Parents are in a unique position to influence the health of their children. Parents set the stage for health behaviors, provide reinforcement for such behavior, and serve as emotional supports in the behavior change process. In an intervention, parents can serve three roles: providing support, serving as role models, and setting limits.
Most children like to be active, but often something more is needed to make it happen. Parents can provide tangible assistance, sometimes called instrumental support, for children to engage in physical activities. In order to find a safe place to ride a bike, it might be necessary to drive the child to a park or field. Enrolling youth in sport programs or paying for tennis lessons can also aid in the child’s quest for an active life. Family support is important for sustaining a child’s interest in activity. Attending games, watching pickup play in the backyard, asking questions, and generally demonstrating interest add support to the youth’s participation in physical activity (Gustafson & Rhodes, 2006).
Active adults present a consistent and enduring reminder of the role of physical activity in health and happiness. Parents and guardians who participate in exercise or activity have children who are more likely to be active (Trost, Kerr, Ward, & Pate, 2001; Sallis et al., 1992). It is not important, however, to be athletic, to engage in any specialized sports, or to be a highly successful performer (Sallis, Prochaska, & Taylor, 2000). Regular walking (with the dog or with others), working in the yard, and doing living room calisthenics illustrate the role physical activity plays in the life of an adult. With the knowledge that role modeling might influence child behavior, negative behavior must be considered as well (Fogelholm, Nuutinen, Pasanen, Myöhänen, & Säätelä, 1999). Fathers who spend much of their time after work in front of the TV and mothers who do not have a regular physical activity pattern might present an adverse model for their offspring. Care should be taken to minimize negative role modeling. Parental involvement has been shown to be particularly relevant for girls, as evidenced by the impact of parental activity levels and parental encouragement. It has been shown that mothers provide greater support and facilitation for physical activity, while fathers tend to demonstrate personal involvement in the activity (Davison, Cutting, & Birch, 2003).
Although it seems logical that children who see active parents would be inclined to imitate them, demonstrated support for physical activity is more important. Work by Welk and colleagues (Welk, Wood, & Morss, 2003; Welk, 1999b) showed that parental facilitation, encouragement, and involvement were more important to a child’s physical activity participation than role modeling an active lifestyle. Role modeling was useful, but primarily as a function of support. More active parents tended to provide more support for the physical activities of their children (Gustafson & Rhodes, 2006).
Parents play important roles in a child’s activity level not only through promoting physical activity, but also through their efforts to minimize inactivity. Requiring a child to be active might, in the long run, be an ineffective way to create positive feelings about physical activity. It is often easier to set household rules or policies focusing on household objects that create inactivity than to try to force kids to be active. One example is to limit the amount of TV viewing allowed through a TV viewing policy. The average American child spends nearly 6 hours per day watching television and using other electronic media such as video games and computers (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999)! The relationship between inactivity and physical activity seems to be one of opposite behaviors. Decreasing the time spent in sedentary pursuits such as watching TV, playing computer games, or watching videos will surely provide more time for active pursuits. However, the choice between physical activity and sedentary pursuits seems to respond to different stimuli (Ford et al., 2002). Screen time plays a major role in the sedentary behavior of American youth. Parents and guardians can monitor and control children’s and adolescents’ access to the TV and computer; and, as already discussed, family-based programs to support such behaviors exist.