Life Health & Wellbeing

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: It's catastrophic that 9 out of 10 Irish teenagers can't run, skip or kick a ball properly

Dr Ciara Kelly
Dr Ciara Kelly

Ciara Kelly

We hear a lot about child rearing these days. Gone is the era when parents never overthought the upbringing of their kids at all and we existed on a diet of benign neglect and jam sandwiches. Now parents have books like Toddler Taming, and Bringing Up Boys to guide them through their parenting challenges. But despite us never being more invested in our children's futures, there is much to suggest that the overthinking of parenting hasn't really helped our small people navigate the world any better, and indeed with so many children and adolescents expressing feelings of stress and anxiety, it's hard to believe that we have yet to get the balance right.

The natural habitat of children has changed, even though they have far more stimulation from toys and technology. One of the biggest differences in childhood nowadays is that children have moved from spending huge amounts of their time outdoors, engaging in free play and physical activity, to spending most of their time indoors engaged in structured play and sedentary activity. This has had a profound effect on them in terms of their imagination. Their resilience. Their ability to amuse themselves and not require instant gratification or attention. But what I really want to talk about is the effect on their core motor skills.

Children since the year dot have climbed trees and played chasing. Kicked a ball. Played hopscotch or skipping. And generally enjoyed physical rough and tumble. We never really considered what that meant in terms of their development, so commonplace was it - but they acquired core skills. And the reason we know that, is now that they no longer do it, they have lost those skills.

So, in a recent study carried out by the DCU, it was found that 89pc of adolescents have not mastered fundamental movement skills that would have previously been mastered by the age of six. So basically nine out of 10 of our teenagers can't run, skip or kick a ball in the way even a young child would have once been expected to be able to. This has been described as "an unprecedented low and potentially catastrophic" for public health, as an inability to perform fundamental basic movement skills leads to an aversion to sports as you get older. People shy away from stuff they're bad at - no one wants to join the soccer team if they can barely kick a ball. And trying to catch up at 16, on skills you should have mastered by six, puts you at a disadvantage as you get older. Why is this important? Well apart from raising a generation of kids denied the benefits and pleasure derived from taking part in sports - like camaraderie, resilience, or leadership - we are staring an obesity epidemic in the face.

Our kids are the heaviest they've ever been, with obese and overweight children becoming ever more common. And what is possibly more worrying is the parents of heavy kids are increasingly unable to identify the fact that their kids are overweight. So many parents who have obese children believe they're a normal weight for their age and height - when they really aren't. And if you don't see the problem, you're unlikely to be able to do anything about it. As a broad rule of thumb your child should be in stone approximately half their age in years. So a 10-year-old should weigh in around five stone roughly speaking. If your child is wide of that mark, then you need to recognise there's a problem and begin to tackle it.

We have come a long way in terms of our understanding of child development and psychology. But for all our progress we have thrown out some of the babies with the bath water. Allowing them to spend their days indoors on screens and driving them everywhere they go is the modern way. But is it the best way? Kids need free play to run, hop and skip, plus the need to fall down, pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again.

Our generation of parents tried to reinvent the wheel in childrearing terms but it has turned into benign neglect - allowing kids out to roam and work stuff out for themselves had some advantages. Including better motor skills and a normal BMI, overthinking parenting hasn't helped - it may even have hindered.

Ciara presents Lunchtime Live weekdays on Newstalk Radio

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