I Bribed My Son

Motivating kids to exercise

Not sure if Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign deserves all the credit, but my 10-year-old son “Jared” is constantly being bombarded by suggestions, encouragement and even commands to exercise.

His teachers have formally made walking with the family a recurring homework assignment. The 5-2-1-0 healthy lifestyle plan (see box) is recited more often in the halls than Christopher Columbus’ 1492 or Thomas Jefferson’s 1776. 

During the summer, our local running club runs a weekly “Fitness University,” a fun mini-Olympics for kids ages 3-14 that combines exercise and games with healthy snacks. The community festivities, which usually draw rock concert crowds, end with a massive feeding frenzy on watermelon slices.

All of these well-intentioned programs have their role in preventing the next generation from becoming irreversible couch potatoes, but the truth is that they are also all super preachy. Kids, like adults, tend to zone out after being repeatedly told what’s good for them. At the end of the day, if there is no supervision, candy bars trump carrot sticks and TV trumps exercise 100 percent of the time.

So how do we break through the authority wall and get kids to do the “right thing” without feeling that they are being forced to do it?

I tried bribery.

Although some pediatricians and child psychologists might be horrified by the premise, I offered Jared a $100 gift card to the Lego Store last summer if he trained with me for three months and participated in a one-mile charity race. My wife was reluctant to go along with the idea, expressing legitimate fears that I would be setting Jared up for unrealistic expectations in life. Every subsequent push-up and sit-up, she feared, would require a prize.

Scared by the same possibility, I immediately established the ground rules. We still would be training after the race with no monetary rewards, I told my son, but the Lego card would be a great way to celebrate our accomplishment. This was no different from someone buying him or herself a new wardrobe after losing a lot of weight or going on vacation as a reward for quitting smoking.

The $100—which as any Lego-buying parent knows, sadly doesn’t go as far as you think—quickly assumed a backburner role during our running conversations. As we huffed and puffed around a quarter-mile track, we talked mostly about comic books and cartoons. The race itself was a costumed superhero contest, in which I would be Spider-Man and he would be The Flash, the fastest man on Earth.

That event has come and gone—Spidey and Flash finished way behind a few hundred Batmen, Supermen and Wonder Women—and now we are training for a superhero-themed 5K race this fall. Making the leap from one mile to three seems daunting to a beginner runner, so I opted for some outside help.

From Couch Potatoes to Superheroes

We’re following the “Couch to 5K” Program, which has more than 300,000 fellow fans on Facebook. The nine-week plan starts out by alternating 60-second jogs with 90-second walks and ends with you in shape for a three-mile run. The first few blocks on the chart seem too easy, but the creators did that deliberately to make sure no eager beavers rush themselves into an injury.

The end of our training sessions conclude on a circle at the end of a cul-de-sac. In a simple but very satisfying ritual, we always hit a mailbox and listen to the vibrating gong.

The other day, Jared surprised me by not slapping the mailbox. Instead, he took one extra lap around the circle before indulging in our traditional smackdown. “I wanted to see if I could last a little longer,” he explained.

There was no mention of gift cards, Legos or any prizes, all of which are disappearing in our collective rear view mirror. Testing his new level of endurance was enough of a reward—for me, too.



5-2-1-0 Plan

Let’s Go, a national childhood obesity prevention program based at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, developed the 5-2-1-0 plan as an easy way for families to remember how to raise active and healthy children. The recommendations are:

5 – Eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day.

2 – Have 2 hours or less of recreational screen time each day.

1 – Get 1 hour of exercise each day.

0 – Opt for water and low-fat milk instead of soda or sweetened beverages.