Parent trap: Do you give kids what they want or what's good for them?

How do you encourage kids to be active when motorized toys urge the fattening opposite?

Health & Fitness

July 25, 2004|By Lisa Liddane | Lisa Liddane,Knight Ridder / Tribune

At a California park recently, a boy about 12 years old zipped around on a motorized scooter. He passed a boy, about 9, who was sitting on a bicycle.

The younger boy turned his head, his eyes following the older boy zooming by on his motorized scooter. There was an unmistakable mix of wistfulness, curiosity and longing in the younger boy's eyes.

Such encounters are played out on streets throughout America, illustrating that the challenges of being physically active begin early in life. Classic toys that run on kids' pedal power are competing for our children's attention with a boom in battery- or electric-powered versions.

Therein lies the dilemma for parents who want their kids to develop good fitness habits. How do you strike the balance between helping kids stay active and accommodating requests for toys that are popular but passive?

When scooters first burst onto the scene several years ago, they ran on kid fuel. Now, kids are balancing on, instead of pushing, super-fast electric scooters around the neighborhood. There are fast ride-on toys for children of every age.

Honda makes a Mini Moto Sport Racer that has a maximum speed of 10 mph. It's a kid motorcycle rated for children 8 and up.

Even toddlers have their own battery-powered vehicles. The Barbie line includes an SUV -- a pink Jazzy Wrangler, as well as a baby-blue convertible VW Beetle. Both vehicles are designed for kids ages 2-4.

To hear kids talk about these electric- or battery-powered toys, it's frequently about what's popular among their peers. One kid in the neighborhood gets something motorized, and before you know it, parents of other kids hear the all-too-familiar refrain: "I want one, too!"

The toys by themselves are not the entire issue. It's really about how much time kids spend on them.

Some parents refuse altogether to buy battery- and electric-powered vehicles for the children and instead keep the young ones busy with sports and other physical activities.

Others compromise, buying those toys but limiting their use, just as they would set a limit on TV watching.

And some throw their hands up, concluding that their kids will choose which toys they want, no matter what parents say.

We should encourage our kids to stick with toys that promote activity, especially when we're facing a nationwide crisis of juvenile obesity.

Children who start with training wheels eventually learn to ride and love their bikes. Kids ride their bikes because it's fun, not because they want to exercise. And that's perfectly fine.

Whatever choice parents make, they can't underestimate their roles in shaping their kids' health. Children may seem as if they're not listening all the time, but they're hearing our messages, including the subliminal kind, about fitness. They're also watching what we do and the example that we set.

What we all can do is be Pavlovian about reinforcing active habits.

Remember that little boy on the bike? As he rode past me, I caught his attention, smiled at him and with a conspiratorial gleam in my eyes said something that I hope he'll remember every time he sees a motorized scooter zip by.

"I think your bike is a lot cooler," I told him.

Hearing that, he gave me a happy grin and pedaled away.

Whatever choice parents make, they can't underestimate their roles in shaping their kids' health.

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