By Dr. Caroline Cederquist and AnneElena Foster –
When parents try to get their kids to be more active, these efforts usually start out full of enthusiasm and good intentions, but very often end up sidelined, not by the kids’ unwillingness to cooperate, but by the parents’ inability to provide the consistent support needed.
If that sounds familiar, don’t feel bad. It’s not a knock on your parenting. Busy, overloaded parents sometimes just get to the point where something’s got to give. Start with competing demands in a tight schedule, throw in the periodic unexpected happenstance, and the thing that “gives” can often end up being the kids’ physical activities.
The Centers for Disease Control conducted a longitudinal survey of kids aged 9 to 13 years, and included their parents. What the researchers found was that more than 60 percent of children aged 9 to 13 do not participate in any organized physical activity when they’re out of school hours, and almost a quarter of kids in that age group do not engage in any kind of free-time physical activity at all. Nothing. Not playing tag, not riding a bike, not even walking home from school. And 25 percent of parents said they believed their own lack of time was a major barrier to their childrens’ participation in physical activity. In truth, it’s probably even more than that, because it’s just hard to accept and admit that our packed family schedules may actually be interfering with our kids’ opportunities to play and be healthy.
But if the dog has to go to the vet at 4:00 and homework and dinner both have to be done before the teacher conference at 7:00, there’s probably not going to be much chance of your youngster working in a nice brisk bike ride, especially if you’ve also got to drop off the dry cleaning and pick up a prescription along the way.
But it’s not an insurmountable problem. It’s just that, as with anything you value, it helps to build in some defenses for the activities you want for your kids’ health and happiness.
Do what you like
While it seems logical and intuitive to get your child involved in something that interests them, you might also want to consider the importance of undertaking an activity that interests you.
Why is that? There are several reasons.
Let’s take it from the most basic. Very often, heavy children have heavy parents and if you’ve also got a weight problem you want to tackle, consider that people are often more motivated to help their children than themselves. If you find something that you enjoy and then engage your child in your enthusiasm for the activity, it’s more likely you’ll both participate more often, whether it’s playing tennis or simply sharing a brisk, regular walk and a chat. Your joint participation makes the activity better for the family all around. Your consistency in keeping your child active will arise out of a genuine interest in the particular activity, rather than coming simply from the duty to pursue healthy activity. If it’s something you want to do, your leadership will help keep the child on track.
On the other hand, if you’ve invested a lot of your time and resources to have the kids participate in karate classes, but you end up just sitting and watching, you may enjoy vicarious satisfaction from your child’s participation, but it doesn’t as much for you personally. And many a parent is familiar with the antsy feeling of standing by dutifully waiting for a child’s activity to wrap up, preoccupied by other obligations nagging at our heels. The idle time spent as a spectator of an activity that’s not personally meaningful can begin to feel like wasted time for someone with a huge to-do list. But if you are a keen karate fanatic, even if you’re not participating yourself, your enthusiasm and attention to the activity will show, and will feed your child’s enthusiasm for his own involvement.
When we consider the things that give us joy, and expose our children to those activities, we end up sharing more than a workout.
Family health values
Perhaps the most reliable of defenses is a schedule. You probably have set times for your kids to do certain things. Wake-up is at 7. Bedtime is at 8:30. Piano lessons are at 3:30, but only on Tuesdays. Things that are important get put onto the schedule. Less important things get “worked in” whenever possible. Homework gets done right after school; chores after homework; if kids want to play video games or watch TV, that comes after the necessities are taken care of, right?
More than three quarters of kids get some physical activity in their unstructured “free time.” But if you just slightly change the family’s perspective on those important activity times, and actually put it on your family’s schedule of essentials, you’re making a statement of values, sending a message to the whole family that physical health is important. A bike ride can still take its place behind other, more time-certain activities like homework, but it should certainly make it onto the schedule ahead of vegging out in front of the television. If it’s a scheduled segment of the day, we find it’s easier for kids to embrace regular activity as a fun responsibility rather than as just another option competing for some of their free time.
Small children naturally enjoy movement and physical play. In fact, it can be hard to contain their activity sometimes. Nearly 40 percent of kids aged 9 to 13 are involved in team or group activity, but studies show that by the time most American kids are 15, they’re no longer interested in starting sports. But if you’ve already built in a healthy habit, team activities provide excellent support for continuing that habit, because they come couched in their own little social structures of players and parents and other boosters who also appreciate the particular activity involved.
Parents are more likely to make sure a kid gets to practice or shows up for a class or game if the child is involved in a group activity, because we tend to be more accountable and consistent with group activities than independent ones, and the potential for pleasant social contacts offers additional enticement for both parents and kids alike. As with any group endeavor, sporting activity offers kids the opportunity to hone their work ethic, their team spirit, and their dependability. No one wants to let their peers down, so kids learn the importance of following through on their commitments, and parents can reinforce the notion for their kids that the responsibility isn’t only to their team-mates, but actually to their own well-being, too.
And of course, kids bonded through the camaraderie of team sports often form fast friendships, and no exercycle can offer that.
THROUGH THICK & THIN:
You have time for what you make time for. Scheduling your child’s activity time into the day doesn’t mean that it won’t get set aside sometimes anyway, but that sort of dismissal is less likely to happen if it’s on the regular agenda. If you don’t want the work-out to get left out, don’t leave it to just be “worked in.”
Cederquist Medical Wellness Center