I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but we bribed our son to exercise. My husband came home from work the other day to find the kids still in their pajamas, racing up and down the stairs whooping and shrieking, wild as hyenas because they hadn’t been outdoors all day, and he was concerned. Our daughter works out in the pool three times a week for swim team, but soccer is on hiatus for the summer, and our son does nothing active. In fact, it’s four o’clock right now and he’s still wearing his pajamas. Again.
“Maybe we should think of some sort of reward system to encourage him to exercise,” my husband said. Unlike the neighborhood we left behind in Minnesota, where our back yard butted against the back yards of children our kids’ ages, where they’d spend 8 hours a day outside with friends, running, swinging, skipping, and jumping, our current neighborhood has no back-yard elementary school aged kids. And unlike the neighborhood where I grew up, where there weren’t a lot of kids, but my brother and I had endless marshes to tromp through, and island woods to explore, and a dirt road so rutted and so unused that cars weren’t a threat, our current neighborhood is not that exciting for a nine year old. There’s a toddler playground. And a bunch of townhouses. And some streets that are too high-traffic for me to feel comfortable with his sister and him wandering far from home without my supervision.
I, of course, felt like I was failing as a mother. “I could take them on more walks and bike rides,” I said.
“No, they need to be able to get exercise without depending on you to have to take them somewhere.”
“I could just make them go outside,” I said. I’m sure my mother sent my brother and me out when we had been indoors too long. But when I do make our kids go outside, I watch them through the front window and they wander around the tiny park, shoulders slumped, getting eaten up by mosquitoes, bored. I can’t really blame them. I would be bored too, without friends to play tag with, or hide and seek, or kickball, and without trees to climb or woods to explore.
A few days later, I mentioned to our son that we were concerned about his inactivity. “But I swam a lot on vacation,” he said.
“Yes, you did, that’s true.” It was true. He did. “But that was 6 weeks ago.”
“I’m really active when I’m in soccer,” he said. “I love running around in soccer.”
“I know you do, sweetie, but soccer doesn’t start for a few more weeks. It’s good for your body to move and get activity more regularly than just during soccer season. Three months off for summer is too long for your body to crouch on the floor playing LEGOs or sit in front of the TV.”
He had nothing to say to that.
“So Dad and I were thinking about coming up with a reward system for keeping your body strong. I know you don’t like exercising just for the sake of exercising – you like being active in a fun way, like in soccer. So during summer, when you don’t have as much opportunity for the fun stuff, we were thinking that we could encourage you to exercise by giving you something you value in return.”
His eyes lit up. “Like money?”
I sighed. “No, not money.” My shoulders slumped. “I am not going to pay you to exercise.”
I thought on it a few more days and finally came up with a reward I was willing to offer, and I knew he wouldn’t refuse.
“Okay buddy, how about this. You do 10 sit ups and 10 pushups every day for a week, and I’ll play a full game of Monopoly with you, beginning to end, on the seventh day.” I should be sainted.
“Deal!” he said. We never finish a game of Monopoly with him, and it’s the game he always wants to play (at 8 o’clock at night when we ask, “does anyone want to play a game?” and he says “Monopoly!” and we all groan.)
Today was the first day of this little experiment, and it was quite a treat. I realized very quickly that I was only requiring about two minutes worth of exercise for what could possible be four hours worth of reward (punishment), so I made him do burpees (a six-step pushup) instead of regular push ups. He giggled like crazy while he was doing them, knocking into furniture, laughing even harder when he got to number 7 and could barely do the push-up part. I giggled like crazy, too, watching his goonie smile while he jumped. He took a water break after that 60 second endeavor, and then I held his feet while he did his 10 situps. Every time his face came up to his knees, and we looked into each other’s eyes, we burst out laughing again.
It wasn’t much – 10 reps of 2 exercises, but it’s a start. At least we’re teaching him that fitness is important, that its something worth doing even when you don’t want to. That it can be funny when your mom is holding your feet, and you grunt when you crunch up, and you come nose to nose with her at the top and she’s grinning and you laugh. And that your family values your health enough that your mom is willing to sacrifice four (five, six?) hours of her life to play Monopoly with you, just for a week’s worth of burpees.