Parental Coercion Sabotages Kids' Motivation to Stay Active
Why telling kids "Stop watching TikTok! You should exercise more" backfires.
Posted May 17, 2020
According to a new study from Finland, parents who assertively try to coerce their children into doing more exercise may increase their kids' resistance to seeking physical activity.
The Finnish researchers found that exerting too much parental control can make physical activity seem undesirable to children and reduce their motivation to stay active. These findings (Laukkanen, Sääkslahti, & Aunola, 2020) were published on March 30 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
This interview-based study involved a cohort of 79 first-, second-, and third-grade students (ages 7 to 10). The children's perceptions of parenting styles that increased or decreased their motivation to seek physical activity were obtained during group interviews with a handful of pupils at a time.
The University of Jyväskylä researchers identified four ways that parents can boost their kids' enthusiasm for physical activity and one big no-no that parents might want to avoid.
Let's start with the no-no. The Finnish researchers found evidence that the quickest way to make school-aged children view exercise as the antithesis of "fun" is to create a paradigm that juxtaposes physical activity and screen time.
The most unpleasant and disagreeable exercise-related experience children mentioned during their interviews was having screen time cut short in the context of being told that they should go outside to exercise.
Saying something coercive, like, "Stop watching TikTok! You should go outside and get some exercise," can sound bossy in an "Eat your spinach!" kind of way that triggers a knee-jerk reaction to disobey said order. The urge to dig in one's heels and disobey an order is a type of reactance.
Telling Kids They Have to Unplug (Now!) and Go Exercise Triggers Reactance
Psychological reactance tends to occur when someone feels that rules or regulations are curtailing behavioral freedom and that his or her liberty to pursue happiness is being taken away.
Of course, adults feel reactance, too. Every smartphone video that captures a middle-aged "Karen" throwing a hissy fit about having to wear a mask at Costco or Trader Joe's during the COVID-19 pandemic offers a voyeuristic window into how reactance works. (See "How 'Karen' Became a Coronavirus Villain")
Thorndike's Law of Effect reminds us that "all animals (including humans) seek pleasurable satisfaction and avoid painful discomfort."
Therefore, as a public health advocate, I always strive to present physical activity and breaking a sweat during vigorous exercise as a scientifically proven source of joy that counteracts depressive symptoms and makes people feel good. "Sweat and the biology of bliss" sums up this ethos.
When parents frame screen time as something "bad" and physical activity as something "good" that kids should do, it triggers reactance and can backfire in a sedentary behavior-inducing way. If children perceive that their parents are exerting coercive control to tear them away from a smartphone or iPad to meet a daily recommended guideline of physical activity in a draconian way, it makes exercise seem like the enemy and something to be resisted.
The researchers advise parents to avoid presenting physical activity and screen time as a binary choice. "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," first author Arto Laukkanen said in a news release.
As mentioned, the Finnish researchers also identified four physical activity parenting (PAP) approaches that appear to boost kids' enthusiasm and motivation to stay active:
- Promote freedom of movement
- Tailor activity to a child's interests
- Find hobbies that involve physical movement
- Do physical activities together as a parent-child dyad
The common thread to successful PAP appears to be decreasing the degree of parental coercion while increasing child-centered recommendations based on each child's individual personality and unique preferences.
"[During their group interviews] children pointed out situations where the parent's actions had initially felt domineering and strict," Laukkanen said. "Common to experiencing such situations positively and strengthening exercise motivation was that the parent participated in the activities with the child." Minimizing parental coercion and boosting children's motivation to seek physical activity by doing physical activity together creates the ultimate win-win for parent-child dyads.
Arto Laukkanen, Arja Sääkslahti and Kaisa Aunola. "'It Is Like Compulsory to Go, but It Is Still Pretty Nice': Young Children’s Views on Physical Activity Parenting and the Associated Motivational Regulation." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (First published: March 30, 2020) DOI: 10.3390/ijerph17072315