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Are Parents to Blame?

August 21, 2011

It’s part of human nature to look for patterns, trying to tease out what triggered a particular event. We like to think that the world has some order, that every effect has a cause. In most cases, it’s probably quite true. The problem comes in when the cause is so much bigger and more complicated than we can (or want to) comprehend, but we pass judgment based on the small part we can see because we want to blame someone.

Take the obesity epidemic. On the one hand, it’s easy to say that people are overweight because they’re consuming too many calories. But why are they eating so much? A recent study by JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) looked at obesity in children, and decided that in many cases the reason is the parents.

It is easy, after all, to point the finger at them. They’re the ones who bring food into the house, who let their kids overeat, and who model eating habits (poor or otherwise). And if they let their children gain excessive amounts of weight (the extreme example is of a 14-year-old boy in South Carolina who got up to 550 pounds), they obviously don’t care about their children’s health. So take the child away, and everything gets better. Simple. Right?

Except it’s not. I won’t argue that parents play a role, sometimes a significant one, in their children’s weight problems. But I don’t think it’s fair to place the blame squarely on them, for a number of reasons, though I’ll focus on two.

One, unless the family is completely isolated – the parents homeschool the kids, don’t expose them to advertisements of any sort (internet, TV, movies, magazines, etc.), prevent them from attending any social events with any kids who aren’t equally isolated, don’t celebrate any holidays with a focus on food, etc. – the children will have access to food without their parents’ knowledge and will be tempted to eat that food for many reasons other than hunger.

It is not, after all, the parents’ fault that our culture has access to so many easy calories. Consider government subsidies of corn, creating an abundance of HFCS, instead of subsidizing a variety of fruits and vegetables, making them affordable for all income levels. Parents cannot control the marketing and advertising of highly processed foods, all the glitz and glamour, nor can they avoid all the social emphasis placed on eating.

The other reason is that in many cases, I don’t think parents are aware of what they’re doing that’s causing the problem. It’s often not nearly so obvious as having lots of food around, or allowing the child to eat, or not worrying about their weight. Parents may not know how to provide better choices. They may also not realize that the emphasis on weight can contribute, or off-hand comments can start the child down the path of turning to food – for comfort, out of rebelliousness, as a distraction from the pain of that comment, etc. I think in most cases the parents are concerned about their children’s weight, but perhaps need better education on how to address that in a way that will make sense to their children.

So before anyone plays the blame game, I hope they pause to consider that the answer is rarely simple, and that destroying families out of a knee-jerk reaction is perhaps not the best solution.

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