By: Emily Murphy, Ph.D.
When I reflect on my childhood, I remember certain instances that I would say to myself, “I will never turn into my mother.” Well guess what, I was wrong. Don’t be mistaken, I love my mom more than the world itself, but as a head-strong child and adolescent there were certain things that I was convinced that my mom (and dad for that matter) had no clue about. Below are a few examples of some of these things.
As a very involved and active child, my parents had a rule that both my sister and I were only allowed to be enrolled in a maximum of two organized activities at any one time. So I was tasked with deciding between field hockey, cello, piano, softball, etc. At the time, I did not see any purpose for this parental decision being forced upon me. The only explanation that I could see through my child lens was that my parents were being mean and selfish. Boy was I wrong. Fast forward 15 years to the time when I became a parent myself and the reasons behind that rule now appear crystal clear. My parents developed and enforced this rule because they knew that family time was equally, if not more important than, a multitude of structured activities.
In our busy world today, many parents think that in order for their children to be successful they must get them involved in as much as possible. But in reality, families need quality time together to be creative, to be physically active together, and to simply enjoy time together. I often tell parents that I encounter through the various programs that I teach, that being overscheduled does not necessarily translate into having a healthy, happy child. Many times, being overscheduled mean that children spend a lot of their spare time in a vehicle being transported from one activity to the next, eating fast food in the back of the car, and standing on a sport field waiting for a ball to be hit to them or their turn to play. Unstructured family time can be filled with family-friendly physical activity like walking the dog or simply playing tag in the backyard. It can be spent preparing meals together, having a family game night, or a variety of other activities.
Another thing that my parents always made us do when I was growing up was to sit down at the kitchen table and eat dinner together as a family most, if not all, days of the week. Compared to my closest friends and neighbors, my family was one of the only families that had this ritual. I used to think that my friends who were allowed to make themselves something to eat, or eat their meal in their bedroom or in front of the TV were so lucky. Yep you got it, I was wrong again.
Family mealtimes are important for many reasons. Family meal times allow family members to connect and talk about important things that are going on in each other’s lives. Eating meals as a family has also been shown to improve various health outcomes like more healthful dietary patterns (Larson, Neumark-Sztainer, Hannan & Story, 2007). In a study done in 2007, families who ate dinner together every day consumed an average of 0.8 more servings of fruits and vegetables compared to families who did not eat dinner together (Rockett, 2007). These families also had higher intakes of important nutrients such as dietary fiber, calcium, folate, vitamins B6, B12, C and E, and iron, and they were less likely to eat unhealthy fried foods and drink soda (Rockett, 2007). In addition, children from families who eat together on a regular basis are more likely to have family support, positive peer influences, and positive adult role models (Fulkerson, Neumark-Sztainer & Story, 2006).
I am sure glad my parents were right and that I was wrong about many rules that they had as I was growing up. In fact, most of those rules, including the two examples above, are now rules in my own household. And yes, I am sure that my kids sometimes think that I am mean when I tell them to turn off the TV and put their cell phones away when we sit down together for a meal as a family, but I also know that when they look back at their childhoods they too will realize that my husband and I had these rules because we wanted what is best for their overall well-being.
About the Author: Emily Murphy is an Obesity Prevention Specialist with the West Virginia University Extension Service. By trade, she is a Pediatric Exercise Physiologist and her passion is promoting physical activity for kids and families. While her daytime job is working as a faculty member at WVU, her most important, most rewarding and hardest (at times) job is being a mom to two amazing, creative and loving children.
A state and national leader in childhood obesity prevention, Emily has nearly 15 years of experience helping children, communities and families get active and healthy.
She holds Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral degrees in exercise physiology from WVU. She served as an Extension specialist with the Family Nutrition Program from 2003 – 2005. She then joined the CARDIAC Project at the WVU School of Medicine where she helped implement and gain funding for new programs, like West Virginia Games for Health.
Murphy’s approach to better understanding and helping to resolve obesity issues is to begin by looking at the barriers unique to West Virginians.