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It’s a crazy suggestion. Yet all airlines advise us to put on our own oxygen masks before looking after our children. This is so contrary to every parenting instinct…but is it good advice?

I started thinking about this in the context of health and happiness.

Through my own life, there have been times when I was forced to choose between exercising and doing something with my children. And so, I often skipped exercise to be with them.

Actually, I always tried to do both. But, as you’ll probably know from your own life, this isn’t easy.

So, I often put my children first, ahead of my own health. That sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it?

I now believe this is wrong.

Many years ago, in the midst of a highly successful high-profile career as a physician-scientist and corporate leader, I woke up to the fact that I was suffering from gross self-neglect.

In my sincere efforts and laudable determination to be a good husband and father, I was working long hours under very challenging circumstances to provide extremely well for my family. I was proud of this, and still am today. And, after traveling all week, I would come home to my family and pursue my devotion to my children with great enthusiasm and commitment. I took very good care of them and their needs, and I was proud of this, too.

But I was headed rapidly toward a quadruple bypass or similar physical disaster. Here I was, a physician and scientist who knew better than anyone else in the boardroom how to take care of myself.

And I wasn’t doing it.

I simply didn’t have the time to be an exceptional business leader and the world’s best father and take care of myself. And so, I put my children first. And in doing so, I moved us all one small step closer to disaster.

Luckily, I realized it just in time.

When I started to prioritize my own healthy habits, I put myself in a better position to take care of my children. Instead of being incapacitated by my own poor health and unhappiness, I had the strength and enthusiasm to care for them. Rather than being the exhausted couch potato who drags himself home at the end of the workday, or the gray-faced executive recovering from his first heart attack, I had energy and joy to invest in them.

More important still is the fact that I modeled healthy behavior for them. Through my unequivocal commitment to exercising regularly, balancing calories, sleeping well, and managing my stress, I modeled the behavior they need to pursue if they want to be healthy and happy for life—and that is my greatest wish for them.

Our children learn more from observing our behavior than they do from the words we speak. My children could see that I was healthy and happy. They witnessed the rewards of the transformation in my own life and have experienced the impact of my wellness in their lives. Today they thank me for putting my oxygen mask on first.

Next time you have a difficult choice like this, please consider that the “crazy” advice of the airlines may be appropriate and remember that taking care of yourself benefits those around you, too.