Mothers and fathers tended to favor different strategies when encouraging their daughters to be active. Mothers provided higher levels of logistic support, that is, they were more likely to enroll their daughters in sports and to support their daughters at sporting events. Fathers, in contrast, were more likely to use their own behavior to encourage activity, for example, by leading a family outing involving activity. Although parents tended to favor different strategies to encourage their daughter to be physically active, both forms of support were associated with higher levels of physical activity among girls. In addition, a dose-type response was noted in the combined impact of parents on girls’ physical activity. Only 30% of girls reported high levels of physical activity when neither parent provided a high level of overall support for activity. This figure increased to 56% when one parent provided a high level of support and increased again to 70% when both parents provided high levels of support.
Previous research has yielded conflicting evidence about the comparative importance of mothers versus fathers on children’s physical activity (5
), This lack of consistency may be due to the fact that previous studies have generally adopted single item questions to assess parents’ own activity or their encouragement of activity. By developing a questionnaire that assessed a broader range of parenting practices that may promote physical activity, we found that mothers and fathers report similar levels of encouragement, but their methods tend to differ. The different support strategies adopted by mothers and fathers in this study (i.e., logistic support versus direct modeling) mirror gender differences identified in general parenting strategies in that mothers generally adopt a nurturing and organizational role and fathers adopt a more hands-on, playful approach to parenting (14
). The fact that each method was associated with higher levels of physical activity among girls is encouraging because it suggests that parents can be given the freedom to provide activity support in a manner that is most comfortable to them.
When assessing the combined impact of mothers and fathers on girls’ physical activity, results indicated that girls were significantly more likely to be highly active when at least one parent reported a high level of support in contrast to when no parents provided a high level of support. In addition, in families in which one parent provided a high level of support, it did not matter whether it was the mother or the father. These findings suggest that in situations where it is infeasible for both parents to provide a high level of support, the positive influence of parental support may still be evident if at least one parent is supportive. Although it may be assumed that parental support leads to higher levels of physical activity among children, the directionality of this relationship cannot be determined in this study due to its cross-sectional design. For example, the pattern of associations may also reflect the possibility that highly active girls elicited higher levels of support from their parents. Further research using a longitudinal sample is needed to determine whether support from parents is associated with increases in children’s physical activity and whether parental support protects girls against the noted decline in physical activity across adolescence (27
Although parental support was associated with higher levels of physical activity among girls, parental support explained a relatively small amount of variance in girls’ activity (12%). This is likely to reflect the fact that physical activity among children is shaped by many factors including child specific characteristics (e.g., age, gender, and perceived self-efficacy) (1
), parents (17
), peers (17
), the school environment (21
), and community level factors (e.g., neighborhood safety and access to play areas (3
). In addition, the relative contribution of these factors is likely to change at various developmental phases. Results from this study are likely to underestimate the contribution of parents because there are domains of parental support that were not assessed such as the extent to which parents restructure the home to make it less conducive to sedentary activity and because we did not have a direct measure of physical activity such as accelerometers. Although combining information from two questionnaires and an objective measure of fitness (an indirect measure of physical activity) provides a more comprehensive measure of physical activity than a single questionnaire, direct assessment of physical activity provides a more reliable and valid assessment of physical activity. Using a direct measure of physical activity would likely increase the predictive power of parental support with respect to children’s physical activity due to lower levels of measurement error.
In summary, although mothers and fathers tended to report different forms of activity support, both were associated with higher levels of physical activity among their 9-yr-old daughters. Links between parental support and girls’ activity provide evidence of the predictive validity of the measure of parents’ activity-related parenting practices that was developed for this study. Findings from this study, in combination with what we know about the benefits of physical activity among children and adolescents, suggest that mothers and fathers can play an important role in promoting the physical and emotional well-being of their daughters by encouraging them to be physically active.
Future research could build on this study by examining associations between parental support and children’s activity using more diverse samples and families with alternative living situations (this study included two parent, middle-income, non Hispanic white families), by using a longitudinal design to assess the temporal sequence of parental support and children’ physical activity, by assessing additional domains of parental support, and by using a direct measure of physical activity. Finally, the mearsure of activity-related parenting practices may be useful in future research. For example, the scale could be modified to be completed by children with refrence to their parents, it could be used to asses change in parential practices across time, and it could be used to assess mediation models in intervention research.