ASK BBB: Parenting Advice from Betsy Brown Braun

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Q: My 13-year-old asked that I buy her a Fitbit for her birthday. She’s at a perfectly normal weight for her age, and I would like to encourage her to stay healthy, but I also don’t want her to become too obsessed with fitness, especially since she’s already healthy and reasonably athletic. Do you think she’s too young to use a fitness tracker? Are there negative sides to getting her one?

It comes as no surprise to me that your 13-year-old daughter wants yet another electronic gadget. Of course she does! I know many adults who can’t live without the latest and greatest in the digital world. We live in an age where almost daily better, improved, more advanced and fancier is on the market. The good news is what your daughter actually wants: a relatively harmless Fitbit.

I don’t know you or your daughter, but the nature of your particular concern speaks volumes about you. Sounds like you have your priorities for your daughter in order and your parenting feet are firmly planted.

First of all, wanting to be fit can be a heathy and harmless “obsession.” I would rather call it an active interest. There are so many positive outcomes possible from using a Fitbit to help regulate your activity. It is when it takes over a person’s life to the exclusion of normal activity and leads to unhealthy or unreasonable behaviors that parents must take note. That is when it crosses the line to actual “obsession.”

Typical of most 13 year olds is an uptick in physical self-awareness and self-consciousness—a concern about body image, dress, style, all of it. Even the most secure of kids pays an incredible amount attention to how she looks, how she is perceived, and to her brand and personal image. I call it your “personal billboard.” It’s that time of experimentation and identity formation. So that your daughter actually cares may be fantastic; she is learning to take responsibility for herself, all of her being.

I don’t know if your daughter has a tendency toward obsessing, buying into new behaviors hook, line and sinker. But if she has historically done so, you are right to think about what might come out of regulation by a Fitbit. I have heard cases of adults becoming controlled by the tracker—needing to check for steps taken, hours of REM sleep logged in, etc. …

What I can tell you is that research supports the important role that parents play in modulating a child’s attitudes and habits. You have more power than you may realize. I hope you are aware of your own behaviors that you model about healthy body image and general well-being. Parents give very strong messages just by their own practices (diet, exercise, the works).

So I say, “Happy Birthday, dear daughter, and here is your new Fitbit.”

Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (infants to teens), a Parent Educator and Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist. Betsy consults with parents privately, runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers and other professionals. She is the author of the bestselling “Just Tell Me What to Say” and has been featured on the “Today Show.” Betsy and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have five grandchildren, so far.