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‘Telling’ parents about exercises and healthy eating


I opened the newspaper recently to read that the United Nations has criticised the UK for its failure to reduce inequality among children. The UN reports that rich children in Britain eat more fruit and vegetables and take more exercise than poor children. From infancy, the rich children are already on a life trajectory that will confer on them better physical and mental health for more years than their less privileged peers born at the same time.

The article goes on to consider the role of welfare cuts in exacerbating inequality and asks whether the government is being successful in reducing the number of children born into and being raised in poverty. I don’t want to comment on this, but I am as alarmed as readers of this blog will be by this evidence of rampant inequality in the UK.

It’s important to separate lifestyles from parenting. Not all rich children who are eating a healthy diet and playing sport are enjoying great parenting, and not all poor kids who are eating lots of take-aways and spending most of their free time on tablets are experiencing harsh parenting. And, of course, there are plenty of kids, rich and poor, who are bucking the trend in terms of both diet and exercise.

But part of good enough parenting – whether kids are rich or poor – is surely providing a healthy diet and opportunities for exercise. Immediately come the objections about how expensive fruit and veg are, and about the lack of safe spaces for children living in ‘rough’ parts of our cities to play. All true enough.

Is it still true that there are mothers and fathers who do not understand the long-term impact on their children of poor diet and inadequate exercise? It feels as if these messages have been ‘out there’ for a long time. So, of course, have messages about breastfeeding. As I reflected in my last blog, the advantages of breastfeeding are well documented; yet many – even most – women choose the second-best feeding option for their babies. Why?

Do some mothers and fathers simply not believe what they hear about a healthy diet? Or resent being ‘told’? Is resistance to the healthy eating messages around ‘being told’ what they should be doing? There’s an advert on the TV at the moment where various people are told that they can’t do things that others are allowed to do (such as having ketchup on their sandwich or taking a short cut up an escalator). The individuals become very angry when their behaviour is dictated in this way. (The advert is actually about registering to vote for the EU referendum, but that’s beside the point!) The advert concludes by observing that none of us likes to be told what to do.

I wonder whether if everyone working with and for new parents were simply to stop ‘telling’ them how to run their lives, and people were simply left to make their own decisions, the outcomes for children might not be better? I have a feeling that they wouldn’t be worse?

A woman who attended a ‘Becoming a Parent’ course recently told me that she had felt very patronised when the person leading the group had ‘told’ the mothers and fathers-to-be how to be a good parent. She said that the person in question had clearly meant well and that everything she had ‘told’ them had been very sensible. She’d mentioned the importance of having skin-to-skin contact at birth, of breastfeeding, holding the baby close, responding to the baby’s cues, avoiding sleep training until the baby is at least 6 months old etc. etc. The mother commented that the advice was good advice, but that all the mothers and fathers in the room knew it already. They didn’t need to be ‘told’ and made to feel that they were ignorant.

So where do we go from here? Well, let’s keep as many of our amazing Children’s Centres open as possible – they are the hubs where our children’s futures can be protected - and let’s have interactive, discussion-based antenatal education, exercise classes for healthy pregnancy, weight watchers for healthy parenthood, creative cookery courses and loads of postnatal support, and let’s make sure the people leading all of these sessions are not ‘telling’ mothers and fathers what to do, but listening to them, enjoying being with them and getting to be seen as friends whom mothers and fathers are happy to talk to about their parenting without feeling under any duress.

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