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Don’t Bench your Preschooler! Parents’ Attitudes Towards Kids’ Athletic Skills Could be a Problem

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Heidi Radunovich, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida
This post is honor of National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.

When you watch your preschooler with a soccer ball or Wiffle bat, do you picture her bringing home a gleaming trophy? Or maybe it’s the other way around…perhaps you cringe a little inside, and just hope he won’t always be the last one picked for the team.

If these scenarios sound familiar, you may be interested to learn that parents’ beliefs about their young children’s athletic ability—or lack thereof—might just affect how much exercise kids actually get.

Parents’ Attitudes Affect Kids’ Behavior

In a small experiment, about 150 Australian parents were asked how often they themselves exercised. They also rated their child’s athletic skills, and told researchers how much they did to make sure their child got enough exercise—for instance, whether they played sports with him or her, or encouraged the child to be active. The children were then tracked for a week to see how much exercise they actually got in real life.

Unsurprisingly, parents who exercised regularly themselves were more likely to encourage their children to be active. This then led to more actual exercise. What was more interesting, though, was that parents who thought of their children as especially physically coordinated or skilled (and remember—these were preschoolers!) were significantly more likely to prompt their kids to exercise. This, again, led kids to exercise more.

Meanwhile, parents who thought of their kids were less athletic didn’t try as much to get them to exercise. As a result, the kids moved less.

Kids Don’t Need to be Stars to be Fit!

This research may serve as a wake-up call to some parents. Remember, even if your child will never wear a varsity jacket, he or she still needs the physical and psychological benefits that exercise can bring.

Of course, not every child is the next Tim Tebow—and that’s okay. If your child isn’t interested in competitive team sports, you may be able to find a rec league that is less intense and more focused on cooperation and skill-building. Or, try an individual sport or activity, like tennis, jogging, or dance. And if none of these appeal, there are plenty of other ways to get active as a family. For instance, bicyling, hiking, and swimming all encourage fitness without requiring high skill levels. Or check out the fun activity of geocaching, which involves going on hikes to search for hidden “caches” of trinkets using the GPS locator on your phone.

For more simple ideas on how to get active with your family, check out the sites in Further Reading.

(Photo credit: First T-ball practice by Brendan CCC BY 2.0.)

Further Reading       

Let’s Move Outside–from

Ways to be Active–from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition

BAM! Body and Mind–info about physical activity for kids from the CDC


Loprinzi, P. D., & Trost, S. G. (2009). Parental influences on physical activity behavior in preschool children. Preventive Medicine, 50, 129-133.

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2013). Parents’ beliefs about preschoolers’ athletic ability and exercise. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)