The older a child is, the more likely they are to notice changes in their body, and, hence, need to be engaged by being given the opportunity to take ownership of them.
The children in our program have homework assignments that are both educational and behavioral, and they involve getting the child to make healthy choices on their own, so that they become invested in those decisions.
Does that mean parents are off the hook? By no means. There is another feature of the parents’ program followed in the research study that has proven successful in our full family-based approach.
Parents are encouraged to practice an “authoritative” parenting style, in which they offer their children a kind of leadership by example, and model appropriate eating and activity, as opposed to an “authoritarian” style, which would be that old “do as I say because I said so,” approach.
With older kids and teenagers, the parents are still crucial as an authoritative model, but the teen needs to take some responsibility, too, and not just as a compliant participant.
A maturing child should be given a meaningful role (e.g., planning the family menu for the week, deciding what physical activities in which they will engage). The parents are still laying down the ground rules, but older kids and teens need to feel some ownership of the process and the goal.
As with many other things, you can’t just tell a teenager to go exercise. It takes some finesse and some respect for the child’s role in choosing. For example, by asking “How much do you want to lose this week,” we offer the child a controlling role.
By asking what activity or exercise they’ll do to make that happen, we’ve started them on the first step of their own activity plan.
And if they come up with nothing that they are willing to do, we let them know that they need to change their goal, because they probably won’t lose any weight that week.
But all of those decisions are controlled by the child or teen. That kind of ownership is far more likely to lead to planning and follow-through than a parent’s orders, or even gentle instructions.
Play together, weigh together
Other recent research on children and body weight shows a direct correlation between kids’ weight and the amount of time they spent in recreational physical activity with their families.
We see much in the media about the loss of physical education programs in schools, but these opportunities for exercise and activity don’t have as strong a correlation with kids’ weight as what they do with their parents.
That could be because we learn our values from our families, typically not our schools. Even if kids sit around in school all day and go home to enjoy a bike ride with the family, they’re far more likely to see themselves as active, to have a positive attitude about physical recreation and to participate in it with others.
When it comes to weight-management issues with younger children, treating parents to nutritional education, parenting guidance and sound medical advice helps them take care of the problem, so that kids end up with the solution.
But for older children and teens, they need to know that not only are they responsible for participating, they’re actually capable of coming up with the solution themselves.
Walks might become a part of the day, sweets and treats become special occasion foods, and healthy snacking becomes more frequent.