Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Childhood Obesity, Part II: Letting go

192 pounds
Last week I wrote about Michelle Obama's new initiative for fighting childhood obesity, and though, as I mentioned then, we cannot entirely blame poor eating and exercise habits for the increase in childhood obesity in our country, it is certainly a leading culprit.

I've also written on this blog about the fact that when I was a child I spent a significant part of my day being active. Even in bad weather, I walked to and from the bus, spent recess outside on the playground, and biked around my neighborhood for hours after school (and that was if I wasn't participating in an after-school activity that often involved exercise). Because of this, I'm a firm believer in the idea that all of us—no matter what our age—need to spend more time engaging in physical activity. Not just once a day, but multiple times a day.

I know it's incredibly difficult for us adults to do that, but what I don't get is why kids these days seem to struggle with it too.

Because when I was a kid, I didn't have much choice about being outside.

I had to walk to and from the bus stop whether I wanted to or not, and all of us kids were made to play outside before school and during a half-hour recess after lunch. Beyond that, my mother routinely pushed my sister and me out the front door for a few hours every day after school and on weekends.

I can even remember one sweltering summer day when my mother locked us out of the house because it was so hot we wanted to stay inside. By the end of that excruciating day, we were so anxious to get back inside the cool, air conditioned house that we pressed our faces up against the sliding glass doors in the basement like inmates waiting to be paroled.

And I know I wasn't the only child who was forced to spend time outside. David Sedaris has documented the time his own mother locked him and his siblings outside during a snow storm to riotous effect in an essay called "Let It Snow" (which I highly recommend if you're looking for a good laugh).

So why is it then that when I go on my long morning walk or my short afternoon jog—whether it's in January or July—I don't see any kids roaming the streets of my neighborhood?

In fact, almost every time I step out the door, I ask myself, where are all the kids????

Then last summer I saw something that gave me my answer. I was huffing and puffing my way around the neighborhood when I noticed that almost every single house I looked inside had a television playing. And nine times out of ten there was a child—or more than one—plopped in front of the screen like a big pile of play-doh.


In the middle of a summer afternoon?!


My mother would have pushed those play-doh blobs out the door as fast as she could whip up one of her famous Jello molds.

We all know that television and the internet and video games have become a poor substitute for more interactive entertainment, but what I don't get is why parents today allow those passive activities to replace more physical ones.

We had television when I was a kid. We had video games. Sure, we didn't get cable until I was thirteen—remember "I want my MTV"?—and we played our video games on a crappy Atari with a joystick that was harder to move than a refrigerator, but we had no idea that Space Invaders or reruns of The Monkees would someday seem so pathetic. We loved that stuff and would have happily sat in front of the TV all day. . . that is, if our parents had let us.

But, of course, they didn't.

So when did that change? When did parents stop insisting that their kids get up off their rumps and go explore the world beyond the walls of their house?

Last semester, when I was teaching a story about childhood, one of my students (who is also a mother) said that she couldn't let her kids go outside because it's too dangerous these days.

Too dangerous? Really?

I grew up on a street where kids in junior high walked around with pints of Jack Daniels in their back pockets, where high schoolers dealt everything from pot to cocaine on the corner where we all hung out, where girls got pregnant at the age of eleven, and where thieves stole an entire houseful of one of our neighbor's belongings. All of this happened, but I still turned out okay.

And this was in the suburbs!

I'm sorry, but I find it hard to believe that things are any worse now than they were when I was growing up—a time when the whole country was embracing free love and a song called "Pass the Dutchie" ruled the airwaves.

And what I learned from all of those experiences was that I had to be able to stand on my own two feet, that I had to be able to make my own decisions—whether I was being offered a joint or being challenged to a fight. My parents weren't always going to be around to protect me.

And I worry that's what our kids today are losing: the ability to be independent. The ability to enjoy and even desire physical activity, to feel the wind in their hair as fly down a too-steep hill on their rackety old ten-speed or to feel the cold in their lungs as they hike along a snow-covered path in the middle of winter. The ability to run away from their parents' house and the ability to come back. Because if they aren't allowed outside, not only will they become overweight, they'll also become afraid. And I'm not sure that those two things are entirely unrelated.

Yes, it's scary to let kids go outside on their own.

They could be exposed to things we would like to protect them from, and—worse still—they could be harmed or even stolen from us. But the harm we do them by keeping them locked up inside is ultimately a much greater disservice to their generation because it is one that cheats them out of the life we so desperately want them to be able to live.

1 comment:

    I tried to post this comment on your blog today but it wouldn't take it ...? I don't have a blog account and that's what it looked like it was asking for. Here's my comment ... I really enjoyed today's post:
    I have to laugh at this Molly, so much! My parents did the same thing. We were allowed to watch one tv show when we got home from school while eating our afternoon snack (usually ice cream with chocolate syrup and the show was either Match Game or Gilligan's Island), but we were constantly shoved out the door, especially in the summer time. And our neighborhood was full of children, and we had many days of water balloon wars, where my mom would get mad if I came in soaking wet one more time, dirt clog fights, fort-building and pick-up baseball games, and many nights til 10 (or when the porch light flicked on and off) of kick-the-can, hide and seek, ghost stories or kick ball in the dark. No one stayed inside and watched tv!

    I had to walk to school the first through the fourth grade, then walk to the bus stop in middle school; in high school, I actually walked there too.... never even thought to ask for a ride by my parents' - we lived so close (less than a mile). We also had jello every meal, but we had no video games ... I'm a little older than you!

    What a wondeful blog, Molly!

    Deborah Smith