Saturday, May 27, 2006

Strollers and obesity

I'm coming to the conclusion that a major cause of childhood obesity is the excellence of the modern stroller.

These days, the stroller/pram you buy when you first have a baby has enough features to last you to age four, if you wish. And if you don't wish, a new one isn't ridiculously expensive as a percentage of disposable income. And if you have another child, a tandem stroller, or a toddler seat is not that much more than a single stroller. None of that is bad, of course. And, for safety reasons, the stroller, of course, has a five point harness, which also enables you to strap most (not all) toddlers in for a while

But that's not how it has always been. Prams didn't used to convert easily to strollers - you had to prop a child up in an uncomfortable way, or buy another one. I very much doubt when I was little whether anyone could afford to buy a tandem stroller/pram when they had a second child - it would have been a much greater bite out of an income, and far less functional. And without harnesses, it would have been harder to keep a recalcitrant toddler in a pram who wanted to get out and run somewhere.

So mothers were once forced to teach their children to walk reasonable distances from a fairly early age. Their alternative was once to carry the toddler. But no longer. Wander anywhere where children might be out and about. Have a look at the age of the kids in the stroller. It's not uncommon to see four year olds. They might get out and walk for a while, but the stroller is there if they get tired.

Ever wonder why the toddler harness went out of fashion? I don't think it's got anything to do with our reluctance to treat a toddler like a dog on a leash. I think it's because a pram is a much easier way to restrain a toddler. And now that toddlers don't have to be taught painstakingly to walk sensible beside a parent at a reasonable pace, stopping at roads, they are much older before they walk as a way of getting somewhere. So when they're too old to be pushed anywhere, they are not in the habit of walking, and don't have the stamina to walk any great distance.

Of course everything above is a gross generalisation. But kids these days get less incidental exercise than their elders at a very early age, and the pram is just then later substituted by the car, when the distances get longer. Obesity is not just about unhealthy school lunches.


At 2:06 am, Blogger Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Actually I suspect that mothers just stayed home, rather than trying to march their toddlers along.

In defense of strollers: When my kids were tiny (ie unable to walk very far), I got *my* exercise by going for walks while pushing them. Now that they're bigger, I put them in the stoller to take them places, like the park or library, which are 1-2 miles away. My 4-year-old might be able to walk that far but not my 2-year-old, and so if I didn't take the stroller, I'd drive. Stroller option actually seems the healthier alternative in that case. Also becuase they do walk part of the distance themselves, until they get either too tired or stop to smell too many flowers.

Against strollers: I think strollers cause problems not because it keeps kids from walking, but it means parents don't have to discipline them. Like you said, the 5-point-harness keeps even the wiggliest kid in place, so the parent doesn't have to train the kid to sit still when told to. Also, if kids ride in the stroller all the time, then the parent doesn't have to teach the kid to walk in a line, to hold hands while walking, to hold hands while crossing the street, to wait for the light, to march when told to march.

Funny you wrote about this because I swear, I was *just* thinking about it. My sister who has no kids thinks today's gigantic strollers were built by the devil.

(Jen from under the ponderosa)

At 8:12 pm, Anonymous Jennifer V said...

As you know, I am a big fan of the pram as child restraint. If it weren't for that, we would never go ANYWHERE (slight exaggeration only). As it is, since the baby doesn't much like her bit of the double pram, and the 2 year old does like to walk, I often find myself walking along, holding the baby, trying to keep up with a bolting 2 year old, and pushing an empty pram with one hand (comes in handy for holding the shopping.) I did once ask my mother how she coped with shopping in the late 60s/early 70s without modern prams or baby slings (or evening and weekend opening hours for shops) and she said that back in the dark ages, she just rang up the grocer, put in her order, and a nice man delivered the groceries in the afternoon. Hmmm, progress....

At 9:59 pm, Blogger Jennifer said...

I thought I was being a bit dogmatic, but I wanted to write the post anyway. So maybe (jen from Ponderosa) I was really railing against the lack of discipline in the modern child, but (JV) I don't really think that about your child(ren) at all.

I asked my grandmother how she coped (having a toddler in London during World War II, and no pram) but she couldn't remember. I know my mother used a backpack, but that was even less common then than it is now.

I do think, though, that children can walk, with practice, further than most people realise. My (just) three year old went for a four kilometre walk on the weekend - it was only on the way back (the fifth and sixth kilometres) that he got to sit on daddy's shoulders. I don't think he's special, just that he's done a lot of walking. I'm certain that 100 years ago no-one would have thought anything of it.

But now I'm dangerously close to seeing my own (or more accurately E's in this case) childrearing practices as superior to the world at large, and I swore I wouldn't do that on this blog. So I'll shut up. Really we're just weirdos who like to walk a lot.

At 1:02 am, Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Damn, I liked it better when you blamed strollers for obesity, since that's the one problem that my kids definitely don't have going on.

I will say, though, that if it wasn't for Phil & Ted's, *I* would be suffering from more obesity. For ages my son just simply refused to walk any lengthy distance. Perhaps if I (or, more accurately, my husband, who's willing to carry both kids when they demand it) were a more effective disciplinarian, he would have simply gotten with the program and started walking more. But in the meantime, we would have spent even more time sitting around the house than we normally do.

Come to think of it, my son's laziness probably has more to do with slings than strollers. I carried him around until he was well past two years old -- another one of the advantages of having lightweight children.

At 7:25 pm, Blogger Tjilpi said...

Nothing to do with obesity etc; but I heard on RN recently that the prams with dual-wheels which operate side by side on each of the four, or maybe three, legs of the modern pram [as opposed to the 4 bicycle-wheeled perambulator] were invented by a Mr MacIntosh, who saw a mother struggling to get a pram over some rough pavement, and thought he could help.

He was the same guy who invented the dual-wheel landing gear that you see on all modern jet aircraft.

The dual-wheel system tracks better and doesn't go off track so easily.

My 18 year old Julia was first "prammed" in a MacIntosh Storller/Pusher.

If my memory serves me well, he also worked on the landing gear for Spitfires; but I'd need to check on that.

At 1:04 am, Anonymous Beanie Baby said...

I've seen eight-year-olds in strollers around here. Now, Frances is very small and so my judgement might be off, or these kids might just be very large for their age, but man, they were busting out of their strollers. Legs jammed in, head way over, all scrunched up--I couldn't help but think, oh for god's sake, let them walk!

Of course I have no idea what was going on and why the mother would have chosen this--I mean, maybe the child was sick or challenged in mobility or something. Maybe walking was really just not an option. I don't know. But I do think the trend towards ever-increasing assisted mobility for healthy, able kids is probably not a good thing. I mean, Frances--wee little 29" Frances--can walk most of the way to the park. And I clearly remember when I was a child, walking beside the stroller my brother was in, while my mother said, "NO ANDREA, I am NOT carrying you. We're almost there. Keep walking! And stop complaining or you're not getting any treats." This was to get to the grocery store and back. I would have been three or four, and at that time we had no second car. I think I'd rather be like that than give Frances a free ride until she's in middle school, although I think I'll have to make some allowances for her itty bitty little legs.

At 12:37 pm, Blogger Susoz said...

Interesting post and responses. I have varying feelings on the subject. My son, who was/is thin and very physically adept, first began walking the 2km round trip to the park and back when he was 18mths - he could do it all with no problem. The Montessorians explicitly state that little children are capable of walking long distances.
On the other hand, we kept using the pram/stroller until he was about four and a half - on days when he was sick, when I had to walk a long way in a short timespan and at night, when we'd gone out for dinner and he fell asleep and we'd walk home pushing him in the stroller. (We do a lot of walking too.)
On a couple of occasions, a neighbour (who happens to be a heart bypass machine technologist!)saw my then 3 or 4 year old in the stroller and cheerfully accused him of being "lazy". I was annoyed that he saw fit to comment in that way (especially as that was such an inappropriate word for my child.) On the other hand, I've seen large children who look like they're 4-5 years old in strollers and my immediate response has been that they look like they're being wheeled around by their personal servant!
I remember my younger sister being on a 'leash' - she was probably two. Our mother would take us shopping by bus and then of course we had to walk. I don't remember a stroller at all, though apparently there had been a pram for the babies, in which which my mother pushed me for one mile to take her oldest to school - with a toddler walking alongside.


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