Telling Your Child to Sit Up Straight Doesn’t Work: Why Criticism Doesn't Foster Change
Photo from Psych Central
This story is part of the Mental Health Library, a series on Mental Health from Psych Central.
Childhood can be the sweetest of times, especially when enriched by loving family and friends and strong support systems. However, even with the best circumstances, children rarely come out unscathed, particularly in cultures which perpetuate an incessant need for acceptance offset by impossibly high expectations. While caring parents aim to guide their children through life and the emotional roller-coasters that ensue, well-meaning advice is often misconstrued or entirely ignored.
For example, the last thing an adolescent wants to hear is a comment about their body, even if the intentions are good. The majority of kids are well aware of what their bodies look like physically, even if they aren’t nearly as mindful of how their behaviors come across to others. I remember cringing whenever I was once told, “You kids care so much about what your friends think of you.” I didn’t think grown-ups had a clue about my life, and I immediately dismissed what they said as “old folk” blabber.
Yet time can furnish us with perspective and a few years ago I saw a group of teenagers dressed up for their school’s formal dance, parading around town in their fancy attire. The young ladies, giggling nervously; the young men, galumphing behind them. I could now see them through the lens of an “old folk” and it was painfully transparent to watch how much validation they sought for every word or gesture they made.
Yet, beyond their bumbling, there was one thing that stood out far more than their flagrant awkwardness. Not one of these youth stood tall. It was almost as though they were deliberately trying to shrink themselves to appear smaller and less visible. While the obvious reason would be their blistering insecurity, there were several other culprits at work.
First and foremost, kids today have not adopted the same inclination towards physical activity as their predecessors from 20 years ago. According to an article from the Journal of Pediatric Health Care, “Many people assume that children are naturally active and participate readily in physical activities that lead to and help them maintain high levels of fitness during their early years. However, society has changed to encourage a more sedentary lifestyle. Children’s activity levels decline through the teenage years, with girls being less active than boys. Today there is a greater availability of sedentary pursuits that can lure children away from physical activities.”
If the body is already used to slumping over for extensive periods of time throughout the day, why wouldn’t that posture also transfer to standing and walking? In contrast to my generation that spent hours walking and talking with friends around the neighborhood, today’s youth can talk to all of their friends — at once — on different social media platforms, without even having to get out of their chair. And with over half of their waking hours being spent in sedentary behaviors, screen time doesn’t stop once the lights go out.
A 2010 Pew study found that more than 4 in 5 teens with cell phones sleep with the phone on or near the bed and according to researchers from JFK Medical Center, teens send an average of 34 texts a night after going to bed. The latter study found that half of the kids kept awake by electronic media suffered from a host of mood and cognitive problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression and learning difficulties.
This is further compounded by a recent study by Dr. Erik Peper which found that it was significantly easier to recall/access negative memories in the collapsed position than in the erect position and it was easier to recall/access positive images in the erect position than in the collapsed position.
With all of this research, is it any wonder why adolescents might look awkward and not be in the best mood? Of course not. A common misconception of poor posture among children is attributed to growing pains, or insecurity. In reality, lifestyle choices are a much bigger influence on postural health. How can anyone stand tall or radiate a zest for life when they’re spending most of their lives sitting hunched over?
What can we do to help them? What can we say to a child or teen the next time we see them slouching in their chair, or walking slumped over as they’re looking down at their phone? The most important bit of advice I can give you, is NOT to tell them to sit or stand up straight. The reason is because commanding them to “Sit up straight!” is not a solution and will only be heard as criticism. What is more, it will only do the following things:
Alienate you (remember you’re now part of the “old folk” club).
Annoy them because they already feel awkward and insecure and pointing out how they look awkward and insecure won’t make them feel any better or serve as a motivation (again, refer to #1).
Cause them to misunderstand the importance of good posture and only associate it with something that ‘old people’ told them to do (and consequently counteract your intention).
Not improve their posture.
Some of you may remember being told to “Sit up Straight” as a child. Most people can even remember the person that told them to do so and the way they said it. In fact, whenever anyone hears that I’m an Alexander Technique teacher and that I educate on psycho-physical health, the minute I mention the word, “posture” it’s an instant trigger that leads to arched backs, trying to illustrate the “sitting up straight” position they were instructed to perform in their youth.
The problem with the notion of “straight” is that it isn’t possible. Our spine has a natural curvature. Forcing it into what is thought of as a “straight” position is actually just inflicting tension on the back and compelling it to arch and overextend backwards. This causes tightening and contracting, leading to shortening of the spine. This is the opposite of lengthening, which is what makes our backs appear tall. Additionally, this attempt to “sit up straight” throws the body into disarray as it forces our chest up, shoulders back, head back and down, jaw tight and back tense. We tighten, compress, and shrink; this is the opposite of good posture.
Trying to over-correct a hunched back with an arched back is not the solution. Instead, we want to introduce freedom from tension in our bodies. Instead of “straight”, think “up.” Think of the head going up like a balloon, and as it lifts up, it creates space within the body. Finding space and freedom in activity is the message we want to send our children. They are already inundated with a plethora of societal pressures, their young bodies deserve to be free of tension.
The first thing we can start by doing for our children, is modeling desired behavior and posture. If you think your child has poor posture, take a look at yourself as you are sitting in a chair. You can’t tell your child to sit up straight, if you are sitting hunched over while you eat, work, or peruse your phone. Next, discuss posture from a scientific standpoint rather than a social one. Look at anatomy books and illustrations of the skeletal system. Compare them with pictures or images of people and ask your child to identify the differences. Familiarize yourself and your children with the term “body mapping”, so that you can all understand how the body fits together.
There are a myriad of illnesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Instead of sounding like an ‘old person’ and attributing posture to a way of sitting or standing, regard it as a matter of health. Poor posture doesn’t happen over night. It is the accumulation of lifelong habits. It cannot be corrected by simply “sitting up straight.” The first step towards improving posture is the recognition of harmful habits that interfere with the body’s optimal functioning.
There are a variety of bodywork specialists who can educate you and your family about mindful ways to approach musculoskeletal health. Research different modalities of body education practices and find one that aligns with your needs.
Identifying undesired habits early on is key to stopping those behaviors and replacing them with better choices. Good body habits not only improve posture, but also our relationship with ourselves and others. Finding ways to communicate with our kids which aren’t laden with criticism and “shoulds” can make communication more effective and also promote health and well-being in the process.
DeMarco, T., & Sidney, K. (1989). Enhancing children’s participation in physical activity. Journal of School Health, 59(8), 337–340.
Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S., & Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and mobile phones: Text messaging explodes as teens embrace it as the centerpiece of their communication strategies with friends. Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Matthews, C. E., Chen, K. Y., Freedson, P. S., Buchowski, M. S., Beech, B. M., Pate, R. R., & Troiano, R. P. (2008). Amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors in the United States, 2003–2004. American journal of epidemiology, 167(7), 875–881.
McWhorter, J. W., Wallmann, H. W., & Alpert, P. T. (2003). The obese child: Motivation as a tool for exercise. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 17(1), 11–17.
Peper, E., Lin, I. M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback, 45(2), 36–41.
Originally published at https://psychcentral.com on February 13, 2020.