Every parent of a school-age kid knows them all too well: the hours between the end of the school day and kids’ bedtime, when parents have to shuttle children to and from activities and sports, put dinner on the table (or otherwise feed kids), ensure homework is done, prepare for the next day, and get everyone to bed at a decent hour. Then get up and do it all again the next day.
Researchers conducting a recent poll looking at why so many American children are overweight or obese call it “crunch time,” the period starting at about 3 p.m. until a child’s bedtime. The poll, done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NPR, and the Harvard School of Public Health and released this week, was designed to find out from parents what challenges they face in giving their kids healthy options for foods and drinks, sleep, and regular exercise—options that will help ensure they maintain or achieve a healthy weight.
And according to moms and dads, the challenges are big. In interviewing about 1,000 parents and caregivers of kids in late 2012, nearly all—95 percent—said they think it’s important their child eat and exercise in a way that ensures they’re at a healthy weight. But parents are struggling: Forty-four percent said they found it difficult to ensure their child eats healthfully, and about one-third of parents often aren’t able to guarantee their children get enough exercise.
Since the “crunch time” period represents the one time during most days—at least during the school year—that parents can have more control over their kids’ behavior, it’s also a key opportunity to ensure that what kids do is helping them stay at, or get to, a healthy weight.
But many parents in the poll said there’s simply not enough time to follow healthy habits as much as they’d like. When asked what their kids ate in the afternoons, some 60 percent of children ate or drank something their parents said could lead to unhealthy weight gain. Seventy-nine percent of the children who got the unhealthy food or drink did so, says the study, “because their parent doesn’t ‘mind if they have these foods/drinks sometimes.’ ”
“A key finding from the poll is that there is a disconnect between parents wanting to see that their kids have healthy food and physical activity, and parents being able to make that happen more in kids’ lives,” Gillian SteelFisher, Ph.D., research scientist and assistant director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard School of Public Health, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told TakePart. “In this poll, parents are telling us that this is hard."
There's a disconnect between parents wanting to see their kids have healthy food and physical activity, and parents being able to make that happen.
Getting many kids to exercise doesn’t come easily either. Twenty-eight percent of parents said their child(ren) didn’t get enough physical activity to help them stay at a healthy weight. The biggest barriers cited by the parents: no time in the child’s schedule and kids wanting to do other activities. Cost and a lack of access to places to exercise were also issues.
Simply put, says Dr. SteelFisher, we need to make things easier on parents if we really want to see fewer kids struggling with excess weight and all the health issues—now and later—that go along with that. “We need to find ways to make it easier for parents to have low-cost, healthy food options available—that reasonably-priced, snackable fruits and vegetables are at hand,” she says. When it comes to exercise, “we need to ensure that there are places outside where kids can move around free from traffic and crime, and that as kids get older, they have places to spend time together other than the mall and fast-food restaurants.”
There’s another important disconnect the poll unearthed too: While most Americans think obesity is a big problem—and the parents surveyed in this poll were no exception—many moms and dads still appear to not see a problem within their own family. Nearly three-quarters of the parents and other caregivers interviewed said their child was at roughly normal weight, while national data indicates that nearly one-third of kids are overweight, and 17 percent are obese. Something’s not adding up.
“We see this kind of disconnect frequently through polls,” says Dr. SteelFisher. “People know a problem is out there, but they generally feel more positively about things in their own life where they have direct experience and control. So it’s not surprising we see this kind of disconnect strongly in a poll about children whom they love!” But this sort of blindness comes with big potential risks, especially as kids move toward adulthood, she adds.
And it’s definitely not easy to talk to a parent who doesn’t see that their child is overweight or at risk of becoming so. “This is an incredibly challenging part of public education on the topic, and we can risk making parents feel badly,” explains Dr. SteelFisher. To combat that, public health experts can show what a healthy weight looks like in children and what happens to kids as they get older if they continue to eat unhealthy foods and live a sedentary lifestyle.
Nearly half of parents find it hard to manage regular family dinners
And while family dinners—which have been linked to healthier weight—are important to most parents, they said in the poll, the demands of “crunch time” make it tough it manage: Forty-six percent of parents find it difficult for everyone in the family to eat dinner together, owing to work and kids’ activities. Even when families do sit down to eat together, less than half of children live in a household where there’s no TV or electronic devices at the dinner table.
Another contributor to childhood obesity is sleep deprivation. Again, ensuring their kids get enough sleep is a priority for nearly all parents, but over 40 percent say they struggle to make it happen. Just two-thirds of children actually went to bed at their set bedtime the night before the poll (the poll-takers asked parents to answer the questions based on what happened the day before).
Clearly, childhood obesity is complex and not easily solved, though lately there have been encouraging data showing a drop in rates in a number of major cities, and more recently, that kids are taking in fewer calories. All heartening signs, but the role of parents in childhood obesity will, of course, remain an essential one—and parents clearly need more support in keeping their kids from gaining weight. “There are not necessarily easy solutions, but policies at the community level can help,” says Dr. SteelFisher.
What do you think parents’ role is in childhood obesity? Do you struggle as a parent during “crunch time”?
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Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics. Takepart.com