Childhood Obesity: Don’t Just Blame the Parents

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 dayapproximately 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 plateand, 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.