Killing with kindness

Published Friday, 18 July 2014
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Are we killing our kids with 'kindness'? I know that's a bold question, but I think it's one worth asking.

Recently we've discovered that nearly 20% of preschool children in Northern Ireland are overweight or obese. Unfortunately I think we've become somewhat immune to such statements now, as we've been hearing about the rise in obesity for so long. However, it's vital we do not become desensitised to the gravity of these statements. Let's stop for a second and think about what this actually means.

A fifth of our young children, are medically classified as storing too much body fat which poses health risks and can lead to a somewhat debilitating childhood. More so, these established early habits often build the foundations for adulthood, with lifestyle choices resulting in the continuation of living with obesity and all the associated factors that come with it.

We cannot, nowadays, claim that we are unaware of the reasons for obesity, the problems that accompany it or the solutions to reverse it. As adults, we all know that a lack of exercise and poor eating habits can result in obesity. We know that being obese carries risks both physically and mentally. And we know that to reduce obesity and improve our health we need to increase our activity levels, strengthen our bodies, eat a healthier diet and nurture a healthy mind. As adults we know this. But our children don't.

Our young children rely on adults to teach them and guide them. I understand that we have the odd 'treat' for ourselves and we give 'treats' to our children. I'm a parent myself and obviously take my daughter for an ice cream, but this is not every day and I try not to use junk food as a reward or to show her my kindness, appreciation or love. I try hard to avoid the psychological bond at her young age between food and emotion. That's my personal choice. Is it not more 'kind' in the long run for us to show and educate our children how to live a healthy lifestyle and how to be confident individuals with good self-esteem, enabling them to make their own healthy choices?

Personally I think these are more valuable for our children and 'kinder', than the short term pleasure of buying them sweets or letting them watch hours of tv whenever they want just to make them happy and 'show' them our love. Of course it's hard work! And we certainly can't maintain it all of the time, but I think we have to at least try. Perhaps we have to be cruel to be kind: at least in our children's eyes.

Saying no to sweets every day may upset them in the short term but in the long term are we not being more kind to them? And of course our own behaviour comes in to it as well. Where children are concerned, it's not simply a case of do as I say, not as I do. They are smarter than that. If our children are seeing adults as 'unhealthy role models' through their own behaviour and lifestyle choices, and also encouraged to engage in less activity by having a lot of screen time, and are given the opportunity to eat junk food every day in the absence of green vegetables, then how can we possibly be surprised at these statistics?

I don't therefore necessarily agree with Dr Hilary Cass, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, when she said 'more must be done to raise public health awareness'. I think we are all well aware. We have heard and seen the obesity warnings and listened to the constant stream of advice on how to correct or prevent it. They've done a good job of raising awareness. What I do believe we need now though, is more support and opportunities for families to be able to sustain a healthier lifestyle. And that has to be a multi-faceted approach, with families, education systems and government all singing from the same hymn sheet.

I agree with her statement that 'Getting key public health messages out to families early is essential if we are to reduce the numbers of children suffering obesity and mental health related illness'. Although this is certainly needed, I think it needs to go a step further. In addition to getting the right messages out, we then need to back this up with support and opportunity for families. It's no good telling families what they have to do, if we then don't show them how to do it and support them on how to maintain new habits. We're certainly starting to move in that direction as a society as a whole with regards to tackling obesity, although it will take time, but what we have to be careful of is wasting time and effort, or else we're simply fighting a losing battle by letting the advice blow away in the wind. And to be frank: we don't have time for that, as this epidemic is growing at a frightening rate.

That being said, I'm confident that near enough each and every person in Northern Ireland can name at least one thing that they could change in their lifestyle to help themselves and their children become healthier and reduce the risks of obesity. So a certain amount of personal responsibility has to play a part, and that's where we can all start. We cannot wait any longer for the 'systems and procedures' to be right. We all have to make a start now, before it's too late for our children.

So if we take personal responsibility and start moving in the right direction, hopefully society as a whole will catch up with us. There is no reason why in this day and age, in a well-developed country, young children should be facing the physical and mental risks of obesity. Or why our government should be facing massive strains on staffing and finance to help resolve the outcome of the obesity problems we are putting on to ourselves through our own lifestyle choices. It's just simply time to put the brakes on, and make the decision to start helping ourselves first and foremost.

I sincerely hope the education system and the local authorities look at more joint up approaches at how to not only support those already classed as overweight or obese, but to invest, and change their mind-sets as organisations, of how to supply relevant and ample opportunities for the prevention of obesity, with a long term goal in mind. We can all do our bit to help, and I'm pleased to say that Tribal Fitness will soon be making a dent in the lack of opportunities for families with young children to become educated and supported about health and fitness.

Junk food and computer games are only two small factors in a very large and complicated tapestry of reasons that can result in obesity. They are however, probably the most popular and spoken about reasons for childhood obesity. I understand, first hand, in a personal and professional setting, just how hard and complicated it can be to try and alter lifestyle habits and overcome those barriers.

We all don't have the opportunity to buy fresh fruit and vegetables every day and purchase organic chickens: but both junk food and tv screens are not vital for life. They are luxuries, so maybe it's a starting point to look at the amount of time and the priority they are given in our lifestyles, compared to spending time with each other, enjoying activities in the great outdoors and preparing naturally grown food. Everything in life is a choice.

Does obesity affect you? Does it affect your kids? Ask yourself, 'in what way?' And then maybe ask yourself, what can I personally do to help?

Should we be bold enough to ask ourselves, are we killing our own kids with kindness?

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Nichola Jarvis
Nichola Jarvis

Nichola is a sports studies graduate who has lived and breathed fitness for over 12 years.

She started her own fit club called Tribal Fitness to combine her two passions - nature's gym (i.e. the great outdoors) and having FUN when exercising!

Be it her Babes or Pramtastic Bootcamp to help mums with their tums, Nichola knows how to make keeping fit feel fun!

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