What can we do to encourage our school-age son to get away from the television and computer screen and spend more time playing outdoors? We're getting worried about his health and fitness, and we'd like to know how we can motivate him to become more active. So far all of our "nagging" hasn't helped a bit. Can you suggest a more effective strategy?
When your child was a toddler, you probably felt like he was a perpetual-motion machine. Now that he's older and his attention span has increased, he's fallen prey to the lure of electronic media and the sedentary lifestyle they encourage. It's an increasingly common problem. Nowadays, far too many of our young people are exiting childhood and adolescence overweight and underactive.
What can you do about it? How do you launch a child into a healthy trajectory in this important area of his life? Basically in the same ways you promote any value that you care about: by modeling it yourself, by doing it with him and by encouraging him to do it on his own.
- Modeling physical activity. If you really believe in the importance of staying in shape, it's reasonable to expect that you'll invest a fair amount of time in a regular exercise program of your own. It will make all the difference in the world for your child to see you setting a good example in this regard. You can do this by joining a gym or buying fitness equipment to use at home – a treadmill or a set of free weights, for example. But an even more effective approach involves finding creative ways to work more physical activity into your daily routine. Let your child see you taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. If you have to run an errand that isn't too far away, walk or ride a bike (and have your son join you). Do your own yard work, and involve your child in these tasks as much as possible. When socializing with other families, consider options beyond merely talking and eating. Try walking or hiking together, or playing recreational sports such as tennis. And place limits on the amount of time designated for TV-viewing in your home.
- Doing physical activities as a family. Young children rarely turn down an opportunity to play a physical game with one or both parents. For older children and adolescents, these activities can play a huge role in establishing their identity as members of your family. So if you jog or walk, have your child join you. Tennis, golf and skiing can be enjoyable family pastimes if you have the resources to participate in them. Backyard games like badminton and volleyball can also be a lot of fun for you and your kids. When you go to the beach or park, bring along a ball or Frisbee as well as blankets and food. Plan vacations that include walking, swimming and other physical pursuits.
- Encouraging your child's physical activity. You can take a major step in this direction simply by limiting the amount of time your child is permitted to spend with the TV, the computer or the PlayStation. A maximum of no more than two hours a day is a good rule of thumb. When your son arrives home from school, help him make time for some kind of physical activity before plowing into his homework. When buying birthday or Christmas presents, think about gifts that will promote exercise, such as a tennis racket or a baseball glove. Encourage participation in school physical-education classes and programs even if this isn't your child's strong suit. If he has trouble keeping up, take an active role in helping him improve his performance.
While competitive sports can have many benefits for children, we'd like to add a few cautions. They also have the potential to cause physical injury, generate considerable stress or permanent emotional scars and nourish negative attitudes, such as elitism, hostility and an obsession with winning. We'd advise you to keep this in mind as you attempt to help your child find a physical outlet that's suited to his particular needs, interests and capabilities. You may have loved Little League, but he may prefer soccer. If the sport or activity you choose becomes a thorn in his side or constantly drains him of energy and joy, you'll need to reconsider. It has to be something that he considers fun. Otherwise, he'll end up hating it and you will have lost an opportunity to provide him with the exercise he so desperately needs.
If you would like to discuss these points at greater length with a member of our staff, don't hesitate to call Focus on the Family's Counseling department.
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