Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Incredible Power of Exhaustion

Anyone who's been a parent for more than a few days is surely aware of the connection between fatigue and behavior. Humans aged anywhere from 8 days to 8 decades are a lot less fun to be around when they need a snack or a nap.

But we don't blame food and energy when their behavior is at the other end of the scale. What about the bad behavior we see in kids who are well-fed, well-rested, full of energy - but with no appropriate place to put all that youthful vigor? I don't know about you, but I see this a lot in my family, and in its own way, it's harder to deal with than a kid who just needs to be tucked into bed. I'm quite sure I could get an "amen" from any public school teacher who's recently had recess cancelled due to rain.

I was at a meeting for our local youth swim team recently when I had an "aha!" moment. One mom complained that the practices just weren't hard enough - her daughter just wasn't coming home exhausted like she used to, and that was one of her main goals in signing the girl up for swim team. I flashed back to my childhood soccer coaches, who made my ill-behaved teammates run laps until they were ready to pay attention. I thought of my cats, who oscillate between acrobatic frenzies and complete relaxation. And then I thought of the peaceful feeling that comes over me after a bit of good exercise, and I understood the wisdom of that swimmer's mom.

Others have written more authoritatively than I could on the ill effects of screen time, sugary diets, heavy homework loads and the general trend in our society towards a more sedentary childhood. Many folks believe there's a connection between these things and the ADD/ADHD epidemic. I won't rehash those arguments. But I will say this: if you haven't found a way to wear your kids out on a regular basis, you're parenting uphill.

Children's bodies need the physical outlet of exercise. It doesn't have to be formal. Childhood should be full of play - tag, hide-&-seek, jungle gyms, swings, tree-climbing, monkey bars, and riding bikes around the cul de sac. General outdoor activities like hiking fit the bill, and they can give your whole family more time together. Or team and individual sports will work fine, too, if that's what interests your kid. But it needs to be something, it ought to happen every day, and it might as well be something fun.

Kids whose bodies are jittery with bottled-up energy are compromised just as surely as they are when they miss a nap or their blood sugar gets too low. They're at a disadvantage at school, where concentration is the key to learning. They're far more likely to act up, and they're more argumentative and cantankerous than they would be otherwise.

The best thing is that burning that excess energy satisfies a basic human need, so it leaves kids feeling satisfied. . . content. . . healthy. . . happy, even. Parenting a content, peaceful child is a breeze compared to wrangling with a hyper one.

So think about your child's typical day. Are they worn out when it's over? If not, find a way to change their schedules so there's time for exercise. I think you'll see a difference in their behavior, which is bound to leave you a little more tranquil as well.

1 comment:

  1. You are right on, Rich. And combine hormone upsurges with too much sendentary inaction and you get supergrump. Even my chickens start to peck at each other if I don't let them out to run around the yard. I see classroom connections there!