One afternoon, our daughter, a first-grader, was taking inventory of her latest collection of candy.
She explained how the lollipops were from the morning and afternoon school bus drivers for behaving so well, how the Skittles, Peeps, jelly beans and chocolate eggs came from parents' donations to a holiday party and how her class had a popcorn party the day before for collecting the most box tops.
Don't get us wrong, we like our weekly excursions for ice cream just like everyone. But as parents, we have been made keenly aware lately of the amount of non-nutritious snacks our children have been getting, some from us when we have been less than diligent, but a good portion of it obtained as part of some school party, contest or reward. This is not only the case with our 6-year-old, but also with our 11-year-old sixth-grader.
It has become painfully evident to Americans that we are facing a national health crisis as a result of obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the national obesity rate has doubled to 16 percent for our youth in the last 20 years. Adolescent obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. What this means for this generation are serious future health problems and higher mortality rates, the likes of which most recently were associated with smoking.
Obesity is replacing smoking as the new killer. There are various theories for what accounts for this crisis: lack of exercise, unhealthy diets and increased TV and computer use. Have lethargy and a high sugar and processed carbohydrate diet taken over? What can parents do to promote a healthy lifestyle in children? One thing for sure: a concerted society-wide plan will not work without partnering with our schools.
There are several areas where change should be considered. Schools should discourage teachers and parents from distributing candy and other foods with a high sugar or fat content. Teachers have few rewards and disciplinary tools that can be used when the days are packed with curriculum requirements. This is why treats are quick and easy and don't delay the lesson plans for the day.
School parties and rewards could possibly focus on special privileges or events instead of food. This could include bringing in special CDs to play, reading a favorite book or extra recess time. Based on our conversations with the physical education teacher, classroom teachers are welcome to use the gym during the day when not in use. If there is to be a party at school (and we are all for partying), how about a hula-hoop contest in the gym. Or if there must be food or drinks, how about encouraging bottled water (which is very hip these days), 100 percent juice or fruit?
Recess also can be a tool to encourage activity. Whenever possible, children should be encouraged to play. Obviously, time is needed for children to be still and focused. But this needs to be balanced with ample time to be active.
We spent several months living in Estonia with our children. Our son attended the local international school. During his school day, after every 45 minutes in the classroom, students were sent outside to play: rain (or snow) or shine. Students were required to have clothing that was seasonal, and parents understood that kids would be outside in most kinds of weather. We are aware that teachers use time lost from recess as the consequence of forgotten homework or misbehavior. This is again because teachers have very few disciplinary tools available to them.
Understandably, teachers are under immense pressure, especially when schools are immersed in testing as a result of No Child Left Behind and other mandates. They cannot be expected to easily change course. As parents, we can make suggestions. But it would be much more fitting for teachers to brainstorm alternative rewards and consequences for student conduct.
There must be parental (such as PTA) and supervisory support for understanding the huge societal ramifications for our society unless obesity is addressed. Parents cannot do the work alone. Only through parent-teacher collaboration can this looming crisis be averted.
Lena Choudhary is a registered nurse. David J. Smith works in conflict resolution. They live in Rockville and their children attend Montgomery County public schools. Their e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.