US kids get new trend: more active parents

US parents are reading more to their children and placing more restrictions on their television viewing than they did 10 years earlier.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Every evening, Dan and Cheryl Weese and their three kids sit around the dinner table together and talk about their day.

Television is no distraction: The family's TV has been in the basement for six years.

"We don't miss it," says Mr. Weese, a Chicago architect. He and his wife, who also works, made a decision when their first son was born to "challenge ourselves to be more involved" with their kids. Ditching TV, eating breakfast and dinner together, and regularly reading to their 7-year-old son and 4-year-old twins are all part of that decision.

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The Weeses may still be unusual among US families, but more parents are moving in their direction, according to new Census data released Wednesday. Among other things, parents are reading more to their children and placing more restrictions on their television viewing than they did 10 years earlier. Nine percent more children are taking classes outside school, and 5 percent fewer 12- to 17-year-olds had to repeat a grade.

"It appears parents are more involved with their kids than they were 10 years ago," says Jane Dye, a family demographer with the US Census Bureau who helped compile the data, which was based on the 2004 Survey of Income and Program Participation.

The news may seem startling to those accustomed to headlines about kids glued to the TV, but experts say the Census data confirm a trend of more protective, involved parenting that has been going on for some time. "This generation of parents is monitoring their children more diligently than generations in the past," says Ruby Takanishi, president of the Foundation for Child Development, which publishes an annual Child Well-Being Index. The Census data is based on self-reporting, she notes, and it's impossible to know whether people tell the truth. "But they're certainly reporting what they think should be the truth."

Also, some aspects of the report could be misleading, Ms. Takanishi says. Take, for example, the news that significantly more parents are placing restrictions on on TV. "Children aren't watching television because they're playing with video games," she says.

But the data also found increases in the percentage of children who are read to at least seven times a week – from 48 percent to 53 percent of children aged 1 to 2 – and there were increases for children both below and above the poverty line.

Juliet Sorensen, an assistant US attorney in Chicago, says she and her husband started reading to their daughter, Sophia, from the beginning. Now almost 3, Sophia has started going to the library and is an enthusiastic book-lover. "I read somewhere that you may be tired of reading the same books over and over, but they're not tired of it," says Ms. Sorensen, who also decided to forgo TV except during plane rides or when her daughter isn't feeling well. "She's perfectly happy to have the same book read 30 times."

Some of the behaviors included in the Census report were tracked for the first time in 2004: Some 78 percent of children under 6 ate dinner every night with their parents, and 53 percent ate breakfast with their parents every day.

The amount of such family time – such as eating breakfast together and playing with their children – was about the same for both poor families and nonpoor ones, notes Jane Knitzer, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

"It challenges some of the stereotypes about the poor," says Dr. Knitzer. On the other hand, some of the school-related markers in the report are less encouraging: Poor kids are still about twice as likely to be suspended or repeat a grade. "Some things are more intractable than others," she says.

The Child Well-Being Index, which has tracked a variety of indicators since 1975, also found improvement in issues around child safety and children's behavior, and parents seem to be more protective than they were in the past, says Kenneth Land, a Duke University sociologist who compiles the index. But such involvement isn't all positive. "There appears to be a trade-off,' says Dr. Land. "The improvements in safety and behavioral indicators are the inverse of the obesity epidemic."

Parents are often so protective that they keep kids inside – often playing video games and eating junk food.

Still, he and others say that this latest confirmation of the trends by Census data is generally good news. "The culture seems to be focused on the importance of early-childhood development, and you have to say that the media coverage gets out there to parents and affects their behavior to some extent."

Parents say that while decisions like limiting TV or arranging schedules to eat as a family can take a big effort, they often see unexpected rewards.

"For the twins to occupy themselves is not a problem," says Weese. But with meals, he says, it didn't come naturally to make everyone sit down together. "It was essentially a leap of faith. But now it's become really enjoyable for everyone."

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