#parent | #kids | Teens aren’t looking after themselves because they don’t feel looked after

Good news! Teenagers are drinking and smoking less! But before we get too comfortable, they’re exercising less too.

Teenagers may no longer reek of cigarettes and cider, but they’re increasingly sedentary and unfit.

The Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) determines that “one in five children are overweight or obese, more girls than boys are overweight and children attending Deis schools are far more likely to be overweight or obese.”

Such clear patterns suggest we have a problem of culture and habit in Ireland and PE doesn’t seem to be helping much.

In fact, we’re on course to becoming the most obese nation in Europe. This is far from good news for our already crippled HSE.

Yet, for some students, the future isn’t a concern. Simply put, they’re not convinced they’ll have one.

Yes, it sounds a tad melodramatic but so too are teenagers, and you can’t blame them, considering what they’re reading and watching.

Observing some of my students, girls in particular, it feels like they’ve gone on strike.

They’re no longer looking after themselves because they don’t feel looked after in general.

We’re the bad guys. Through our ignorance and greed, we’ve destroyed their planet.

So why should they listen to us banging on about getting an hour’s exercise and eating healthily?

Why should they listen to grown-ups about anything!

Only last week I discovered that a friend of mine is a climate crisis denier who feels we should continue to frack and drill.

There are plenty of grown-ups out there talking nonsense. Pandora’s box is well and truly opened and teenagers blame us for it.

So, what’s to be done? I don’t know.

Wherever and whenever possible, maybe more students should walk to school?

Surely, it’s a no-brainer to leave the car at home and cut carbon footprints by putting runners on?

Sadly, according to the CSO, self-propelled transport, walking, and cycling, has fallen by half, from 49.5% of primary school students in 1986 to 25% in 2016.

Car travel to primary school has risen from 24% of journeys in 1986 to 59.8% in 2016.

There are other factors at play and again the picture looks bleaker for our girls.

According to Census data, in 1996 one in four students who cycled to school were female.

By 2002, that had fallen to one in 10.

According to a survey earlier this year, only 250 females across the country cycle to school, often citing harassment from boys and men as a chief deterrent.

Maybe we should establish cycling groups for girls?

One might hold out hope that these girls have PE class at least.

Talking to my students, PE sounds more like a chore to endure, usually sitting in the cold outside, waiting for their turn, busy concocting excuses to avoid soccer for an endless 10-week block.

My school has zero sporting facilities.

The students are not allowed to run in the ‘yard’, if you can call it that.

They sit miserably in foldable chairs, clutching their lunchboxes with white-knuckled hands, waiting for time to be up so they can go back indoors.

There’s no playing, skipping, jumping, or running because we simply don’t have the space. And we don’t have a hall.

There’s no sustained option for these students to complete an activity they like or enjoy for PE. None whatsoever.

And there are schools like ours across the country.

In the last 10 years, just 11 of the 57 primary schools opened by Educate Together are in permanent accommodation.

Just four of the 17 second-level schools opened since 2014 have found permanent accommodation, figures released to the Irish Examiner show.

And yet, down the road from us, a private school has more space and facilities than our students could dream of.

One girl in my school also discusses the difficulty of having her period every month.

“I get really bad cramps,” she explains. “And I can’t say it to my teacher. He wouldn’t get it; it would be awkward.”

Exercise can help period pains, of course, but I can understand her reluctance to play football on a cold pitch in the height of her period.

You certainly wouldn’t catch me doing it! What a world it would be if she could choose to swim or do some yoga.

Surely this would train her to listen to her body, to what her body needs?

Our PE curriculum is good, as are our teachers.

Both take a holistic approach and want to avoid ‘inactive adults’ by getting kids moving, rather than focusing on competitive sports.

But our school facilities aren’t fit for purpose. PE looks far better on paper.

And although teachers try to make PE less competitive, there’s still a rise in obesity in adult males.

Physical education is something they give up when they give up competitive sports. We must get the balance right.

Fair play to the men and women in our communities who spend evenings and afternoons coaching kids and getting them involved in any kind of physical activity.

Fair play to the parents who drag themselves and their families to the swimming pool on a Saturday morning.

But too many children are still being left on the sidelines; they might not be smoking but they’re getting fatter, and as far as I can see, considerably sadder too.

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