ERIC Identifier: ED436480
Publication Date: 1999-10-00
Author: Welk, Gregory J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Teaching and Teacher Education Washington DC.
Promoting Physical Activity in Children: Parental Influences.
Do the children of active parents tend to be more active? Many physical
educators and scientists believe so (Freedson & Everson, 1991; Moore, et
al., 1991). Because of the potential benefits for public health, promoting
parent involvement was recently highlighted as one of the key recommendations in
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Guidelines for School and
Community Physical Activity Programs" (Centers for Disease Control and
The purpose of this Digest is to describe the various socialization factors
that influence a child's interest and involvement in physical activity. Until
recently, the most common factor was thought to be role modeling--children with
active parents want to emulate those same behaviors. While role modeling
probably exerts some effect, recent research suggests that the nature of
parental influence may be much more complex. For example, in one study, positive
links were observed between parent and child activity levels, but direct support
from significant others (parents, brothers and sisters, close friends) exerted a
much greater influence on a child's activity behavior (Anderssen & Wold,
1992). Others argue that parental encouragement, support, and beliefs may be
more powerful influences than role modeling (Brustad, 1996; Kimiecik & Horn,
PARENTAL INFLUENCE: A THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVE
theoretical model to explain parental influence on physical activity is the
expectancy-value model of Eccles and Harold (1991). This model was originally
developed to explain parental socialization behaviors in other
achievement-related areas, such as academic performance. However, it offers
clear and practical applications to the study of sport and physical activity. In
this model, socialization behaviors are thought to be influenced jointly by
parental expectation for the child's success in a given area and the value
parents place on this success. Parents who expect that their children can be
successful in sports or physical activity and who value success in this area
will be more likely to influence their children to pursue this behavior.
According to this model, the tendency for parents to accept gender-role
stereotypes influences the nature and extent of socialization behavior. For
example, parents who believe that boys should be more involved in sports and
physical activities than girls may work harder to promote activity among boys.
In addition, parents may encourage an apparently gifted child and may
de-emphasize activity with a lesser-skilled child. In either case, the resulting
socialization process can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that tracks a child
into patterns of physical activity or physical inactivity.
TYPES OF SOCIALIZATION INFLUENCE
There are various ways
that parents can socialize their children to be physically active. Four
different socialization variables especially influence physical activity
behaviors in children:
Parental encouragement refers to obvious verbal or nonverbal forms of
encouragement for a child to be active. There could be direct efforts to get a
child to play outside or to reduce TV viewing, or indirect efforts to promote
interest and involvement. Numerous studies have confirmed that young children
rely heavily on adults (especially parents) as sources of information regarding
their physical abilities (Weiss, Ebbeck, & Horn, 1997). A child's perception
of physical competency has consistently been found to correlate with physical
activity involvement (Welk, 1999). Adult encouragement indirectly influences a
child's level of vigorous activity by enhancing his/her perception of competence
(Biddle & Goudas, 1996). Thus, parental efforts to build competence and a
sense of mastery are likely to promote physical activity involvement.
Parental involvement refers to direct assistance or involvement in the
child's activity. This could include family walks, playing catch, or practicing
physical skills. While the activity itself has important benefits for physical
development, the involvement of the parents also demonstrates to their children
that they feel physical activity is important.
Parental facilitation refers to efforts by parents to make it easier for
children to be physically active. Examples of ways that parents facilitate
physical activity in children are by providing access to facilities and programs
(Craig, Goldberg, & Dietz, 1996; Trost et al., 1997) and by helping children
obtain equipment (Stucky-Ropp & DiLorenzo, 1993). Providing access to
physical activity is an increasingly important responsibility because many
aspects of society make it harder for children to be physically active. Parental
concerns (real or perceived) about the safety of parks and playgrounds and an
increasing reliance on after-school programs are two factors that contribute to
physical inactivity in children. Because these factors are out of a child's
control, parents need to accept responsibility for finding opportunities for
children to be physically active on a daily basis.
Role modeling refers to a parent's efforts to model an active lifestyle for
their child. According to social cognition theory (a major theory of human
behavior), modeling promotes self-efficacy (confidence in one's ability to
perform a behavior) and also informs the child of what is important or valued
(Bandura, 1997). While involvement in structured exercise or sport programs may
spark a child's interest, it is equally important for parents to model healthy
activity patterns in their day to day life. Examples would be walking to the
store, doing yardwork, or otherwise seeking opportunities to be physically
HELPING CHILDREN BECOME MORE ACTIVE
Many concerns have been
raised about the increasing levels of obesity among children in our population
(Troiano & Flegal, 1998). While a variety of factors contribute to this
effect, it is likely that declining levels of physical activity exert a major
influence. Many professionals have sought answers to why children become
inactive with age, but it is really not a surprising trend. In some ways,
society has engineered physical activity out of our lives and made it easier for
people to be inactive. Children who may be naturally active at young ages learn
(through a variety of socialization influences) to adapt to the sedentary
patterns of living that our culture embraces. From this perspective, children
don't really become less active with age, they just become adults! Parents who
encourage, facilitate, and role model physical activity and who participate with
their children can help them avoid the trend toward inactivity as they approach
In past generations, children typically walked to school and played outside
after school. Today, the majority of children are driven to school and are in
extended day programs after school. Because of these changing trends, parents
need to make a more concerted effort to help their child develop an active
lifestyle. Parents may accept responsibility for socializing their child to have
good manners and to be considerate of others but may not consider the physical
domain as part of their responsibility. Many may assume that children receive
their physical education through school. While physical education provides
children with a variety of educational and behavioral experiences, the limited
amount of time in the curriculum is not sufficient for promoting activity or
fitness. For children to develop active patterns of living, it is important for
them to receive activity-promoting messages and experiences at home.
Parents can clearly have a major impact on the development of active
lifestyles in their children. Because activity patterns have been found to track
over the lifespan, efforts to promote activity at a young age can have major
public health benefits (Malina, 1996). To make use of this potential
intervention target, more work is needed to characterize and document the nature
and extent of parental influence on physical activity behavior in children.
References identified with an EJ or ED number have been abstracted and are in
the ERIC database. Journal articles (EJ) should be available at most research
libraries; most documents (ED) are available in microfiche collections at more
than 900 locations. Documents can also be ordered through the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service (800-443-ERIC).
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