That's because sunburns (bad ones) during childhood really increase the risk of melanoma later in life. In fact, according to a recent study, five or more blistering sunburns before age 20 (the time of life when you are in charge, basically) can increase the risk of melanoma by 80 percent.
There are four simple things you can do to help prevent this from happening. None of them are rocket science; in fact, they are all pretty obvious. And yet, as I know only too well from both personal and professional experience, just because something is obviously good idea doesn't mean everybody will do it.
(Just imagine if everybody ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily and always exercised?)
So here are the four simple things:
1. Use sunscreen. Every time you go out in the sun, not just when you go to the beach (I didn't wear it at my son's graduation in Virginia on Mother's Day because it seemed early, and ended up with burned shoulders). Use one with at least an SPF of 30 or 40 (you don't get much in the way of extra protection if you go higher). Make sure it protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. Reapply every couple of hours, even if folks aren't sweating or playing in the water. The spray sunscreens are really convenient, but know that a. you might miss spots and b. nobody knows for sure whether breathing that stuff in (I know I always breathe some in by accident when I use it) is actually safe.
2. Cover up. Get your kid a hat and some sunglasses. And some lightweight cover-ups and maybe a rash guard shirt that has UV protection. Set a good example by covering up yourself.
3. Be thoughtful about outside activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Those are the peak sun hours. Notice that I didn't say that you should stay indoors between those hours, because those are also the peak hours for activities. It's not incredibly realistic to say that you will never be at the beach between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., for example. But you can be thoughtful. Think shade. Find some at the park, or bring your own with a beach umbrella or a tent (including a makeshift tent). Try to have some of your outside time be outside of those hours (such as a 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. or 3 to 5 p.m. outing). Don't be outside every day during that time; have some indoor days (and definitely some indoor times during the day).
4. Discourage tanning. Definitely don't let your teen use a tanning bed--that's just asking for skin cancer. You can't always stop teens from tanning when you aren't around, but do everything you can to make sure that they understand that having the nice brown tan comes at a real price. When you are at the beach with your family, encourage being active and playing--or reading under an umbrella or other shade. And remember: set a good example by not tanning yourself.
Obviously you can't control all of your child's sun exposure. You could do all of these things religiously, and your child could still get melanoma as an adult. We are not all-powerful, and some things just happen. But if you set your mind to it, and make these suggestions part of your family culture, it could make a real difference--even if you just do them more than you did before.
It's one thing if your kid ends up with complexes because of stuff you did (or didn't do) as a parent. It's a whole other thing if they end up with cancer.