Childhood Obesity: Don’t Just Blame the Parents

We love 'em to death. But can we keep them healthy?

Let's all just take the easy way out because the rote political sound bite is a lot easier to spit out than the very complex issue that is childhood obesity.  Kids are fat because of their parents.  Point the finger squarely at Mom and Dad, tell them they are responsible for the mess that is their child, and continue to feel superior (I guess) because you have skinny kids. What a load of crap! Do parents have the lion's share of responsibility?  Yes, of course they do!  Food, shelter, clothing, education, and moral values are all the parents' responsibility and most of us embrace this the best we know how with the tools that we've got.  Many of us carry on our own parents' traditions without even thinking twice about it.  But it's a different world now and what worked for our parents might not be as effective for us and our families. The Issues There are soooo many factors that come in to play here.  Besides the lack of parental education on matters of nutrition, I'm just going to name a few. Children watch an average of 4 hours of television every day.  And when you add in additional screen time such as video games and computers (including when used in a classroom environment), that number jumps up to more than 7 hours each day, approximately half the time a child is awake! Kids today are significantly less active than older generations and it shows on their waistlines.   A full 59% of Moms with kids under the age of three work outside the home.  It's harder for them to control caregivers, and when they come home tired the TV is often the easiest thing to do.  No I'm NOT saying it's right, I'm saying it's reality. The school lunch program is appalling. Many poorer school districts serve almost as many breakfasts as lunches to students and they are literally feeding them stuff that isn't approved to feed livestock.  With an assisted income school lunch costing only 40 cents, how is a parent at or under the poverty line going to provide healthy food for an equivalent cost? Homework has gone way up. In my school district a sixth grader is expected to do about 2 1/2 hours of homework per day.  Do they have time to go out after school and play with their friends?  No way, they have to hit the books as soon as they get home.  If you add homework and school time together they are working longer than a 9-to-5 job. Pediatricians don't address the problem. I'd love to have pediatricians on the front lines, helping to educate parents and get kids going in the right direction.  But doctors are busy and they're just trying to give out shots and check for major health issues and move to the next patient.  You're lucky if you get a passing mention that discusses weight  control.  Keep in mind that a lot of doctors don't even know how to live healthfully themselves. Blaming Parents It's easy to stand there and blame parents for what they're doing to their kids.  It's a parent's job to get the right information, come home, cook healthy meals, and make sure everyone is getting enough exercise.  You're right, it is our responsibility.  But how many of you can say you do all of that, consistently, all the time?  How many of you can say your child follows along and does as you say 100% of the time?  Can you really point the finger at a dual-income working family who come home exhausted every day and try to do their best with limited resources? And what does blaming accomplish anyway?  Now all you've got is pissed off, defensive, overly tired parents who want nothing to do with you ... Kindness and Education We need to educate parents and, as I said earlier, I'd like to start with pediatricians.  For one thing, you're child is required to see a doctor annually to attend school in most states so the doctor will have regular contact with you and your child.  For another thing, we trust our kids' doctors and if they tell us to try and then give us some informational handouts parents will hopefully be more likely to put in the effort. The school system. We are already improving school lunches thanks to Michelle Obama but we can always do more.  Jamie Oliver has done an excellent job of pointing out how bad the schools are at educating about basic nutrition and I'd love to see those kinds of classes become mandatory in the curriculum.   The school system is a very big boat and hard to turn around quickly though.  It will take years to overcome the lobbyists and enact changes through the system.  We need an army of dedicated parents keeping pressure on their legislators. A Challenge For all of you who say it's simply a matter of parents educating themselves and changing the ways of their family, I challenge you: Walk out into your neighborhood, pick a nearby family battling obesity (likely they're no more than a few houses away if not even next door), and ask them if you can help.  Ask them what they need to help their kids and see if you can provide it. You'll likely hear a lot of excuses about working too hard, being overly tired, the kids won't listen.  But you'll hear other stuff too; frustration that gym class was cut, not being able to afford the fee for their kids to play an after school sport, shame because they don't know how to help their children and they know they're hurting them. Be kind, be compassionate, swap some meal ideas, and bring a sample dish over when you drop off the recipe cards.  Offer to play a little ball in the backyard with the kids.   Ask the parents what they think of the new food plate and, if they haven't heard of it, forward them a link in an email.  Reach out to the school and see if you can plant a garden or help out in the cafeteria.  There's a lot we can do, but sitting around and pointing fingers at parents isn't one of them. I know I'm going to hear it in the comments; go ahead, I can take it.  You're not going to change my opinion though ... what do you think?  Have you ever tried to help someone?  How did it go?  And in case you are wondering, yes I do have a weight appropriate child.  We actually have problems finding pants that stay up, the kid's super healthy and all muscle, and we brown bag his lunch every day.  He's never had a school lunch. Cheers, Lisa

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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14 Responses to Childhood Obesity: Don’t Just Blame the Parents

  1. Jenn Givler September 22, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    Ok, I’m tearing up here… not the reaction I thought I was going to have with this post. But, that last bit got me.

    I am currently working with a woman who is in this exact space. She’s overweight, her kids are overweight, and she knows it and she wants help… but, she feels a TON of shame around this issue. She KNOWS the right thing to do… but she’s a single mom, working 50 hours a week, raising two teen-aged kids. There’s a reality that she’s facing that’s not easy to manage.

    I’ve known this woman for years, and she came to me because she felt safe enough to talk about it – it’s not easy for folks like this to ask for help – or to share the reality of their situation.

    Helping her is NOT easy. The kids are very set in their ways as far as junk food. They fight her about changing things A LOT.

    One thing we’ve been able to do is get the kids involved. We did tell them that they would have to let go of 1 processed thing per week and replace it with something fresh and healthy. They could choose what to get rid of, and what to replace it with. That’s been working fairly well.

    I’ve also been sharing really easy, healthy meal recipes, and we’ve asked the kids to help out with cooking – that has been working as well.

    It seems as long as they feel like they have a say, we’re good to go – so far…

    I think getting the kids involved in the process is the key. My daughter is 9 and she’s the same way – she wants to feel like she has a say.

    I’m with you in your stance Lisa – standing around pointing fingers, and taking a holier than thou attitude is not the answer. This is a multifaceted issue. Education is a huge part of it – but so is compassion and understanding.

  2. Timmy Mac September 22, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    I agree with a lot of this. My wife and I have one overweight child and one skinny child. They eat the same healthy (mostly organic) food, get the same amount of screen time, and get the same encouragement to be active. And yet they could not be more different, physically.

    Sometimes parents can be perfectly well educated about diet and exercise and still have fat children. Some people are fatter than others. It’s always been that way. Sometimes when I hear professionals talk about “educating” parents with overweight kids, I find it a bit condescending, if I’m being honest. It suggests I somehow don’t know there’s a problem or don’t care enough to fix it.

    I desperately, desperately want to help my overweight child, and I spend a lot of time and energy learning how to do that. The poor kid not only has me and his mom harping on his weight – now he has Michelle Obama hammering him, too. There’s a risk of turning this into a lifelong eating disorder or cycle of shame, and that’s something I worry horribly that we’re doing.

    The fact is that some people get fat for a variety of reasons, and that was the case even before the current “epidemic.” Hell, I was a chubby kid, while my sister was skinny. Same parents, same genetics. She ate candy bars and soda; I ate carrots and water, and yet I still got fat and she still stayed skinny.

    My son needs my support and my love. He needs me to buy him healthy food and expose him to healthy activities. And I’m there to do that. But at the end of the day, he also needs to know that I love him, and that I will continue to love him whether he stays chubby or turns into a superhero athlete like his brother seems destined to do.

  3. Lisa Johnson September 22, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    Jenn, thanks for sharing your story with your friends. You hit the issue perfectly. And thanks so much for bringing the kids into it. They don’t control what’s in the fridge, but they can be part of the decision making process when parents are trying to be a little more healthy.

    My nine year old helps me to cook, water our garden this summer, and I talk nutrition with him all the time. He has allergies that we need to work around so he needs to be educated because if he isn’t and eats the wrong thing it could kill him. (There’s some incentive to pay attention.) He’s been able to advocate for himself when he’s at a friend’s house since he was 5.

    How many of you have kids that nag you about being “greener” because it’s something they learned in school science class. Well if we had nutrition classes they’d do the same thing … parents need to be educated, but if we don’t educate the kids we’ll just raise another obese generation.

    Thanks Jenn,


  4. Julie September 22, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    Excellent article, Lisa.

    I struggle with my weight a bit so know that shame is the absolute worst way to motivate someone to lose weight. Thank you for addressing this. People will never seek help or succeed as long as they feel they are being judged.

    I have two kids who are weight-appropriate, but within that category they are at totally different ends of the scale. My eldest has the ‘pants-falling-off’ problem and my youngest is closer to the top of his age’s weight range. I treat them the same, they just process food differently.

    My kids are in the school system and help out in their lunchroom so I see first-hand how a, they get so much homework that we can’t have friends over after school to play and b, how crappy the supposedly nutritious food is. The school ‘nutritionists’ think that by putting lettuce or green beans or apple sauce on a tray they can ‘balance’ out a meal whose main ‘protein’ is stuffed breadsticks. Really?

    I will say that I implore parents to keep putting good food on the table, and not just say “my kid will only eat XYZ” then give up. Keep encouraging them to try new foods. Don’t make a huge deal, but keep putting a little of the good stuff on their plates. When they get to the lunch room we could put a gourmet vegetable feast on their trays and it’ll still end up in the trash if they’re not encouraged to eat veggies at home.

  5. Lisa Johnson September 22, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Timmy, thanks so much for your comments. I had that kind of family too, I was the scrawny one and my sister (a twin no less) always had a little extra on her frame. Same food, same parents, very similar activities, if anything she did more sports than I did, I was a bookworm. But she was always a little overweight. It wasn’t until her 30s that she got it all straightened out and exercises regularly and eats right. My parents did the same tap dance you’re doing of pushing a bit but trying not to push too much. It was frustrating for everyone.

    You bring up an excellent point. Thanks again for sharing it and good luck with your process.


  6. Marathon Sweetheart September 22, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    Be kind, be compassionate. Well said! Nutrition is a language. People just don’t know how to speak it. Just as we don’t blame foreigners for not speaking English, let’s not blame others for not knowing about nutrition. Whenever I go out of town to stay with family, I bring quinoa, veggies, beans, spices, and herbs. I cook and it always smells so good that they ask for some. I don’t push it on them, but they want to try it and end up LOVING healthy food. People leading healthy lifestyles have a responsibility to enlighten others when its appropriate but always be compassionate and humble. We’re all 3,500 calories away from gaining weight :)


  7. Lisa Johnson September 22, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    Julie, very well said. I especially agree w/keep making your kids try the “good stuff.” We always put a little bit of something on the plate. Managed to switch my kid from mashed potatoes to mashed cauliflower (use a little chicken broth and go easy on the butter). Overtime got him to eat broccoli slaw (super healthy), butternut squash, zucchini and non-red heirloom tomatoes. All very cool. But you have to keep trying again and again.

  8. Lisa Johnson September 22, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    Well said Marathon :-) and I only just discovered quinoa this year. I was afraid to try it because it “looked weird.”

  9. Joe Williams September 22, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    I agree with a lot you said, Lisa. It’s a challenge being a parent today and facing a different world than the one in which we grew up. We give our daughters healthy choices for meals, and I will say that there is a difference between the preferences of the two. Our oldest daughter will not eat red meat, for instance, and both prefer raw vegetables to cooked. The younger daughter will lean more towards snacks. The other thing that bothers me is what you point out – lack of activity. We have both daughters in dance and the younger daughter also does soccer. We had to resort to these because unstructured playtime, like what we used to have, is not an option with homework and helicopter parents that supervise every single aspect of a child’s life. That’s reality as well. I think we are managing, yet it’s a challenge.

  10. Lisa Johnson September 22, 2011 at 10:42 am #

    Thanks Joe, glad you pointed out that every kid is different and needs to be approached differently. Which is another check mark for parents to be aware of and adjust to as needed. L–

  11. Mary September 22, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Lisa, so glad to see this issue being confronted so boldly. I don’t have children, but I am an aunt to 23 of the most amazing people (what can I say, my siblings are fertile.) A few of them struggle with obesity, and I see their lives reflected in your comments above, and it breaks my heart.

    What I like the most about what you said is that the parents have the lions share of responsibility AND there are many other societal pressures and commitments that make it harder than ever. I think a lot of it comes down to education and prioritization.

    The parents (and other important adults in kids’ lives) are major influencers and can really covet/own/relish that role, which is why I loved your call to action at the end. Those of us who have made a journey to health can give back in meaningful ways and be role models to parents and kids alike!

  12. Lisa Johnson September 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    Mary, thanks for your comments and WOW 23 nieces and nephews?! You’ve got a cohort study group right there … lol. I do think it’s a combination of a bunch of factors not JUST parents. People in the comments have mentioned school, peers, brand marketing, DNA, shame, societal pressures … it’s all just super complicated you can’t pull at one string without disrupting the others.

  13. Sonya September 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    I wanted to chime in and share a little about our family in the hopes that it might open some eyes out there. The past 6 months have been a wild ride so I’ll try to keep it short.

    My daughters have both been on the larger end of the spectrum, in the 90th percentile or higher for weight since they were in preschool. Height typically stayed close to that, so our pediatrician said nothing was amiss. They were both bloated constantly, something I assumed came from their father’s side of the family since I used to be that skinny kid with the pants falling down.

    We have always eaten organic milk & produce, had vegetarian meals at least once a week, used only whole grain pasta and bread, used fruits and vegetables for snacks instead of processed carbs, packed their lunches for school 90% of the time, ensured they were active in sports, ate out at fast food places less than 5 times a year, ate out at restaurants about once a month, etc. Essentially, we did everything “right”.

    And yet, my teenager tipped the scales and entered into the obese category for her BMI this year. Additionally, she stopped growing earlier than anticipated, 3 inches shy of the height she’d been told to expect.

    Fast forward to the past six months when my youngest took gluten out of her diet. She lost 5 pounds in a month in addition to a bunch of behavior issues getting dramatically better. When she tried any gluten containing food after that, she got dramatically ill. After seeing that change, my teenager decided to try the same. Removing gluten, and then dairy, from her diet had such a profound effect. She too lost weight, about 15 pounds, over the next month and her headaches, anxiety, attention span all improved, yet we knew there was still something else wrong. Her pediatrician had been no help her entire life with chronic issues like bloating, chest pains, headaches, etc. and hounded me at every annual physical regarding her weight. It got to the point where we just didn’t think she was listening because she repeatedly told us to do what we were already doing – which obviously wasn’t working.

    So, we found a new Dr who put my teenager on an elimination diet for the past month. In the past 3 weeks, she’s lost an additional 11 pounds, ALL of her pain has disappeared and her focus has been simply incredible! Now we start the long process of adding back foods one at a time to discover the culprits. In addition, the new Dr ran a bunch of bloodwork that showed some extreme allergies, validated the gluten issue and discovered that my daughter is pretty hypothyroid. SO – for you parents that are doing everything “right” and still wondering why your child is overweight, please keep digging! The answers may just be that everything done “right” is actually something done wrong for your child.

  14. Lisa Johnson September 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Thanks Sonya, I so appreciate your story. Good luck with your journey! :-)

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