simply by drinking from the same glass. He asked little of my siblings and me, but the ban on sharing a cup was nonnegotiable. He gave the same advice to his patients’ parents. “Certain germs may not affect you,” he would tell them, “but they can affect others.” Some listened. Others ignored his recommendation and soon after found themselves carting their entire infected brood back to his office for treatment.

Heeding my dad’s rule, I gave my two toddler sons different colored cups from which to drink, to eliminate confusion. My sons didn’t hesitate to share their books and toys with friends, but they understood that sharing a glass was off limits. Both boys were rarely sick, and if either one caught a cold or a stomach bug, it was never at the same time.

Take what you want, eat what you can. My dad didn’t believe in forcing children to eat. There were no “Mommie Dearest” finish-your-liver episodes at my house. My mom placed the food on the table, then we served ourselves and finished what we could. When anxious parents complained to my dad about a finicky child, he said, “Include at least one food they like at each meal, or let them make a sandwich.” He assured them their child wouldn’t starve.

One of my sons was a pickier eater than the other, yet mealtimes typically weren’t a battle. If they didn’t finish what was on their plate, no one muscled them into it. Most of our meals were simple — I was no gourmet cook — yet as my sons grew, so did their range of acceptable foods. Last year when I received a text that read, “I like salmon now!” I had to double-check that it was from one of my sons.

Don’t ban treats. My dad always encouraged parents to make healthy snacks available to their children, but to allow occasional treats as well. “If you deprive your child of treats,” he would tell them, “they’ll crave them more or find them somewhere else.” My parents kept a large ceramic bowl on our kitchen table stocked with fruit, while at least one pantry shelf held our most-desired chocolate treats from the Hostess or Little Debbie families. The cream-filled, chocolate snacks were readily available, but my siblings and I didn’t overindulge because our favorites weren’t restricted or hidden.

5 ways parents can help kids understand consent and prevent sexual assault

Taking a cue from my childhood, I kept fruit in a bowl on the table and stored the chips, cookies and snacks within reach in the pantry. My little guys didn’t understand their friends’ fascination with forbidden fruit roll-ups or banned baked chips they sought every time they visited our house. Within minutes of walking through our door, they headed straight for the pantry. My sons, as my siblings and I, didn’t load up on unhealthy snack food because they always had access to it.

Get a flu shot. As adamant as my dad was about not sharing a glass, he was even more persistent about recommending the flu vaccine. “The vaccine is not 100 percent,” he explained to his patients’ parents, “but it could minimize the symptoms of the flu and potentially prevent other complications.” Until we were old enough to drive ourselves, my mom shuttled us to my dad’s office annually, where the dreaded “shot nurse” wiped our arms with an alcohol pad and administered the flu vaccine. My dad’s recommendation is still valid. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 183 flu-related deaths among children during the 2017-2018 season, with approximately 80 percent of them occurring in children who had not been vaccinated.

One of the times I took my then-toddler sons to get flu shots was particularly stressful and emotional, mostly for me. My elder son climbed on the exam table and voluntarily held out his arm for the nurse. Behind him, my younger son yelled repeatedly, “I don’t want a shot!” He stood with his arms crossed and protested until his brother hopped off the table and said, “That didn’t hurt.” His older brother’s nonchalant attitude — and my promise to visit the toy store on the way home — helped his brother calm down. Each September I ask my now-adult sons whether they’ve gotten their flu shots, usually an hour after my dad has called me to ask if I’ve gotten mine.

Be prepared. Although he wasn’t a Boy Scout, my dad kept the narrow hall closet stocked with adhesive bandages, ointment, eye drops and other basic first-aid supplies.

While my sons no longer run through boxes of bandages, I continue to follow my dad’s lead and keep bug-bite lotion, pain relievers and allergy medicine, among other supplies, in a container tucked in a kitchen cabinet. I, too, want to be prepared. I also want to avoid searching for a 24-hour pharmacy at midnight.

My dad, now 92, retired from his practice four years ago. He continues to feed his deep love of medicine with articles he finds online and in the medical journals stacked in a basket near his reading chair. He especially enjoys discussing the latest research and clinical findings with my youngest, who will start medical school in a year. I imagine that at some point when my son has his own children, they’ll complain about their (almost) perfect attendance record and blame their physician dad for being able to cure them overnight.

I’ll be disappointed if they don’t.

Lisa Kanarek is a freelance writer, essayist, and the author of five books about working from home. She lives with her husband in Texas, where they are parents to a combined six sons. Find her on Twitter @LisaKanarek.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates, and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

Read more:

Should parents let their kids turn to smart speakers for homework help?

Why parents should try to be happy, even when their child isn’t

Want your kids to be resilient? Here’s what not to do.