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Should Parents Be Punished for Childhood Obesity?

When I heard about the 218-pound 8-year-old Ohio boy who was removed from his home because he was too obese late last year, my heart sank. The boy was placed in foster care and away from the only home he’s known, based on a judge’s ruling of medical neglect by his parents.

I’m a pediatric nutritionist and registered dietitian and I work with obese children daily. I understand the whole health angle here. But the extreme complexity of family dynamics around food and parenting is a multifaceted issue that isn’t easily solved.

Of all the ways to deal with this issue, this was perhaps the least useful. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this story that should have been resolved before removing the child: What’s the eating environment in the home? What’s the parenting style? And the $64,000 question: Are the parents using food to control the child’s behavior?

In my practice I see many parents using food to control behavior. Teach a parent to handle food tantrums appropriately and establish a regular schedule of meals and snacks and you’re halfway to solving the child’s obesity.

So what would I do? After ruling out any medical reason for his weight gain, I would find out more about the family dynamics and lifestyle, including details about the parents’ eating habits and home food environment.

Addressing obesity on any permanent basis means looking at how the family approaches food and feeding children. To do otherwise is to expect a child to have better eating habits than his parents.

Next, I’d want to know if the parents felt their child’s weight was a problem. Cultural issues are a factor here. Many parents truly feel that fat children are healthier, and that a normal-weight child is a sign of poor parenting. Some parents feel it is improper to deny a child food for any reason.

I’m NOT willing to place blame on the typical external factors like fast food, low income and sweet drinks. This gives people a reason to take no action until legislation and policy changes happen. That’s a luxury our kids can’t afford at a price they shouldn’t have to pay. Telling a child “no” is a skill ALL parents need to have and to practice without guilt.

An 8-year-old isn’t buying huge amounts of food for himself; a parent or caregiver is. And that’s who we need to be dealing with, not a child protective agency, at least not until the last resort. There’s no evidence here that this was the case.

This child needed intervention about 100 pounds ago. If it didn’t happen then, it begs the question, why not?

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mike February 12, 2012, 3:36 PM

    Im on the fence with this one. On one hand I think parents are to blame but on the other I think the parents could easily of been misinformed and are passing on those misinformed eating habits onto their own children. I know when I was in school there was not a lot of information floating around about what a healthy diet is.

    Stories like the one you mentioned above about the 218 pound boy is truly awful. When a parent can not see that their child is gaining weight and they continue to let them get to that size, I think its time for someone to step in.

    Maybe send the parents to a child dieting and nutrition course.

  • Peter February 19, 2012, 11:05 PM

    This is a very interesting question. I have no real knowledge just opinion!

    Without doubt we know our parents have the primary influence over our development. When it comes to eating, most often it is the mother who does the shopping and cooking. But as parents learn from their parents, who is responsible?

    Kids these days lead inactive lives and are encouraged to do so by both their peers and society. We sold off the school playing fields and invented computer games. Parents work long hours and instant food is easy to access. How are the kids to know better?

    Healthy food tends to cost more than unhealthy food, so what are the less privileged to do?
    Punishment will not, in my opinion, work as it is simply not sustainable.

    Is it the parents fault? Probably YES. So let’s help them to help their kids – education, exercise is the mantra but banging your head on a thick brick wall is probably the reality. I know from my work some people want to lose weight and change their lifestyle. They want this for their children too but they do not always know how or where to start and feel stuck, I try to ‘un-stuck’ them (bad English, I know!)

    We have to help them get un-stuck, then they can help their offspring. Will pills work? Sadly yes, but this takes away the personal responsibility for health and wellbeing – that said, that is an aspiring middle-class statement.

    As diabetes in children is growing as much as our kids waistlines, we must help the parents to help them. It feels like a circle but if every time we go round the circle it gets smaller it will eventually become a full stop!

  • Carissa D December 10, 2012, 12:51 PM

    I agree 100% with the courts decision. It is absolutely time that the government steps in and starts treating childhood obesity as is it; child abuse.
    It is neglect: harmful biologically and psychological to a child.
    This issue costs taxpayers millions of dollars every year, while caring for people who had “grown” so large that they are unable to work, as well as, are physically ill as a result of weight.
    Obesity exceeds smoking and drinking in the death tolls, along with associated diseases.
    It is absolutely a parents/care-givers job to say NO to a child, yet that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Not every parent cares for their child (as such those allowing the child to eat too much unhealthy foods and get no exercise); these parents should not be legally allowed to raise their children.