Too many American children are lethargic. They lack what it takes to succeed — and they don’t seem to care.
This dearth of motivation shows up in numerous ways — at school, in their television viewing habits, in their eating habits, and in their fitness (or lack thereof).
More than a quarter of students never graduate from high school — and the average American child watches 35 hours of TV a week.
More than 40 percent of our students are perpetually disengaged during school, according to a report from the National Research Council, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. More than a quarter of students never graduate high school. The average American child watches 35 hours of television a week (as much as a full-time job in France). And childhood obesity rates have quadrupled in the last 30 years, from 5 percent to 21 percent.
Most recently, researchers from the University of North Dakota studied aerobic fitness levels of 1.1 million children from 50 different countries. American children ranked 47 out of 50; Canada, just across the border, ranked 19.
What is going on here? And what can parents do about it?
The bottom line could have something to do with willpower. Constant consumption of television is akin to instant gratification and erodes willpower. A diet lacking in nutritious foods can lead to mood swings, poor focus, and behavior problems. Lack of regular exercise promotes more sedentary habits.
But making small changes in each of these areas can have big results.
[lz_bulleted_list title=”U.S. High School Dropout Rate” source=”http://www.dosomething.org”]Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in this country alone. That’s a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day.|The U.S., which had some of the highest graduation rates of any developed country, now ranks 22nd out of 27 developed countries.[/lz_bulleted_list]
Grant Tomkinson, a professor of public health education at the University of North Dakota, said families need to become more aware of informal sports and opportunities for physical activity. It’s common for kids to participate in organized sports when they’re younger because the focus is on participation and not necessarily competition, he said. “But as you get older, you have to rise through the ranks and be an elite athlete early on or specialize in a certain sport in order to stay relevant or competitive. And the others just fall by the wayside.”
If you don’t make the high school team — you don’t play sports. Only wealthier families can afford the thousands of dollars each year to participate in club sports teams.
You don’t have to participate in an organized sport to be physically active, of course. An informal game of basketball or soccer at the park will do, said Tomkinson. Going on a family walk after dinner instead of watching TV could also help. “Whenever possible, kids need to get at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise each day,” he said. This exercise should include running, swimming, or cycling — anything that focuses on the big muscle groups.
Fitness levels and obesity are correlated statistics, so nutrition is another important aspect of instilling willpower and a healthy lifestyle in children. However, if your child is accustomed to eating chicken nuggets and barbecue sauce for most dinners, you’re going to face an uphill battle if you try to introduce raw broccoli.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of disguising the healthy food,” said certified personal fitness trainer Alex Haschen, based in Maryland. If you can disguise the broccoli in a broth soup or vegetable curry, your kids might have an easier time eating it. Haschen is founder of iamboost.com, a fitness and nutrition website that educates kids about healthy living. He recommends including children in food preparation so they can begin to understand why healthier choices are better for our bodies.
Haschen also says it’s important to talk to kids about emotional eating and fullness cues. “We don’t need to eat until our stomachs are distended or it’s hard to breathe. That’s too much food. Find that point where you’re satiated and you feel comfortable.”
Children must learn how to delay gratification for worthy, long-term goals. Dr. David Popple, a New York-based psychologist and president of Psynet Group, said children are incapable of comparing a short-term benefit to a long-term gain. He recommends parents use immediate rewards to teach this principle.
“Praise decisions in which children delay gratification,” he told LifeZette. “My father used to reward how many free throws I made. Every day I made 100 free throws, I received a mark and could turn 10 of them in for a reward. The main idea is that children cannot comprehend rewards that are too far into the future; the behavior we want must be rewarded in the short term.”
Ultimately, our kids’ willpower rests with decisions their parents make, said Tomkinson. Beyond fitness and nutrition, we need to “think about family based solutions.” Whether it’s playing sports in the backyard, eating nutritious food, or setting long-term fitness goals, “doing things together as a family is a great way to model the right behavior.”