My own kids are not obese. They tend to hover somewhere around the 20th percentile on the growth charts when it comes to their weight. They have skinny legs and knobby knees. Try as I might to feed them, they eat less than I think they should. All the same they seem healthy. Kids can be like that, so I don’t sweat it. I know that if they’re really hungry, they’ll eat, and I don’t want to make food a battleground.
What if my kids weren’t so skinny, though? What then? There’s no shortage of articles rushing to blame parents for having overweight kids. Some of them are based on scientific studies. Some of them point the finger at what we pack in their lunchboxes. Some even suggest that parents of obese children should lose custody. And what does all this finger-pointing accomplish? I honestly don’t know.
If our kids are facing health issues, of course we should know. But why the rush to blame parents? In the 1950s we blamed autism on “refrigerator mothers”. It’s an extreme example of an all-too-typical response. The idea that we’re responsible for every aspect of our children’s development is deeply ingrained, and extends far beyond obesity and autism. Does your baby wake often? You’ve created bad sleep habits. Breastfeeding didn’t work out? You didn’t try hard enough. Does your child have a hard time paying attention in class? It’s probably ADHD caused by vaccine injury. But for the love of all that’s holy, don’t drug your child, you bad parent.
We’re constantly being told all about everything we’re doing wrong. Or could be doing wrong. Or probably did wrong in the past, without realizing it, which may lead to some unspecified future disaster. When I get press releases urging me to watch TV shows about childhood obesity, or accusations that allowing my three-year-old to ride in a stroller is contributing to childhood obesity, or yet another sheet full of handy tips for avoiding childhood obesity, it feels like the same sort of thing. We’re doing everything wrong wrong wrong. We’re at fault. We should be scared, and we should also feel guilty.
If childhood obesity is a medical issue, then why don’t we treat it that way? You’d never see fliers on telephone poles advertising classes to help your children avoid asthma or tooth decay. But I regularly see the specter of childhood obesity pulled out in order to promote sporting activities and exercise classes for kids. And how much would those classes really do, anyway? We know that kids need to eat healthy food and get moving, but they need a whole lot more than an hour each week. There’s no weekly class, quick fix or tip sheet that can solve a complex social issue like obesity. When we use childhood obesity as a marketing tool we suggest otherwise, and I don’t think that helps anyone.
I hope that we’re able to make some changes, as a society, that help us all to live longer, healthier lives. I don’t believe that health is all about the number on the scale, either. There’s a whole lot more at play, and the truth is we don’t have a good handle on exactly what factors are leading to increases in health issues like heart disease, cancer and childhood obesity. We know about some contributing factors, but we can’t state definitively what causes any of these. So for now, I wish we’d stop pretending like it’s easy and simple. I wish we’d stop laying blame, and start treating childhood obesity in the same way we’d treat any other medical issue – by leaving it between a family and their health care provider.
By all means, eat healthy food. Get out and get active. Raise important issues about public policy and the food that you find in school cafeterias and the chemicals we’re exposed to and the fact that fewer and fewer kids have recess. But stop using childhood obesity for marketing purposes, and as a tool to create parental guilt. We have more than enough already, thank you.
What do you think? Are you also tired of hearing about childhood obesity – or do you think we should be hearing more? What do you think is the best way to tackle the issue? I’d love your thoughts.