A cautionary tale… please read to the end. I commend each and every parent that encourages a healthy lifestyle and physical activity for their children. I deplore the habit that has become more and more prevalent with kids found with alarming frequency sitting on their posterior while some form of electronic babysitter absorbs their attention and they develop the sedentary habits of their elders. I had the misfortune of observing the results of those habits in the last few months in more than one geographic area as I saw children… yes children… not teens or tweeners but actual children of no where close to puberty that I approximated as outweighing my own considerable bulk. I’ve gone back and forth on the obesity as child abuse argument, but in extreme cases, I can definitely see their point. I also observed in the same proximity that the parents probably weren’t going to find any concern with the pattern in question because they had already given up that particular battle themselves. And so it went with mom, dad, and two or more young ones who were huffing and puffing along with effort… in order to sit… yes sit upon the expanse of beach. No running up and down. No surf jumping or body surfing. No gleeful squeals as they built a creative castle or sand sculpture. Zero activity, until it was lunch or snack time when copious amounts of processed snack foods and sugary drinks were handed out. Honestly, I get it. It is vacation. Kids should be able to enjoy their life. I don’t watch these people 365 days a year, and this may be a treat… but I’m guessing not. If it were only one group of this general description, I could probably feel concern or sorrow, but this was literally every other family I observed over a recent patriotic holiday season at the seaside. I am by no means a svelte individual, willowy and ephemeral. I believe I have described my own physique more than once, but observing this sort of situation makes me twitch a bit. I’m trying to avoid being judgmental. I really don’t know any of the observed families, their genetics, their health histories, or their regular habits. I am making assumptions (like ya do) based on superficial observation. The problem is that I know that while I might question my own assumptions and try to look past to find answers and other attributes, the rest of the world does not. What are these parents setting their kids up for in the future. As I mentioned, children are more sedentary than when I was younger. There are a lot more electronic reasons to sit on one’s butt and be still. While many parents would call this some “@#$ @%$# peace and quiet!” it really isn’t the best or most natural thing for a child to do for so much of the time. Additionally, I’ve been made aware that children don’t have as much physical activity planned into their school schedules. If the child isn’t an athlete, they may not get more than an hour of physical movement in a day. Even when they return home, they are often from a young age given homework to keep them busy all evening, or if they do not, the electronic babysitters probably get hold of them until dinner. I’m making generalizations (before any of the parents out there start screaming at me that they aren’t like that). I know not everyone participates in this same pattern. I’ve got friends who literally make their kids go outside and do something active. And that sorta makes me scratch my head… Why?!? Why is this something a parent has to make them do? When I was a kid, they couldn’t get me to come inside (especially in the summer) until after dark on occasion. No one made me go run around outside or play. The only sedentary activity that might occur was reading, and sometimes even then, they couldn’t get me to do it inside, because if weather permitted, I would much rather do the reading out in the sun and air. I have to wonder what changed. When did playing outside become a chore? However, my “Dear Parents,” wasn’t only about my ponderings about what has happened to physical activity with children today. I come now to the other side of the argument. Again, I absolutely commend parents who encourage physical activity. I applaud them for setting examples and helping their children develop an interest in physical fitness and exercise. I think that it is wonderful when children express an interest in activity, exercise, and want to even “workout” (though, I still think that full body building activity doesn’t need to start before they’ve even hit puberty… seriously people). BUT… You totally heard that coming, didn’t you? Please … PLEASE do not let children around exercise equipment unattended. There. I have said it. I personally do not believe that children below a certain age belong in a gym. I happen to belong to a gym where the corporate policy is to not allow children. There is a reason, but they caught an enormous amount of flack for making that policy. There are, I know, people who would disagree with them and me. They would say that with supervision children can learn to use equipment and weights and develop healthy habits that will follow them for the rest of their lives… blah, blah, blah. And chances are, they would totally miss that part of their argument that is frequently… well… missing. Supervision. It is one thing for a parent who has a responsible, well-behaved child with them and is engaging them the whole time and supervising them at every step, but that is not what often occurs. As you might expect, incidents have come to my notice rather unpleasantly in recent history to prompt this particular post. I will share with you two of the most glaring. Both incidents occurred at a hotel fitness center. I travel quite a bit for work these days, and because I am not always where I can conveniently access a branch of my own gym, I try to book lodgings in hotels that do have fitness centers. The quality of the equipment can vary drastically, but it usually will suffice for my basic fitness requirements. The first “incident” occurred when I had gone down to the fitness center which, in this case, was more than adequate. They had relatively heavy duty cardio equipment, free weights, and some decent multifunction resistance machines. The problem was that there were three children between the ages of 8 and 12 years old in the center with no visible supervising adults. There were, as it happens, sufficient options in the center for me to have my workout with the children in there. It wasn’t my first choice, but I could do it. However, about the time I was entering the facility, the eldest of the three misused and caused a malfunction in one of the machines that took it out of commission (he broke it… yep, one of his younger siblings also managed to misplace one of the little metal bar doodads that allows you to adjust the weight on the machine, fun times). I chose not to have my workout in the fitness center at that time. Perhaps I should have immediately reported the incident, but I waited to give the miscreants time to get clear. I’m no snitch. The kids removed themselves post haste to avoid getting caught, and I was eventually able to use the fitness center without being blamed for any of the mishandling myself, though unable to use any of the resistance and weight training equipment since it was effectively disabled for the foreseeable future. In the second situation, the outcome was a bit more scary. Again, I went to the fitness center; this time a little less large, the equipment a bit more Spartan. Upon reaching the door, I see two young boys, perhaps 8 and 6 years. I groaned inwardly as again I saw no supervisory adult. I just wanted to get in my workout and go deal with some additional prep work before meetings in the morning. I decided this time to brave it. I started my own cardio on one of the elliptical machines. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. It was too fast to have done anything to prevent. The youngest was playing with the treadmill (without the little safety clip attached to him in any way). He had been just riding it back, walking up, and riding it to the end. At some point he must have touched the wrong button, and the spinning tread shot the kid back catching a small foot in the handrails where they attach to the base and I heard (or imagined I heard) a slight pop… and then the scream. My workout was done, but for the kid, there would be no activity of almost any sort for a while. I did the first aid thing and asked the older one… ok, I firmly told the older one to go get an adult. An annoyed, then frantic woman arrived, and off they went to the hospital. I had several thoughts cross my mind: 1) It was a card key access. Who gave these two not yet 10 year olds a card key and let them wander about the place (did I mention this place also had an indoor hot tub and lap pool? Think about that for a minute… also card key access)? 2) We live in a litigious society, would the “No Children without Adult Supervision” sign clearly posted on the door and walls actually protect the hotel? I think it is great to get kids interested in fitness. There are even gyms that are geared precisely for parents and children to workout together. But please… please… parents out there, supervise your children. Don’t let these kids put themselves in danger of injury or worse, or even damage equipment that the facility probably paid some decent sum to acquire and provide for guests. Dear parents, if you want your children to be healthy, happy, and active, take/make time to play or workout with them. They will likely appreciate that more in the long run anyway… and it will have the added bonus of getting you off your posterior as well. So, here endeth the lesson… it was a little harsh for the little dude and his parents, but perhaps not the worst that could have happened (remember that pool that was also card key accessible).
Most, if not all of us have heard the phrase “even bad attention is still attention.” This has been used to explain the delinquent behavior of youngsters possibly since the first humanoids started walking bipedally. “Mog act bad… Mother of child not give proper attention… Must give attention with club.”
Actually, it is more likely to have been attributed much later in the nature vs nurture argument by other patriarchal types, like Freud, who like any good Victorian, blamed all things wrong with a child on the mother. It seemed like a reasonable explanation at the time. Fast forward to modern day. It seems that every single report of criminal behavior at some point focuses the microscope on the childrearing behaviors of the perpetrator’s parental authorities (be they the actual biological parents or not).
Now, I am not saying that the responsibility of molding of our young breed does not actually start with the parental figures. If you believe in tabula rasa (which I do not, entirely), humans enter this world as a blank slate with boundless potential and opportunity for the adults in their life to completely screw up. Yep, I said it. However, as I previously insinuated, I might not buy into all that. Aside from biology and genetics, of which I do not think even the under-rock dwellers can completely discount at this point in scientific discovery; there is the whole “village raising the children” philosophy (thank you Hilary for plagiarizing an African proverb and removing responsibility from satellite families and giving them someone else to blame). The point being that there are a good many adults that have influence over any one child. There are parents, extended family, teachers, coaches, youth leaders, and a plethora of other individuals who come in contact with and have some impact on the experiences of the child. As we all know, we are, at least in part, a sum of our experiences. In fact, sometimes it isn’t even a family member or caretaker that has the most significant influence upon the child. Sometimes it is someone they do not even know, but through the power of the media or the synchronicity of some other exposure to that child’s fertile mind, perfect strangers, fictional characters, and professional athletes and entertainers can have easily as much influence over the development of our young as the parents or guardians who raise them.
So, about this attention thing; I heard it again this morning in some news story or other, probably on a true crime story in the wee hours (thank you insomnia). The most amusing part of the story was the irony that the reporter or writer or narrator never once saw in what they were saying. The tale was one of a modern day “Bonnie and Clyde”. Both of them were ruthless, party-obsessed, and addicted to drugs and each other. I heard the announcer say that the girl was neglected and abandoned as a child, and she found in the boy a willing supplicant who would care for her and meet every whim and wish. The boy, well, this is where I wonder that the writers did not see what they were saying. He was a well-loved child, raised by his mother with excellent opportunities and upbringing. He wanted for nothing growing up.
Ok. We’ve got “Bonnie” who had a crappy childhood, and “Clyde” who didn’t, and they both ended up being horrible human beings cooking, selling, and using meth and stabbing a friend to death with a kitchen knife. Let’s see now… was it too much attention or not enough. Is there some magical correct amount of attention that results in a well-balanced, honest, and successful human? If I could figure that out, I would not nearly be as concerned about paying my bills for a while. What is this mystical, magical calculation of what constitutes “just enough” attention to give a child?
I’ve heard all the old school comments and conjectures about sparing the rod and about how when women stayed at home and were mothers. Don’t even start with me. Seriously, who, in this day and age can afford to be a stay-at-home parent full time? It isn’t even a matter of the excesses or luxuries that make it completely infeasible. Feeding and clothing is only part of the job. What about development and socialization? Then, there is the medical side. The cost of raising a child to adulthood at this time is approximately $241,080. That does not include college, if you desire your offspring to flourish with higher education and future occupational compensation. Also, this is a healthy child with no illnesses or unexpected injuries, and you can just forget about braces or birthday and holiday presents. Besides, it is attention that matters, right? Not the stuff? Even so, what does this mean for the average family? If you consider that the median income of your average American family is around $45,000 per year, that makes one wonder (at least it makes me wonder) how anyone has one child much less more than one child and manages to pay for them, and then expecting a parent to stay home to well… parent? Then, of course, there is the whole single parent situation. In that case, there really is not a choice, unless that parent is independently wealthy or receiving a more than realistic subsidy from state or federal funds.
Now that I have rambled sufficiently long to write myself into a corner, what conclusion can I bring this pondering to? Human beings are a mish-mosh of biological and sociological factors contributing to the best survival of the individual and their genetic make-up to be passed on to another generation. The human organism is indolent by nature. It wants the biggest bang for the least buck, so to speak. How can the least amount of energy result in needs met comfortably and adherence to the maxim “be fruitful and multiply”? What that boils down to is that cute tiny organism that comes into the lives of the individuals who fulfilled their biological directive will probably be mostly well balanced if provided with their basic needs (also providing that the genetic materials contributed were in pretty good shape). As the child grows, as far as I can deduce, the object is to arrange circumstances so far as to make the right choice less painful than making the wrong one. This is where parenting becomes less intuitive that you might suspect for all that the biological drives and instincts are supposedly programmed into all of us. The beauty of a society made up of individuals is that each person is unique in how their chemical and sociological combinations have created their preferences and abhorrences different than many others.
Sorry mums and dads, that means you can’t use one blueprint for all diaspora of your loins. Sucks for you. The ATTENTION required is that you need to know your kid. Know what they like and what they don’t. Know what motivates them and what keeps them from pursuing their best goals, and sadly, know what might be a deterrent from making a choice that would result to their own harm or harm to another. The hardest part is that once you have gotten through the proving ground of instilling some of these notions of what is ideally right or not so much, it is time to take off the training wheels and let them go to make some mistakes, fall and scrape their knees, and learn that the world has a few rough edges that they may bump against occasionally. Preferably, this should initially be practiced when the scrapes and bruises will not result in permanent damage, but will result in some permanent knowledge. A lot of times, this is where parents have the most difficulty. They hang on too long. They fail to give the child a sense of independence resulting in fear of making their own decisions or a lack of responsibility for doing so. It’s not that any parent wants to instill this sense in a child, but it remains too difficult to allow a beloved one to suffer pain, even if less than what they will suffer in future. As hard as it is, parents owe it to these individuals they wrought to provide them the best opportunity for success. The best opportunity, it seems is to pay enough attention to know the child. Spend enough time to make your company as much or more enjoyable than the TV, videogame system, or media stars that might otherwise be their primary interactions. And remember, parents, these are the people who may be choosing your assisted living center!