Do children learn lifestyle choices from their parents?

My Dad taught me how to be fit and strong

In the picture above you see my youngest child and me. She actually watches most of training sessions as all my children have, and in this article I suggest that our lifestyle choices are passed on to our children.  If you have children then you know they are like sponges absorbing information, both good and bad.

On any sporting field on a Saturday morning you will see many super keen parents that are overweight and unfit, clearly pushing their kids hard into sport in the hope they will take to it better than they did.  This is admirable, but if sport is so important why is the parent not making time to exercise themselves?  In my experience it is inevitable that the child will follow many of the same lifestyle choices as their parent.

“When did it become normal for Saturday morning sport to get linked to fast food as a participation reward?  Seriously, what lifestyle choices are we teaching our children?”

Now for my pet hate…  If those brief moments on the sports field are not completely undone for a child by the post match team visit to the ‘golden arches’, then it will be from eating the same poor diet as their parents.  Although I applaud the effort to get children active in sport for the physical and mental ability to learn how to work as part of a team, sport is not an excuse to treat yourself to food.

I feel that role modeling by parents showing the balance between exercise & nutrition on a daily basis will have a lasting effect.  Making time for regular exercise and buying the right food is the first step.  When you are shopping tell your children why they can’t have the triple cheese nachos and sugar filled cereals and that fresh food will make them feel good and strong.  This process will educate them to make the right lifestyle choices when they go shopping for themselves later in life.

Now picture this scene – a working parent sat in front of a computer for hours desperately trying to meet a work deadline, so they park the children in front of the TV and reward with junk food for being good.  As a parent I have done this and know many others parents that feel forced to do this too due to time pressures of work commitments that extend outside the office.  But what habits are the children learning and is it a negative lifestyle?

“I confess to giving the kids nuggets and chips as it’s quicker after a busy and intense work day and I know there will be no arguing from the kids”

As a child grows up they develop habits that can be very hard to break.  Use yourself as an example and think about the positive and negative habits you have inherited from your parents.  I bet you can find a few, if you don’t your partner or siblings will point them out for you.  Now think about your own daily life and the lifestyle habits you are instilling in your kids.  It is especially hard if you are a working parent that is time poor and the kids are refusing to go to sleep, do their homework or eat their vegetables but it is important to uphold.  I believe that children inherit lifestyle habits from their parents.

“Have you ever found yourself saying the same things your parent said to you as a child or acting in the same way?”

We are constantly delivered new complicated choices that our parents never had to deal with and making the right lifestyle choices is tricky in our fast changing world driven by technological enhancement.

  • For my grandparents, butter was a luxury and not trimming the fat off meat was normal.  TV was just coming of age and certainly not 24 hours.  People walked, carried shopping, and having a car was a luxury.  Work started at 9am and finished at 5pm and a weekend was for leisure time.
  • For my parents, margarine, low fat and high carbs diets were enforced.  Freezers and deep fat fryers were making their way into the kitchen.  Food was plentiful with many more choices and advertising dictated what mass produced food we bought.  Work was shifting into more flexible hours, mum was leaving for work when dad got back and Saturday was turning into a work day.
  • For me as a parent it seems butter is back in favour and carbs should be kept to a minimum with white bread and processed meats kept out of the kitchen.  The chemicals sprayed on fruit and vegetables in mass production raises a red flag and organic produce seems to be the safest option, or even better, home grown.  I now seem to be driving my kids everywhere, even if it’s within a 20 minute walking distance just because I am time poor.  Work now seems to be every waking moment and time management is crucial as complex family lives change on a daily basis as we juggle income, social and family options against the pressures of work.

“What is the best way to instill the right lifestyle choices into my children?”

  • Lead by example or
  • Dictate – ‘do as say, not as I do’

I feel, the simplest way for children to understand is by copying what they see day by day until it is drilled in as the obvious lifestyle choice.  As a parent there is no need for ‘black or white’ grand gestures to instill good habits into our children but rather the simple focus on consistently showing them the right path on a daily basis.

“From a child’s perspective surely it’s easier to copy and have aspirations to be like their parents”

The following key points are an evolution of what many of our parents & grandparents enforced and I have found with my own children that keeping them in place on a daily basis is hard at times but when we get them right good things happen –

  • regular sleep patterns
  • good, balanced, portion controlled diet
  • leisure activities – watching TV, games, hanging with friends balanced against homework, reading or music
  • regular exercise 5 times per week to get physically out of breath and sweat
  • free time to get bored and be creative

The key points above are simple but often easily overlooked by busy parents and lead to the following issues – Lack of sleep has links to poor attention. Poor diet is linked to obesity and lethargy. TV and video games in excess have been linked to violent outbursts and poor social skill development. Lack of exercise is linked to poor physical & mental development. Overloading our children with distractions outside school (positive & negative) is linked to anxiety, depression and does not give the brain a chance to relax and be free to be creative.

The aim of this article is to remind us that:

  • Our own lifestyle choices are being watched, learnt and copied by our children.
  • Living in a ‘time poor’ world demands daily discipline to instill good lifestyle habits in ourselves and our children.

These are my thoughts and if you agree or disagree please leave your comments below.


About Olympian Stuart McIntosh - My Fitness Mentor

2000 & 2004 Olympian. Elite Sport Coach and Personal Trainer. Urbanist
This entry was posted in Children, coaching, Diet, Fitness, Healthy Living, Lifestyle, Parenting, Sport and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Do children learn lifestyle choices from their parents?

  1. joannemprior says:

    I am so pleased you identified these issues. My son and I had a goal from when he was 5 years old that we wanted to train at the gym together. He always came with me when I trained and he would go to the crèche. Then I would spend the rest of the day with him down the beach! But it became part of his life to ‘go to the gym.’ I could see he was burning to get started. I’m happy to say the dream has now come true! He is hooked. He is at the gym 6 times a week doing boxing group training a PT session a week and training with a ‘gym buddy’ twice a week and he LOVES it! So it goes to show what you are saying works Stu!! Plus I had the golden arches rewards at soccer. I throw them in the bin. I have never taken my son to McDonalds and he is now addicted to sushi and will buy this when he is out with his mates regardless of what they eat. Anyway, a long reply I know but I wanted to say YOU ARE SO RIGHT!

  2. Agree, agree, agree.

    Got to be said fella I’m on the same page as you. Both myself and H are very aware of the sponges we have living and watching our every move. This is surely the greatest responsibility with the largest rewards.

    Parenting is not easy, it is not a part time job and we are responsible for shaping and influencing our children.

    Unfortunately educating our children during our weekly shop is never an option. Our food shopping is online and late at night. We do however instill healthy choices around snacks and meals. Mucky Macs is rarely on our rader apart from during long drives to visit family.

    What we seem to lack are parent and child groups based around sport. I often witness what you mentioned, overweight parents stood cheering on thier child. If we had more combined sporting classes and easily accessible opportunities for parents to train and learn with thier kids it could help brake establish change and healthy outcomes for all.

    Parents seem so focused on bringing up thier child to be better and more successfu. They see this achieved by pushing thier child into clubs and sporting opportunity forgetting the joy of leading by example or learning together. This is surely the greatest reward for being a parent.

    Love your articles and thoughts. Keep up the good work.

  3. Pingback: Never cheer up a child with junk food – the best way to help an upset child after sport. | My Fitness Mentor – Olympian Stuart McIntosh

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