Role Models Critical in Children's Lives

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UW Health Pediatric Fitness and the Importance of Role Models for KidsMADISON – We've all heard the saying, "Do as I say, not as I do." And while parents may say that more out of exasperation, the truth is that in many ways, what parents do has far greater impact on a child than what they say.

Randy Clark, UW Health manager of the Exercise Science Laboratory and Pediatric Fitness Clinic, knows quite well the important role that parents and adults play in a child's life. As a parent and former physical education teacher, coach and camp counselor, he's been a role model for a number of kids.

"Kids are like sponges," he said. "They absorb what's around them and they are desperate for positive role models. And, the biggest role models in any child's life are his or her parents."

Clark cited the role models in his own life, which include his own parents and a camp director for whom he once worked.
"I was lucky to have really positive role models," Clark commented.

The reason role models are so critical in children's lives, Clark went on to explain, is that children learn by observing those around them: how to behave, how to deal with problems, how to interact with others. Some parents don't realize just how significant their role is.

"It really starts at home. But parents don't always appreciate the impact they have on their child's life," he said.

The challenge is that when parents are sedentary, quite often their children are too. Same goes for poor eating habits. And an unhealthy lifestyle can have lifelong consequences.

"We see kids in the clinic that have health problems once mainly found in adults," Clark said. "High blood pressure, diabetes, even early heart disease. And these kids may be 10 or 12 years old. It's one of the first generations in which children's life-spans will be less than that of their parents if these problems continue."

Lifestyles today make it challenging to bring activity into the daily routine. Remote controls, fast food, computers, video games, even the way cities are designed make it easy not to move around. Couple that with parents who no longer feel public spaces are safe for kids to play and it's a recipe for trouble. 

"One of the most shocking experiences I've had as a professional is when a parent told me they didn't want their child to go outside or to the park because it's not safe," commented Clark.

He related stories of his own childhood, which were filled with pick-up games of football, wiffle ball, capture the flag, kick the can or other games with neighborhood kids.

"When I got called in for dinner," Clark laughed, "I'd just be squirming in my chair until I could get back outside again."

He continued by explaining that today, it's often either organized sport or empty playground, not the free play of generations passed.

"It's almost counter-intuitive to think about children being sedentary, but families have to make a conscious effort to involve activity in the daily routine of today's world," he concluded.

For parents who are trying to balance work with family, along with the daily pressures of finances and other obligations, it can be easy to sink into a routine of quick dinners and nights filled with errands. And sometimes the effects can sneak up on them, when they realize their own clothes aren't fitting as well, or they can't recall when they last sat down for a meal as a family. That's when they realize they need a kick-start to get back on the right path.

For some, the kick start may require significant lifestyle changes. For most, however, change can be relatively easy but it takes a commitment from the whole family.

"You can't single a child out and tell them 'you can't eat this or that'," said Clark. "or tell them to go take a walk when you're sitting watching television."

Just as working together as a family is important, so is finding activities that everyone enjoys and involving kids in the discussion.

"When we design exercise programs at the [Pediatric Fitness] clinic, we ask the kids to help us come up with realistic goals – what do you like to do, with whom do you enjoy spending the time and how realistic is it that you'll do it often,” explained Clark. "Parents can use a similar principle at home. And what they might find is that it's something as simple as walking the dog together as a family after dinner."

When it comes to creating healthy meals, the Pediatric Fitness Clinic's website provides healthy, easy and fun kid-friendly recipes. There is also information about ways to incorporate activity into your lifestyle including walking, biking, dancing, even raking leaves.

"Our goal at the clinic is to be a resource for families where they can learn easy and fun healthy habits for life," commented Clark.

Clark acknowledged that parents have a tremendous responsibility, but he concluded, "Parents are the single most important influence in their child's life. Teaching them healthy lifestyle habits is one of the most important things parents can do."

Date Published: 10/08/2008

News tag(s):  pediatric fitness

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