(dailyRx News) It's easy to blame the preponderance of cheap technology and fun gadgets as the reason for today's children not getting enough physical activity. But parents have more power to influence their kids' activity levels than they may realize.
Two studies from the University of Oregon reveal that parents' style of parenting and the extent to which they encourage their young children to actively play can have an impact on whether kids put down video controllers and explore the great outdoors.
The studies were led by David P. Schary, a PhD candidate in the Program in Exercise and Sport Science at OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences in the School of Biological and Population Health Sciences.
In the first study, Schary and colleagues found that parents with an "authoritative" style of parenting had kids who spent less screen time each day than kids whose parents had other parenting styles.
The second found that parents had a significant influence on how much physical activity versus screen time or sitting time kids got.
The researchers conducted an online survey of 201 parents who had at least one child between 2 and 5 years old. The survey asked a variety of questions from a standard child rearing questionnaire that aimed to assess parents' warmth, level of control and irritability.
Their responses were used to classify them into one of four different parenting styles: authoritative (high warmth and control), authoritarian (controlling, less warm), permissive (warm, low control) and neglectful (low control and warmth).
The parenting styles were fairly well distributed across the respondents.
They also asked about how much time was spent on different activities to assess children's amount of sedentary time each day, which included both screen time and time spent in quiet play, such as working a puzzle or reading.
Screen time included video games, phone use, television watching, computer use or any other viewing of an electronic screen.
The results revealed that kids tended to spend an extra 30 minutes in front of a screen on weekdays if their parents were identified as "permissive," and kids whose parents were overly strict or who were not as involved with their children also spent more time sitting.
Authoritative parents' kids spent an average 4 hours sedentary each day, while the number for permissive parents was 4.5 hours. Authoritarian parents' kids spent 4.3 hours and neglectful parents' kids spent 4.2 hours sedentary.
“A half an hour each day may not seem like much, but add that up over a week, then a month, and then a year and you have a big impact,” Schary said.
“One child may be getting up to four hours more active play every week, and this sets the stage for the rest of their life.”
The finding that most concerned Schary was that all the children were sitting for too many hours each day - and they spent an extra hour a day sitting on weekends.
“Across all parenting styles, we saw anywhere from four to five hours a day of sedentary activity,” Schary said. “This is waking hours, not including naps or feeding. Some parents counted quiet play – sitting and coloring, working on a puzzle, etc. – as a positive activity, but this is an age where movement is essential.”
One solution to the sedentary behavior of kids appeared to put the ball in the parents' court, based on Schary's other study.
The other study, using data from the same 201 parents, found that kids were more active if their parents actively supported playing. This included parents who played with kids themselves as well as parents who simply watched their children play or drove them to activities.
Basically, Schary and his colleagues found that any level of parent encouragement had an impact on their children's level of physical activity.
To Thomas M. Seman, MD, the president of North Shore Pediatrics and Boston Magazine's "Best of Boston Pediatrician" in 2005, these findings are not surprising.
"For years we have been recommending to parents that they need to be more proactive about decreased television watching and quiet play time," he said. "Parents make the difference as they are the ones who set the rules and establish the standards of what is right and wrong in the house."
He said that even though children want to see their parents practicing what they preach, a child will still do what a parent requests them to do.
"A child will go outside to play as it is their basic nature. Those preschoolers who are sitting down and watching TV have essentially been trained to do so by not being parented to go out and play," Dr. Seman said.
"The child will naturally follow the lead of the adult since the early preschoolers love to imitate the adults in whatever they are doing."
Dr. Seman recommends that children get no more than one to two hours of screen time a day and that parents get active with their children, which has the added bonus of enhancing bonding and offering teaching moments. It also gives children the chance to learn their own lessons and "figure out the world" through activity and curiosity.
He also suggests reading to children at bedtime each night and, after they have started to read, having children read for 15 to 30 minutes a day.
And if your child doesn't want to comply?
"Be firm when they say no," Dr. Seman said. "You are still the parent who makes the rules. Your rules are the guidelines that build the character, behavior and habits of your child that you would like him or her to have for the rest of his or her life."
The study was published online June 21 in the journal Early Child Development and Care. The study was internally funded, and there were no disclosures by the authors.