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I don’t have children. I’m not sure when I will have children, but I do know that when I do, health, both mental and physical, will be an important part of my raising them and teaching them about life.
This morning, I had an interesting dialogue with my family about legal action and laws around childhood obesity. Across the US, there are numerous strategies being implemented or being considered to address childhood obesity head-on. Some programs take a preventative approach by offering healthy options in the school cafeteria, while others take a more aggressive approach by disceminating BMI (Body Mass Index) Report Cards to parents when their children have either too low or too high of a BMI score; and others, take an even more drastic approach of accusing parents of child abuse and neglect.
I have to wonder, what approach is most effective? Do we wake up parents to the urgency of the situation by placing the blame on them? Do we humiliate children to get them to understand that they are at risk for being overweight as adults? Do we risk causing eating disorders and lifelong self-esteem issues among children and teens by negatively exposing them and their problem? Or do we hope with all of our might that the cafeteria’s lunch offerings will be enough for them to learn? There isn’t really a perfect answer, as every individual responds to things differently, and children, even more so. So what do we do? How do we attack an increasing epidemic?
For the most part, I believe that parents are most responsible for their children’s health. Assuming a parent is an active participant in their child’s life, it is safe to say that from the time a child is born up until the time they go to school, parents are the most influential in teaching them right from wrong, good from bad, healthy from unhealthy. If a solid foundation is laid, there is a good chance that children will make the right decisions when they leave the nest. That said, if a child doesn’t get that education at home, I do believe that parents need to be counseled, warned and maybe even fined if a child has an ongoing problem. They are their caretakers and guardians, and they need to be held responsible.
But how can you hold someone responsible, when they don’t even understand the problem themselves?
First off, with 66% of American adults overweight or obese, there is a good chance that many obese children have parents who are overweight as well. Secondly, many parents have a truly distorted view of their child’s weight problems. In a survey conducted in 2007 exclusively by Knowledge Networks, Inc, for C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, it was shown that only 13% of parents with obese children ages 6 to 11 rated their child as being “very overweight” while over 40% of the parents rated their children’s weight status as “about right.” 40%! Parents of older children (12 – 17), however, seemed to have greater awareness with 31% of parents of obese children saying their children are “very overweight,” 56% saying “slightly overweight” and 11% saying “about the right weight.”
Parents have to take action and responsibility early on, not just for their children, but for themselves as well. If they can’t lead by example, then children are only going to perpetuate their parents’ unhealthy habits. Further, parents need to face the reality of the situation, and admit that their children may have a problem and may be at high risk for early onset medical issues, such as asthma and heart disease. More and more children, as well as adults, are becoming less and less active. We can thank media, video games and the internet for that. Children have enough growing pains as it is, it isn’t right for parents to subject them to ridicule, possible physical health issues and even worse, mental health issues. Children need role models…and yes, that in my mind, starts with the parents.