There is much debate over whether parents are responsible for their child's obesity. In my opinion, there wouldn't be much to debate if people weren't afraid to speak the truth and call childhood obesity what it really is: child abuse and neglect. If your children are obese, you are physically and emotionally abusing them. Does that make you uncomfortable? Good.
Keeping a child safe and protecting them from harm is the fundamental responsibility of a parent. Which is why when parents' actions cause their children harm, the department of child protective services intervenes. The signs that abuse has taken place are physical; marks on the arms, a black eye, etc. Obesity also leaves a physical mark on the child, so I ask you: how is it any different?
Indeed, the signs of obesity are clearly visible and though they can cause tremendous emotional damage and self-esteem issues, the more devastating impact is that on a child's health. These are scars that don't heal. When I see an obese child, my first thought is that the parent is literally spoon-feeding their child disease, disadvantage and even a death sentence.
To any naysayers who argue that parents are just ignorant, I argue that ignorance is not an excuse. This is blatant harm that is being inflicted on a child, who has no control over or knowledge of how to be any different.
Referring to childhood obesity as an epidemic keeps the focus on food and exercise, but that is only part of the picture. Using this strong language is perhaps the only effective way to draw attention to this problem as a whole. And if we focus on responsibility instead of blame, those needing to take responsibility may just be able to hear the message instead of reacting defensively.
A recent video (below) produced by Strong4life attempts to show how adult obesity is the result of a lifetime of bad habits and poor choices. The behavior we see in the video shows the misuse and abuse of food, which are categories on the addiction spectrum. Food can be a drug of choice and parents introduce it.
As parents, we teach, guide and foster our children to help them function as a productive and socially responsible member of society. We teach them hygiene, morality and how to get along with others.
Every snack or meal is an opportunity for a teachable moment about which foods are fuel for our bodies and which food are joy foods, to be consumed in moderation. We need to help children listen to their bodies and stop eating when they've had enough.
Adults who do not do this for themselves are passing on their destructive issues to their children. And if we as a society permit this, then how can we protect our children from it? Would we be so accepting if the adult were exposing the child to drugs or alcohol?
I buried my father at age 67 when I was 5 months pregnant with my second child. His lifetime of poor habits and practices affected the whole family as we witnessed his unhealthy food behavior and supported him through many life-prolonging surgeries. In the end, he was reduced to getting around on a scooter. I am intimately familiar with what this looks like behind closed doors; how it plagued my father, affected my parent's relationship and set the tone for our family.
As an adult, I have had my own ups and downs with weight. And blaming my parents for this doesn't change what is going on for me in my present. I have learned to value my self and my health, which means I take responsibility for my relationship with food today. Not only am I conscious and aware of my own food choices, but I make sure my children learn to be intentional with food as well. I educate my kids about food just as I do about the importance of brushing their teeth.
My kids know that we don't have dessert every night — but we decide thoughtfully when we will indulge. Do they want it every night? Yes, but it's my job to tell them no even when I get objections, because I'm the parent not the friend.
They see us leave for the gym, go running and biking and playing sports. They ride their bikes and get exercise everyday because we've talked about taking care of their bodies, just as getting good sleep and choosing books or toys over TV is good for their brain.
We need to teach our kids to value themselves. To let them know they are worthy in this world and deserve good care by their parents when they are young and by themselves when they are older.
This can be done in small but impactful ways such as putting a fruit or veggie on their plate at every meal; making sure they have protein and offering snacks that are "real" food and not something processed from a box; and discussing that sometimes we do things we don't like or avoid indulging in order to stay healthy.
I am an advocate for children, not a condemner of parents. I know I will inevitably do things that send my two kids to therapy someday because parenting is hard — as is growing up. We can only do our best. When it comes to ending child obesity and providing them the opportunity for an emotionally and physically healthy future, I urge all parents to consider; are you really doing your best?
This is a complicated issue and many overweight and obese adults are survivors of what can sometimes be the most extreme and brutal cases of trauma; sexual, physical or emotional abuse. Some adults can recover while for others; the emotional and mental damage done in childhood is beyond irreversible. I also understand the systemic challenges of poverty and access to whole foods. These deserve articles of their own.
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