20 April 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

There can be few more embattled sectors of modern society than that occupied by parents.
The pressure on them comes from all sides – the myriad financial demands attendant to feeding, clothing, educating and recreating their offspring are added to by an all-pervading cultural environment which insists on multiplying the emotional and psychological requirements perceived as necessary for growth into healthy adulthood and frequently lays their deficit at the door of those with parental responsibilities.
The old canard, “It’s the parents who’re to blame”, still thrives in many guises.
It’s frequently cited as an explanation for the growing problem of childhood obesity, which surfaced as a subject of concern at Monday’s meeting of Co Monaghan Vocational Education Committee.
None of the comments made at that forum, we should emphasise, cast parents in the role of villains in this context – rather, Mr Frank McManus, the recently retired principal of Beech Hill College, and the Committee members who subsequently contributed to a debate on the topic, approached the subject from the point of view of how educationalists must address it.
Education has a key role to play in inculcating good eating and exercise habits in the young – and it was heartening to hear that there is already an accentuated awareness among schools in the VEC sector, and across the broader educational spectrum in our county, of the obesity problem, with measures already in place to counteract it.
How far classroom initiatives can penetrate to the domestic environment of young people is a moot point, but we are sure that the vast majority of parents are already sufficiently aware of the importance of good food and regular exercise for the wellbeing of their children as well as for themselves.
But the capacity of many households to ensure these needs are met is in some cases significantly impaired by finance and circumstance.
The many families already on limited means in this country are being joined on a daily basis by others undergoing adverse changes in their income, with obvious implications for the quality of food that is put on the table.
Add to this factor the pressures on the domestic routine of parents in employment – the regular family meal is in danger of joining the ‘thing of the past’ category – and the bombardment of young people with media messages promoting sedentary recreational activity and the consumption of fast food, and it is easy to determine the breeding ground for a childhood obesity problem starkly described by Mr McManus on Monday as “a crisis looming in front of us.”
Parents may be complicit in the culpability for the problem shared by society at large – but they are unwilling accomplices who would all too eagerly embrace improved mechanisms of support if they were available.
And it seems clear that these supports must come from sectors other than that of education, important as the knowledge and example imparted in our schools is to cultivating healthy lifestyle habits in the young.
Where diet is concerned, cheap food is not necessarily unhealthy food – but is enough being done in the retail sector to promote fresh farm produce, for example, over and above the processed, mass manufactured and aggressively promoted foodstuffs we are encouraged to turn to for speed and convenience?
While the shops will undoubtedly point to the greater promotional emphasis given in recent times to healthier choices, we would argue that in many cases this has merely made a little less unequal the still formidable odds that wholesome food faces in its battle for a share of the market place with the ubiquitous fast food brands.
More can undoubtedly be done in this regard – and, we feel, should be done in a more co-ordinated and consistent fashion with the active involvement of the Chambers of Commerce in our towns and the small market structures which have undergone a revival in the rural parts of our county in recent times.
Some great work is being done by GAA clubs and other sporting organisations in all our communities to engage young people in healthy exercise and physically active recreation.
The outreach of these efforts has broadened considerably in recent times and parents in communities throughout our county would not have to engage in a very deep investigative exercise to find a suitable sporting outlet for the energies of their younger offspring.
However, there does seem a period in the lives of young people, as they are maturing into their older teens and making the difficult transitions accompanying the advent of adulthood, when a significant number slip out of engagement with sport and lose the good habits of both physical and social stimulation associated with it.
From the comments made at Monday’s VEC meeting by Mr McManus, this appears to be a particularly problematic time for young people when it comes to making important future lifestyle choices for the good of their physical and mental health.
The older teen represents a much more elusive target area for sporting groups and, indeed, those promoting healthy nutrition, to have success with – but it is a key one, and perhaps one worthy of concentrated focus by our VEC schools and other second level educational institutions in our county, as well as by the further and higher education sector.
Parents and guardians all too aware of their responsibilities to nourish their children in body and mind would be greatly appreciative of effective locally based strategies to assist them in the task – hopefully we will see a range of new initiatives to tackle the problem of obesity in young people emerge in our county in the months and years to come.

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