When Was the Last Time You Noticed Your Child’s Posture?
How observing their body habits early in the day can offset undesired behaviors later on.
Mornings — with kids — can be hectic. Getting out of the door (on time!) while trying to be mindful of filling their bellies with nutritious food, reminding them about their dental hygiene, and providing them with clean (and matching) socks seems like more than enough to accomplish first thing in the day. However, even with the greatest intentions, in the midst of the rush, there are many moments we often miss with our children. Perhaps most notably, observing the way they eat their first meal.
Take a moment to picture your child as you imagine them munching on their breakfast. Whatever that image looks like in your mind, try to think about what their back looks like while seated in their chair. Are they sitting tall or small? Moreover, how are their heads balanced on top of their bodies? Are they placed forward, centered, or back? Now, try to remember that image as you observe them the next time they sit and eat.
How was your child actually sitting compared to what you thought? Was their back lengthened and tall, or did their spine lean forward and down, leading into a slumped posture? Did their body seem balanced?
What about their head? Were they moving it down towards their food, or bringing the food up to their mouth? Were they hunched over as they ate or trying to over-correct by stiffening and arching their backs, attempting to look ‘straight’?
These questions are important because they can direct you to think about what happens to your child’s body not just as they are eating, but in every activity they take part in. If your child is bringing their head down towards their plate, they are also collapsing as they round their back towards their food. This adds unnecessary tension and pressure to their young and developing spines.
Be mindful, if this is how they start their day, their posture will be further challenged by the amount of time spent sitting in chairs at school, (perhaps also hunched over as they look at their books, tablets and computers). As modern lifestyle has become more sedentary, so do the activities children engage in.
A few years ago, I conducted an empirical study on children and posture and found that on average, children throughout the world spend 26.5 hours a week sitting in chairs at school. They then spend an additional 40 hours a week (outside of school) engaged in sedentary activities (such as computer, phone, TV, iPad, doing homework and eating meals). This isn’t an ideal scenario for developing bodies, let alone for good posture.
With nearly 70 hours a week spent sitting down, the majority of children’s waking hours are spent in sedentary behaviors. During these hours, without being mindful of how they are sitting, they may be rounding their backs, or slouching, as they sit in their chairs.
That is of course, unless some well-meaning adult tries to correct them by telling them to ‘Sit up Straight’! Yet, the problem with commanding the back to be, ‘straight’ is that it’s impossible, since the spine has a natural curvature. This is discussed at greater length in a previous piece about teaching your children good posture habits and I will address it again below, for this notion of a ‘straight’ back has been erroneously associated with posture.
Now, you might be wondering, what on earth can your child do to sit appropriately? To better answer that question, it might be helpful to think about what not to do first. Experiment with yourself as a start. What would happen to your back if you didn’t slouch or arch? What other option would you have? If you’re still stumped for an answer, think up instead, and see if your head can lead your body upward without added strain.
Why breakfast matters
While you can’t be at school to monitor the way your child sits in their chair throughout the day, you do have the opportunity to make that first influence at breakfast. So begin with yourself. How do you eat? Do you bring your head down towards your food, thus hunching over? Or do you bring the food up to your mouth, with an upright back? Whichever way you use your body is being modeled for your child.
If you notice you bring your head down towards your food, imagine how hard your spine is working each time it is being pulled down. How many bites of food do you bring your head down for in a meal? In a day? In a week?
After breakfast, you might spend the rest of the day either sitting at a desk or in front of a screen. That’s even more time spent rounding your back or hunching over. Is it any wonder why so many people complain of back pain and poor posture? If you start your day bending down towards your food, and then continue to hunch over throughout the day, how can you expect yourself — or your child — to have good posture?
Like that well-meaning adult, you may also have told your child to ‘sit up straight’ before. But try to think about what happens to your body when you hear that command. Does the body magically turn into straight line or does the word trigger tension because you’ve become aware that you’ve already failed at a task? Feeling like a failure rarely brings ease to the body. In fact, it does the opposite.
For most people, the word, ‘straight’ triggers a fear response that sends them into a soldier pose: arched back, stiff neck, and shoulders and head pulled back. Remember, that position isn’t any better for the spine than rounding your back. Both put undue tension and pressure on the spine, forcing it to contract and eventually shrink. The arched back forces the spine to bend backwards, while the rounded back forces the spine to bend forward, both having a negative impact on posture.
So how do you rectify this? If ‘straight’ isn’t really straight, then what can be done to improve the use of the body? For starters, begin by paying attention to yourself first, before you comment on your child’s body habits. If you notice your child bending down towards their food, model the desired behavior for them. Instead of going down to your bowl of cereal, try bringing your spoon up to your mouth. Tell your child you’re experimenting and you’d like to see if they can do it too. It might take some getting used to, but it’s a start.
You can ask them to imagine that their head is like a balloon lifting up towards the ceiling. You can both use the open space between yourselves and the table to extend your arms out and bring your food bite by bite to your mouths. This not only looks wonderful, it also feels fantastic.
You would be amazed at how much body intelligence most children have. You will be even more impressed by how they can sit upright without arching if you simply ask them to imagine their head leading the body up towards the sky. Remember to think and say ‘up’ rather than ‘straight’.
It is important to note that children are not expected to never turn their heads downward or never slouch or arch their backs again. These are all habits, and habits can’t be undone in a day, they take time to identify and then address.
You can engage in almost any activity you wish, if you do so in moderation and remain mindful and aware of what you are doing with your body. Introduce discussions about anatomy and posture with your children — you will be delighted to find out that most children find the topic quite interesting.
All of this, of course, takes a great deal of practice. I’ve spent the past 19 years learning the principles of the Alexander Technique, a psycho-physical method which explores the way we use our bodies and the impact unknown body habits have on our lives. With over a decade of teaching this magnificent technique, I believe changing undesired behaviors is possible, if you are willing to explore the underlying habit first.
So the next time you notice your child’s posture, celebrate their young and able body. Children are still agile and full of opportunity and hope. Experiment together by observing other people and their postures and reflect on what you notice.
Most importantly, remember to model the body behaviors you wish to see in your children. Helping them identify unwanted habits — such as slouching and arching the back — is the best way to help them offset undesired behaviors and promote a healthier lifestyle for the whole family. And what better way to implement a great new habit than to pay attention to your body at the start of a brand new day.