Courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services
October is Health Literacy Month—a time to promote the importance of understanding health information. Health literacy is not just understanding information about our own health, but how well we can find, understand, and use information to make good health decisions. By building health literacy skills, we can become more engaged in, and take ownership over, our health.
Start with yourself
If you want to raise health literate children, the best place to start is with your own health literacy. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four parents has low health literacy. It’s important to remember that health literacy isn’t a measure of our intelligence or ability to read. Our country’s health care system is complex and can be challenging to navigate regardless of our job or education level. A great resource to check out is the Institute for Healthcare Advancement’s Health Literacy Solutions Center. You can start boosting your own health literacy simply by asking questions. At your next doctor’s appointment, try asking these three questions:
- What is my main problem?
- What do I need to do?
- Why is it important to do this?
Learn early, practice often
No matter your child’s age, now is the right time to start helping them build their health literacy skills. Because health literacy is about making decisions together, kids need to see why their choices matter. For young kids, try explaining why certain behaviors are important, like drinking water or resting when they’re sick. Then, ask why they think these actions are good for them. Asking questions is the key to understanding, and a great way for them to understand what they can do to take care of their own health, like brushing teeth to prevent cavities. It will also grow their understanding of how their decisions can impact others, like explaining the reason we get vaccinated or stay home when we are sick is not only to protect our own health, but to help prevent our germs from getting other people sick. For teens, let them help fill out medical forms and schedule their appointments. This will help build their health literacy skills while also providing a sense of control and independence.
Be honest, but keep it simple
When your child asks a question, provide a simple answer if you know it. If not, show them how to look it up and determine if the information is from a trustworthy source, or show them how you can ask their doctor. This can be a great chance to teach your child how to recognize what a reliable source of medical information looks like. Consider what is age-appropriate when sensitive topics come up. One great resource for this is the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Parenting Website. This easy-to-use website provides articles on health topics broken down by age group. Sticking to essential information—washing hands kills the bugs, vaccines help you fight sickness—while remaining truthful will help your child learn while not overwhelming them. It is also important to try to keep things positive. It can be scary for a child to learn about a disease, but this is the perfect opportunity for them to also learn about the skills and behaviors that can help protect them from getting sick.
You won’t be able to control every factor that influences how your child views and manages their own health. However, as parents, guardians, and caregivers, you can help create an environment that nurtures health literacy and empowers children to take charge of their health.