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Body positive ways to encourage the joy of movement.
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As someone who came of age during the late 1990s, when the cultural messages around the female body were demented, and Britney Spears’s bronzed abdomen was considered an attainable and appropriate goal, playing sports was one of the few things that allowed me to feel good about myself. Sports made me feel capable and strong, rather than ornamental. I might not have looked the way I wanted to in those stupidly low-slung jeans, but I could run my heart out on the field hockey pitch and lose myself in the camaraderie of my teammates on the long bus rides back from away games.
My field hockey team was not good! But our losing record did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the activity. In fact, the low stakes might have increased my enjoyment — in the past 20 to 30 years, youth sports have become more competitive and more time consuming. Experts are concerned that children are risking injury from overtraining and specializing in a single sport at ever younger ages, according to reporting by Roni Caryn Rabin in The Times. Research has shown that there are additional risks to specializing and intense training, which include psychological stress and quitting sports entirely.
I have two daughters, and despite my best attempts to run a body positive home, I can already tell that my older daughter, who is in third grade, is getting messages from the outside world about how she is supposed to look. My hope is that exercise can provide a counter message about what her body can do. There is ample evidence that playing sports is correlated with a host of psychological benefits for children of all genders, including higher self-worth and body image for girls.
But I’m not naïve; I know that my girls may also be told that exercise is important because it’s an avenue for weight loss, not because it’s an opportunity for joy, strength or friendship. So how do I encourage my children to be active, without making it an area of stress, or a chore? I asked two experts on kids and health for their tips.
Don’t force it. If you push your kid into a sport they really don’t want to do, it’s not going to stick. People (children included) feel motivated to do something when they have control, when they can feel like they’re a part of something, and when they can feel successful, said Matthew Myrvik, a clinical sports psychologist and an associate professor at The Medical College of Wisconsin. “Where you start is you give them control,” he said — which is to say, give them several different kinds of activities to choose from.
For a child who isn’t excited about team sports like soccer or basketball, you can offer skateboarding or yoga, which are physical activities that they can master on their own. “If you have a kid who is more cerebral or into science, taking a nature walk and identifying different plants or birds, or taking a bike ride through a beautiful setting,” can keep activity joyful, said Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian and host of the podcast “Food Psych.”
If you try to force particular activities on your kids, it may backfire, Ms. Harrison said. “A lot of adults who are healing from disordered relationships with their bodies were pushed into adult type activities that made them hate exercise; it made them feel like they were being punished,” she said.
Praise effort, not outcome. As children reach adolescence, they tend to drop out of sports entirely if they are not highly competitive, according to a 2019 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Teach your kids that especially in team sports, they cannot control the outcome of the game, Dr. Myrvik said. What they can control is how hard they try. After a game, whether your kid wins or loses, praise the process, saying something like: “I love how many shots you took today,” or “It’s great to see you out there having fun with your friends.”
Make it a family activity. Kids are smart, and they will notice the mirthless way that some adults view exercise — going out for a jog that feels like checking off a box or doing some mandatory drudgery, Ms. Harrison said.
So try to find activities you can do as a family together that are joyful, and that get your bodies moving. Dr. Myrvik said his children look forward to their family dance parties (and also use them as a tactic to delay bedtime). During the pandemic, we started taking family hikes and doing Cosmic Kids yoga together, both of which we are continuing even as group sports open up again.
As soon as I heard about a local rec soccer league that was enrolling for the spring, I encouraged my older daughter to join. I said we could practice together, since I played soccer from kindergarten through high school. She scoffed, and said she wasn’t interested. Then, a week after the rec league began, her best friend was telling her about how much fun she was having at soccer, and my daughter begged me to get her in the league. She ended up loving the experience, and wants to do it again in the fall.