By contrast, when children do not feel they have the freedom to choose their physical activities, they are much less motivated.
The best strategy to encourage children to exercise was found to be child-centered parenting. With this approach, parents took into account their child’s interests, offered new opportunities for hobbies, participated in physical activities, and accepted their child’s occasional lack of motivation.
The least successful strategy was parental control – when parents used coercion, disregarded their child’s preferences, and dominated the decision-making process. This approach was perceived as undesirable and reduced the desire to exercise.
The researchers interviewed children between the ages of 7 and 10. They found that the children could clearly distinguish between parental behaviors that motivated them to exercise and those that did not.
“For example, strong, public and overt encouragement in tournaments and games was perceived in some cases as embarrassing and even shameful,” said study co-author Arto Laukkanen.
“In addition, underestimating and ignoring the temporary cessation of exercise motivation, for example, was perceived as controlling and reducing enthusiasm for exercise.”
The children also described experiences when a parent’s strong guidance was much more acceptable and increased their enthusiasm for exercise.
“The children pointed out situations where the parent’s actions had initially felt domineering and strict,” said Laukkanen. “Common to experiencing such situations positively and strengthening exercise motivation was that the parent participated in the activities with the child. Secondly, these parents sensed the line between coercion and acceptable guidance in the child’s mind.”
The study also revealed that children were less motivated to exercise when a parent used the strategy of limiting screen time to encourage physical activity.
“This is very contradictory, as parents try to take care of the children’s screen time and adequate level of exercise, but at the same time they may be contributing to alienation from exercise,” said Laukkanen.
“Perhaps exercise should not be set in opposition to screen time, but one should strive to organize independent space for both of them in everyday life.”
Some of the children expressed that they had flexible limitations or no boundaries regarding screen time.
“Limiting screen time independently can be challenging, especially for children,” said Laukkanen. “In some cases, children also apply considerable effort and ingenuity to create more screen time for the day.”
The findings suggest that striking a balance between screen time and adequate physical activity can be a difficult task for parents. According to the study authors, further research on this topic is urgently needed.
The study is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.