Everyone wants their kids to be sporty. We all know the health benefits, as well as the social and educational merits of keeping the family active, out in the community and competing in a controlled and responsible environment. Sport is good for kids. It’s no less good for grown-ups, of course. But the realities of a busy work-life – not to mention those pesky kids – can make it just a little bit tricky sometimes to set the perfect example.
The trouble is, ‘do as I say, not as I do’ has been proven time and time again to be the second rate approach to good parenting. If you eat badly, smoke, drink too much and fail to exercise properly, there is every chance that you will be damaging your kids by setting them up for a life that is based on – yep – unhealthy eating, drinking and recreations generally. The effects of those things on you are a different story. You can worry about that for yourself.
This is about the kids.
If that sounds a bit harsh, that’s because it’s meant to. As a parent there are only a few basic bottom-line criteria you have to hit. No one is asking you to be SuperMom or even anything more than a Half-decent Dad, but you do have a lifetime responsibility to give your kids at least a chance of a healthy adulthood. Lounging around in front of the TV with a beer or a glass of wine and a box of chocolates in your hand is not the best way to model that.
The trouble is that a lot of adult sports are out of sight for your kids. If they just see you disappearing out of the house to go and play tennis or to hit the gym, all they’re going to know about is what you look like from the back and how the door sounds when you shut it behind you.
The positive modelling has to come from you being and doing. That means, it’s not enough to just tell the kids that you’re heading out on your bike, or taking your clubs to the golf course and that you’ll see them for a pizza at dinner time. It comes from actually finding a way – which means finding the time – to play with them.
Remember sport with the kids is not just for the holidays.
You can feel a parental glow of self-pride every time you ferry the kids to the swimming pool or the soccer pitch, but in truth that is only half the job. If that’s the end of your involvement with the kids’ sporting lives you might as well just start up a taxi firm and have done. If we think about that in terms of what sort of a parental model that sets up, it is one that puts a massive divide between adults and kids. Think about it, if you’re off doing your thing on a Saturday afternoon, after you’ve sorted out the kids on a Saturday morning, what sort of a family does that describe?
Much better is to get in to the pool with them, or to take them with you to the golf course. OK it might take a while to get them up to speed – nobody said parenting was a sacrifice-free zone – but it will be worthwhile in all sorts of ways.
Firstly you’ll be hands on with your kids. Any progress they make will be down to you. That’s a massive feel good. At the same time, they’ll get to see you as someone who actually knows something. If you can hit the ball 200 yards further than they can they will only be impressed. What’s more, they’ll be doubly motivated to learn how to do it for themselves. There is no competition like getting one over on your old man for the first time.
You might have the biggest win of your life with a bet on golf but the sense of achievement and satisfaction you’ll get from seeing your young tyro starting to chip away at his or her handicap will be out of all proportion to any cash return. Of course if you’re as clever as Rory McIlroy’s old man you’ll put a bet down that will pay out once he’s won the British Open and you’ll cop for the best of both worlds. That sort of satisfaction doesn’t come as standard. In fact it is the most extreme example of getting a return on your parenting investment, but that shouldn’t be any reason to devalue the less easily accounted for benefits.
Golf is the perfect example of a game that you can play alongside your kids, both with and against them. If you think in terms of rugby or soccer, or riding a bike or going for a run then it’s pretty hard to be able to compete head to head. Soccer star Wayne Rooney is unlikely to play against his son competitively. Anything that involves a measure of strength of stamina will see you winning all-too easily. Tennis is probably as good a parallel as you could find.
Anything that entails a natural handicap is the perfect way for a cross generational parallel play. And golf put that down in an incontestable, up front and entirely egalitarian way. Sorting out the mixed doubles pairing between a family of four may be one way to approach it, but the idea that you can compete head to head from day one – assuming competition is what floats your boat – can bring a spice to your sporting relations that will sustain the kids’ interest and keep them outdoors wanting to get better.
And capturing that interest and sustaining it isn’t as easy as it sounds. That’s how people end up leaving the kids dumped in soccer school or the swimming pool whilst we go off and do our own thing.
The reason golf is featuring so prominently in this piece is because it involves spending so much quality time together. It’s not just about the sport. Being outdoors, together with something to talk about that isn’t the state of the bedroom or the way they get on with their younger sister is how relationships are forged. That’s why so much business still gets done on the golf course. If it works for international middle managers, it works for your little treasures just as well.
There are alternatives.
Golf is just the best example I can think of. Riding a bike is another great way to share the experience of being outdoors together. Whether it’s mountain bike skills sessions or touring on the road, there is no substitute for getting the kids out of the house and working up a sweat.
More and more there are mountain bike skills courses that you can both take part in – they’re surprisingly cheap – and they’ll not only give you skills that will enhance the safety aspect of riding a bike, they’ll also open up all sorts of fun you didn’t know you had it in you to achieve. What’s more, in terms of making the kids feel good about themselves, you can guarantee that whatever it is that you start together, you will pick it up slower and probably less well than your youngster.
That’s not the issue, though. Remember, the competition in this relationship is a means to an end. It’s not the be all and end all. We’ve all seen the over competitive parent who insists on driving home the ‘school of hard knocks’ rationale into their unfortunate offspring, or going to the ends of the earth in order to beat them. That’s not the way to go about it.
Kids like winning every bit as everybody else. Sport without any competitive edge is a bit of an oxymoron but where you put the winning and losing in the overall picture is up to you. We are all different, after all. The important thing, however, is to remember the bigger picture. The point at issue is the health and well-being of your kids.
Serial studies throughout the Western world point to an epidemic of ill health caused by our over indulgent and under exercised lifestyles. Obesity, diabetes and a host of cardio vascular complaints are all on the rise, and all are all too quickly traceable to what we eat and drink and – most importantly – how we spend our leisure times.
In February 2014 the British Health and Social Care Information Centre released a report on Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet. Its findings make sobering reading. The level of obesity in children aged 2-15 rose between 1995 and 2012 from 11% boys and 12% girls to 17% and 16%, respectively. Below the level of fully defined obesity over a third of all children were identified as overweight. The same report suggested that the level of obesity amongst the wider population is also on the rise. Needless to say the HSCIC report is just one of many currently available.
These hard figures should stand as salutary warnings to us all as parents. Overweight children are a sign of failing parents. We shouldn’t allow it to happen to our kids. The PlayStation and the IPad may be compulsive viewing and the TV may be magnetic but it is our job as parents to get them off the settee and out into the great big world out there.
The physical benefits should speak for themselves, and likewise the fact that we need to join in as well as to model good, active behaviours. But there is another secret side to this that we’ve all experienced for ourselves at one point or another, but which are less often brought out into the open.
Exercise is good for the mind just as much as it is for the body. For all it is relatively easy for government agencies to measure the state of our children’s weight there is no measure put on their mental health. The stigma that still surrounds mental illness makes this an unpalatable subject for discussion – especially when it concerns young people – but physical exercise is proven to do wonders for a positive mental outlook. That means keeping nightmares such as depression, anxiety and all that goes with them at bay.
The flip side to this gloomy view is that being physically fit and healthy has been shown to produce educational and social benefits. If what we’re talking about is maximising our kids’ chances of leading healthy, happy and productive lives once they fly the nest then ensuring the optimal conditions for them to thrive in are something to take seriously.
How we go about that is a matter for personal choice and there are plenty of alternatives to the activities described already: martial arts, hiking, orienteering, sailing, badminton, dance, horse riding, climbing, skateboarding or scootering. There are plenty of ways to keep this particular cat skinny. The important thing, though, is that we don’t just talk the talk.
As parents it is our jobs to walk the walk for an extra mile. It does mean using up some of your own time, and it can put the brakes on your own sporting interests – at least temporarily, but as they say in the workout videos no pain equals no gain.
So the next time you find yourself settling down into your favourite armchair, just take a look around and see what your example is doing for the kids. If they’ve learned to settle down in the same sedentary way as the default way to pass their time, it may well be that you will want to see if there is anything else you might do. Your kids will thank you for it in the long run.