Why the Most Important Sports Star in Your Child’s Life Sits on the Bench

I was the slowest distance runner on my high school track team. In fact, the only way I could get a school record was when they finally made a running event so long, no one else on the team would compete. Sadly, I am faster in my forties than I was at age 15. I find a bit of odd consolation in this. Like high school, if I can just stay in the race long enough, no one else will be around to beat me.

These days, I stay in the race because I need to keep up with my child. I also have always felt that I needed to set an example of daily fitness and help her build that same habit. I want to be a good role model.

Yet being a good role model isn’t the most important role I can play. I actually do more for my child when I am sitting on the bench.

Research published by R.J. Brustad in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport showed that the most important thing I can do to help my child stay active isn’t in how many miles I rack up, its my beliefs, encouragement and support of my child’s activity.

This is good news, because pretty soon, she’s going to be faster than me.

Beliefs Make a Difference

In a study done by SpencerHall, mothers of children whose activity levels ranged from low to high were interviewed in order to better understand the relationship between the mothers’ attitudes toward physical activity and the activity level of their children.

“They may actually spend more time on [television and computer] than I think. Sometimes, I am so busy doing other things, that I’m just glad they’re safe in the house and quiet,” said one mom in the low activity group.

In contrast, a mom in the high activity level group had the opposite approach: “We do not allow any TV during the week. We just don’t. It’s not a fight, or a discussion, it just doesn’t come on until some specific shows on the weekend.”

Mothers with children who had a low activity level:

  • Did not consider their children’s activity a priority
  • Were more focused on just surviving a busy day than on long-term lifestyle impacts
  • Were often glad not to have the extra “burden” of driving children to organized sports
  • Family time was centered on “relaxation and rest.” Children were given free choice in how to relax, and most often opted for television or computer time
  • Often expected lower levels of activity from daughters rather than sons
  • Expressed fear of alienating their children by pushing them to be more active

Mothers with children who had a high activity level:

  • Tended to be active themselves
  • Felt that sports and activity were important for a child’s development
  • Enjoyed being involved in facilitating their children’s activity
  • Have more limits on time spent watching television or being on the computer

Ways to Encourage and Support Activity

Encouragement may be as simple as turning off the TV and saying, “Go play!” to indirect efforts to encourage interest in a new sport. One of the most powerful motivators is simply a vote of confidence from you. Children look to their parents to provide important feedback on their physical abilities.

Being there on the sidelines with a cheer is a bigger influence than you being the star goalie yourself. Often, parents who train and compete in their own sports have less time to spend being their kid’s fan and support crew. Here’s to you, bleacher moms.

Increasing concerns about safety have changed the focus of our kids’ activities from a neighborhood game in an unsupervised park to an organized team environment. This requires parental action to find the opportunities, and to provide support and transportation. Becoming a “soccer mom” can be pretty demanding, but there are some creative ways to fit in time for both you and your kids to be active.

I’ve run (slow) laps at the school track while my child was training for swim team to help us both get a work out in. Getting my young kid off the training wheels and going on a real bike was a big day for us both — she could now ride beside me while I took a jog. Community centers often offer low cost options. Some even offer adult classes at the same time as kids’ classes, or better yet activities you can do together! You can even try unconventional sports like synchronized swimming or fencing. En garde!

If organized activities are outside your budget or time allowance, there are a lot of fun, flexible options like home workout DVDs that are geared for kids and feature dance moves. In this, my child supports me by not laughing at my, um, “dancing.” Indeed, we don’t even need the DVD. For added comedy, we just play some music and we choreograph our own moves. No video-taking allowed. Seriously.

If you are as dance-impaired as myself, a long walk is good for both parents and kids, and a great time to talk together and connect. The dog likes this one, too.

Simply put, you don’t have to be a star athlete yourself to help your kids get moving. You don’t even have to be able to bust a move — or in my case, try not to bust a hip — you just have to be active in keeping your kids healthy.

Published on: February 11, 2014
About the Author
Photo of Beth Bader

Beth Bader is the coauthor with Ali Benjamin of the acclaimed book, The Cleaner Plate Club, designed to help parents understand picky eating behaviors; where they originate, and how to deal with them creatively to get kids to eat better.

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