It would be safe to say that sports are an important part of our culture. They dominate the TV schedule, fill our stadiums, drive a multibillion-dollar industry, afford college degrees, and keep us all entertained in the process. And while I think kids do benefit from watching professional athletes’ triumphs and defeats, these examples are inspirational only to a certain extent. By the time a sports star is crowned a “role model”, the work which they had put into their success had been reduced to a sixty-second montage. If they are kissing their trophies and medals it means that the dirty work had already been done. It means that the grueling struggle of pacing yourself, of watching your competitors beat you fair and square, of making progress, of making choices—the serious emotional effort that goes into willing the body to perform—had already been exerted. Thus, the role models to whose whims we entrust our children’s impressionable eyes and ears are nothing more than a packaged product—the homogenized and pasteurized carton with a picture on it. Watching their favorite player succeed teaches kids what a healthy body, success, and fame look and feel like. But it doesn’t teach them what it takes to achieve such results.
I know what you are thinking; we aren’t all raising professional athletes. Yet, we’d be hard pressed to find a parent who isn’t trying to make sure they raise healthy kids. In fact the “healthy children” debate occupies a fair share of our media sphere. Just recently a mother’s courageous mission to put her daughter on a diet has won her a feature in Vogue and a good doze of subsequent hate mail. We are very involved in making sure that our kids are fit. We are serious about sports at school as well as after school. My mother, a math teacher at a private New Jersey high school, finds herself in a losing battle with her students’ coaches over time spent on math vs. sports. Between games, meets, tournaments, and practices, academics must sometimes be squeezed into halftimes and changeovers.
You would think that with so much devotion to sports (as fans or as active participants) kids in our culture would not be labeled unhealthy. Yet, the child obesity numbers don’t get any better from year to year. Which leaves me (and hopefully many others) wondering what, exactly, are we doing wrong?
But a similar question can be asked about our failing test scores and schools. Should we leave the success of our children in the hands of their teachers and role models, or should we have at least a partial say in the matter? Perhaps it’s not enough to expect the school to do all the work. We may need to keep a close tab on what our children are and aren’t learning. And perhaps it is up to us to fill in the academic gaps where we do see them. Similarly, it’s not enough to send our children to schools that offer a healthy lunch;it’s still our job to make sure that the rest of their day doesn’t go down the drain when we decide to offer them doughnuts and cupcakes! Finally, it may not be enough to sign them up for school sports or leagues and expect those activities to turn our kids into strong, long-term athletes. We may have to model for them what a healthy and active lifestyle is like. This is a tough sell, given everything else that we must somehow find time to teach them. But if we don’t do it, who will?
Of course it’s hard to get up an hour early to get to the gym. And yes, it’s more appealing to relax on the weekend instead of running a couple of laps in the park. But kids will view being active differently if they see that it is something their parents are taking seriously. They will cheer you on when you announce a good workout and they will tell you that you’ll do better next time if you confide in them your disappointments. If you take them with you, they will try to keep pace and will be infinitely proud of you for how good you are (even though you might not be very good at all). But most importantly, they will see that you take the time to care for your body and your health and they will hopefully want to follow suit.
We may not inspire our children to beat records and gather trophies. But we may be able to offer them a lifestyle conducive to making accomplishments. And while a sporting event they watch on TV might get them off the couch and into a gymnastics program, it won’t be enough to encourage them to work hard and to improve. A family sports ethic, however, will do just that: everybody eats, everybody sleeps, and everybody sweats.
How do you show your kids that exercise is important? And what do you think about professional athletes as role models for kids?