The last place trophy

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One of the many events held in the month of June is the ParticipACTION Community Better Challenge. The challenge seeks “Canada’s Most Active Community” – an honour which was won by North Grenville last year. The title comes with a $100,000 cash prize which the winning community naturally uses to improve its recreational amenities, such as parks and trails. At the risk of sounding like the Summer Scrooge, I can’t help but wonder if Canada’s least active community should get some prize money as well. Not as a trophy of course, but as an acknowledgement that such a community is likely in desperate need of some parks and trails!

The causes of inactivity across all age groups are many. Of course, we would all love to blame the addictive nature of video games, television, YouTube, and other number of screen-related factors. What kid is going to want to go outside and play when there is an exciting virtual reality inside that offers an escape from the stresses of being a youth of today? Unfortunately, that explanation doesn’t hold up when it comes to toddlers. Younger children are not able to take themselves to the park. They do what they are permitted to do. So why aren’t their parents engaging in physical activity with them? Are today’s parents simply lazy? I offer an alternative theory. Today’s parents are busy and poor. 

One source I found suggested that Canada’s poverty line is sitting at around $49,000 of household income per year for a family of four. This is not the threshold of “being poor” or “living paycheque to paycheque”, it is the threshold that separates those who can afford the basic necessities of life from those who can’t. Accounting for 20% payroll deductions, a family making $49,000 per year would be taking home about $750 per week, or $3,000 per month.

I did a quick search of area rental properties. A “good” price for a two-bedroom rental seems to be somewhere between $1,500 and $1,800 monthly, while a three-bedroom place runs from $2,000 monthly and up. I was even able to find some rentals of nothing more than a single room for $1,000 per month. In order to cover utility bills, groceries, transportation, and other routine expenses, it is generally recommended that rent should be no more than one third of income. So in other words, the 2021 bare minimum figure of $49,000 per year simply doesn’t hold up in the 2022 world of $2 per litre gasoline, skyrocketing food prices, and an out-of-control housing market. For a family wanting to rent a three-bedroom house, minimum income should theoretically be $98,000 yearly just to make ends meet. For two parents working minimum wage jobs, that income level would require both parents to work about 12.5 hours per day, five days a week. Imagine the hefty child care fees with a schedule like that! And when would you take your toddler to the park? Well… never. 

When we think of today’s kids being less active than they were decades ago, we need to point fingers less, and realize that the world is simply a different place than it was back then. Long gone are the days of a one income household, where the working parent had reasonable hours and another parent was at home all day to take care of household duties. The combination of increasing inflation and the current housing crisis has turned the working poor into a group who simply work, eat, and go to bed. 

The “working poor” explanation of why kids are less active does not hold out for older kids and teens. An explanation that does, however, is the extent to which these youth are often vilified. Working at an elementary school, including after hours in the extended day program, we often have teenage visitors. They are almost always polite and well-behaved (and dare I say, often better behaved than the younger children who are under our supervision). Sure, the occasional swear word slips out, but these teens will apologize and immediately clean up their language if it’s pointed out to them. Some however, don’t even give us the chance to interact, because they take off running as soon as they see us approaching. They are so used to being chased out of anywhere and everywhere by those who assume they must be bad news, simply because of their age. It’s unfortunate because, let’s face it, teens who choose to be in a schoolyard supervised by adults are not likely interested in committing acts of vandalism or selling drugs. The reality is, in small villages, a schoolyard is often the only comfortable outdoor public space available. 

The moral of the story is simple. Don’t criticize parents who don’t have the time to be active with their young children, when they are barely getting by in a brutal economy. Don’t chase well-behaved teenagers out of prosocial, active environments, and then complain that they are lazy and addicted to video games. And yes, in a world where the last place trophy comes with a dose of understanding, maybe Canada’s Least Active Community just needs a good play park.

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