I write this knowing it’s a slightly loaded topic. And I’m the first to tell you as a parent how you choose to support your children to have a healthy lifestyle is 100% up to you. And…we have a situation in Canada. According to the 2016 Participaction Report Card, only 14% of 5-11 year olds, and 5% of 12-17 year olds are meeting the guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per day. And it’s not just about physical activity, we’re also seeing increased sedentary behaviours (read: screen time) and decreased quantity and quality of sleep. In fact, some experts are calling it a “sleepidemic”…Did you know that 31% of school-aged children and 26% of adolescents in Canada are sleep deprived?
Those are staggering numbers.
And ones I think we can all agree as parents we’d like to see changed. We know that moving more, sitting less, and getting good quality and quantity of sleep is essential to good health – and this is especially true for children! Because they not only need movement, nutrition and sleep for good development – they’re in the process of developing life-long skills and habits. But in the age of screens and distractions everywhere you turn, how do you motivate your kids? How do you get them off the couch, away from the screens and moving more…without being total nags?
Important note: this blog is not intended to shame you (I hope by now you “get” that shame and guilt aren’t my bag). But rather, I want to help give you some ideas, strategies and tools to help your family be healthy and well!
As a mom and as an educator who has worked with children and families to support an active healthy lifestyle here are my top tips:
1. Lead with love.
I know sappy and cheesy but it’s true. Don’t push them to do what you love, help them find what they love. I know this can be hard. I love to run and do triathlon – but when my kids didn’t like running at first I had to be ok with it! They’ve found their passion in soccer and swimming and I’m so thrilled about that. Plus it’s been fun to join in the fun!
2. No guilt and no shame.
I could give you a tonne of research on this one (ask if you’re interested). While guilt and shame can be moderately effective short term motivators they are destructive long term. Guilt and shame trigger up the self-critic and lower self-esteem and self-efficacy (two things that are critical to being motivated). Instead encourage them to be kind and compassionate with themselves. When they struggle (because they will, we ALL do), encourage them to focus on what they can do and build from there. If you notice them being self-critical or too hard on themselves you could even be playful about it “hey, don’t be so hard on _____ (fill in their name), I think they’re awesome!” Bring some levity and fun to struggle and help them embrace it as part of the process.
3. Celebrate don’t bribe.
Please, please, please no bribing either. I get it, rewards work. It’s why we use them. But they can be quite counter-productive to building a strong foundation of a healthy relationship with physical activity. It is especially important that we don’t bribe with food. Food is for nourishment (of the body and soul) it is not a reward. Bribing with food (if you do this we can get an ice cream) it sets up a very unproductive relationship with food. But you can celebrate with food. “I loved how hard you worked – I really had fun with you doing ____, lets go for ice cream and celebrate our fun afternoon!”
4. Make movement a non-negotiable, but empower them to choose.
Make moving a non-negotiable in your family culture. As a family we are committed to moving our bodies for at least 60-minutes per day, most days and also moving and playing whenever we have the chance. But HOW we each do it – is up to us! Help your kids explore all the many ways they can move their body – and make use of free and low-cost resources in your community to do so!
Just be careful not to make it a chore – just because we’re aiming for 60-minutes per day – doesn’t mean it needs to be arduous (in fact…hello, BUZZKILL)…keep it FUN! Getting stuck? Help your kids brainstorm some fun activities they can do and post them somewhere they’ll see daily! Active transportation is a wonderful way to get in some daily steps and gets your kids to school wiggles out and ready to learn! Find your own unique balance of organized and casual/ fun/ play that encourages physical literacy* and works for your family!
*Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.
Final note here: I hope it goes without saying, that we also need to honour our bodies when they are telling us we need to rest. If your child (or you) are totally exhausted and need a day without that 60-minutes it’s ok to take it! Much like nutrition isn’t about how you eat in one day – the benefits of movement are about how you move most of the time. Listen, honour and challenge yourself (and encourage your kids to use this philosophy too!)
5. Help them be a body scientist!
Educate them about the importance of physical activity and how to take care of their body (nutrition and sleep too!). Help them understand how their body works – so they can be empowered to take care of it! The more they view their body as a super cool experiment the more they will be likely to take care of it!
6. Encourage curiosity.
Ask questions: how did that go? did you enjoy it? what was your favourite part?… encouraging them to be mindfully present to how they feel about what they’re doing can be a powerful step in engaging a practice of mindfulness and connection to the body.
7. Be encouraging.
Be an active cheerleader and a raving fan – they need you to be their biggest supporter. Help them focus on the attributes that made their play/ performance awesome. When asked what they loved hearing most from their parents after events, most accomplished athletes said they most appreciated their parents comments on how they looked like they were having fun or they loved how hard they worked. Performance can be finicky – we all have good and bad days – if they’re in organized sport make sure you’re focusing on their attributes and performance process not the performance outcomes.
8. Be a compassionate coach.
Coaching involves giving correction and tweaking technique – AND very few of us are receptive to that feedback if we feel torn down. Think of how you feel when you receive feedback. If your boss just gave you a list of all the things you were doing wrong, how would you feel? What if he “pumped your tires” first by commenting on what you’re doing well, would you respond differently to the constructive criticism? Yeah, your kid does too. Everyone does.
If you are coaching your kids (either formally or informally) – or really anyone – keep this in mind. It may feel like “fluff” but it’s really important to your child’s self-esteem and self-efficacy. Coaching your kids is a delicate art – and doesn’t work for many families. So find the balance that works for yours. And if your child doesn’t seem to be responding to your coaching and they’re keen to be coached, get an “outside” coach involved to support their efforts.
9. Be a role model.
Show them what it looks like to lead a healthy active lifestyle yourself! And encourage them to notice all the many ways people lead an active lifestyle – there are many ways to be healthy, being healthy long term is about them finding their unique approach that leads with fun and joy!
10. Move as a family.
Get out and try new things. Be active with your kids in both formal and informal ways. Some of my best memories of being active as a kid are with my parents doing things. If you have your own challenges to being physically active get creative and find ways to get past them.
Have fun, move more as a family, lead by example, encourage a healthy relationship with physical activity and fitness and your children will be active and healthy for life!
Did you find this blog helpful? You might really enjoy my upcoming Body Positive Parenting Course with Registered Dietitian Jenn Messina. You can learn more here. We’re taking a deep dive into tried and tested strategies, tools and tips to help you navigate these tricky waters and help your kids be happy, healthy and body empowered!