How Fat Are Our Kids?

This week a federal study reported that the obesity rate for American kids between 2 and 5 years of age fell 43% in a decade. The study, undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that obesity during that age group has declined from 14 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2012.

Not surprisingly, there’s disagreement about what might have caused the decline. Some argue that federal programs, including the availability of food stamps and the women, infants, and children assistance program and federal nutrition guidelines, other national efforts such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, and pressure on food companies to stop targeting ads to young children are responsible for the decline. Others question whether there really was an “obesity epidemic” in the first place and are skeptical that federal programs had anything to do with the decline reflected in the CDC study.

I don’t have a dog in that fight. My question is more fundamental — why are people celebrating the finding that “only” 8 percent of little kids are obese? That seems like a pretty damning figure to me. How does a two-or three-year-old become obese, except by the inattention of their parents? Most two- and three-year-olds I know aren’t out shopping for themselves. Don’t their parents know how to say no?

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A Mean-Spirited Busybody Who Desperately Needs To Learn The True Meaning Of The “Trick” In “Trick Or Treat”

Today NBC’s Today show reported on the Beggars’ Night plans of a Fargo, North Dakota woman who sounds like a hopeless jerk.  Rather than handing out candy to every trick-or-treater, this officious busybody will judge whether the kids showing up at her door are “moderately obese.”  If she concludes that they are, she’ll decline to give them candy and instead will give them a note that reads:

“Happy Halloween and Happy Holidays Neighbor!

“You’re probably wondering why your child has this note; have you ever heard the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’?  I am disappointed in ‘the village’ of Fargo Moorhead, West Fargo.

“You [sic] child is, in my opinion, moderately obese and should not be consuming sugar and sweets to the extent of some children this Halloween season.

“My hope is that you will step up as a parent and ration candy this Halloween and not allow your child to continue these unhealthy eating habits

Thank you”

This sounds like a fake story, but there are so many judgmental tools in the world it is completely plausible that it is, in fact, the unfortunate truth.  It’s hard to imagine what kind of supercilious dolt would tell a costumed child that they are too fat to get candy, but maybe that’s just the logical end of our increasingly patronizing, nanny-state approach to parenting and nutrition.  Setting aside the misspelling, poor grammar, and bad punctuation, which reveal the author of the note to be a poorly educated pretender, what kind of paragon of physical and ethical perfection does this woman think she is?  Can you imagine living next to such a person?

There’s only one response to this kind of behavior — and it’s why the “trick” is in “trick or treat.”  If I were a kid who got this kind of a note, it would be time to break out the soap, the toilet paper, and maybe the eggs, too.  And if I were the parent of a kid who got such a note, I might “step up” to toss a roll of toilet paper myself.

Body Mass Buttinskys

Lilly, a sixth-grade girl in Florida, is the star player on her middle school volleyball team.  According to her mother, the girl is 5′ 5″, weighs 124 pounds, and is “all muscle.”  So the mother was shocked when the school sent her a letter advising that the girl is “overweight.”

How could such a letter possibly be sent?  Because Florida is one of a number of states that has begun sending letters to parents advising them when their child is viewed as overweight and warning of the dangers of childhood obesity.  Florida mandates “health screenings” for kids, and then uses a body mass index calculation to determine when a child is overweight.  Experts recognize that body mass index statistics are a crude means of determining whether a child is overweight, and in Lilly’s case the measure was made even cruder because she was reported as being two inches shorter than she really is.  The so-called “fat letter” was the result.

Childhood obesity is a concern, but sending “fat letters” based on rough measures like the body mass index hardly seems like a prudent way to address the problem.  We live in an age of eating disorders and concerns about the messages popular culture sends to girls about their bodies.  What does it say when a healthy, active volleyball player gets a letter from a government agency saying she is teetering on the edge of obesity?  Why send such personal, stigmatizing letters to kids who are already wrestling with the incredible self-consciousness and self-esteem issues that are an inevitable part of the teenage years?

Moreover, why are schools involved in this process?  The last I checked, American public schools were struggling to educate kids and, in some instances, keep order in school buildings.  Saddling schools with the job of policing childhood obesity is just giving them another task that distracts from the basic mission of education.  And when governmental entities are involved in making broad generalizations about health, mistakes such as the misreporting of Lilly’s height happen, letters that should never get sent are posted by mistake, and the damage is done.  I think the weight of individual children should be left to their parents and pediatricians and the children themselves.  Government buttinskys should butt out.

And We Wonder Why We Have A Childhood Obesity Problem?

In case you wondered, paternalism and fears of liability for potential injury will trump generalized health concerns about obesity and lack of exercise every time.

Want proof?  Consider Weber Middle School in Port Washington, New York.  School officials are concerned that kids are getting injured during recess.  So, they’ve taken a proportionate response — they’ve banned footballs, baseballs, lacrosse balls, and any other object that might conceivably hurt someone.  Oh, and tag also is banned, as are cartwheels.  Presumably, even more violent games, like “red rover” and “smear the queer,” were banned long ago.

How ridiculous we’ve become!  Generations of kids somehow managed to survive throwing a football or playing catch during recess.  It was a good way to get some fresh air, blow off steam, and have some fun with your school buddies.  Kids got some exercise in the process and came back into their classrooms with a little less energy and a little more ability to focus on algebra and chemistry and civics.

The school says it just wants its students to be “protected” in the wake of a rash of injuries.  I’m sure that’s it — and there’s probably a desire to avoid potential lawsuits brought by angry parents, too.  When I was a kid, no parent would even dream of suing their public school district, and no lawyers would consider taking such cases, either.  Falls from the jungle gym and the occasional broken collar bone were just accepted parts of growing up.  No longer!

We wonder why we have obese kids?  We are so protective of youngsters that we take all of the fun out of play — and in the process make kids less and less likely to get any meaningful exercise.  If you can’t play physical games, why not just retreat into your video game world where your digital counterpart can at least have some fun?  Our paternalistic society is doing a tremendous disservice to our kids.

What Are We Doing To Our Kids?

It’s tough to be a kid these days.  At least, that’s what constant studies tell us.

The latest study concludes that young children watch too much television.  That’s nothing new — people have been worrying about the impact of the “boob tube” and parents using TV as an electronic babysitter since I was a kid back in the ’60s — but the cumulative weight of the studies is hard to contest.  The most recent study, of children in Quebec, showed that children who watch too much TV when they are very young have impaired math and verbal skills.  If they don’t go outside and play with other kids, they don’t develop their motor and social capabilities and, as a result, are more susceptible to bullying.

There are other problems with kids who never leave the house for unsupervised play because of parental fears of kidnappers, rapists, child molesters, drug pushers, and other perceived dangers.  Kids who stay inside don’t run around, ride their bikes, and get the exercise that other kids get.  Indoors, they are in close proximity to refrigerators and cupboards full of sugary, starchy, fattening foods that make a considerable portion of them morbidly obese and prone to juvenile diabetes.  They spend hours in air-conditioned surroundings and develop asthma.

When they are watching the TV or playing their video games, they don’t need to use any creativity or personal self-direction.  And often their only outside play is under the careful supervision of adults in structured settings where the rules are established and kids don’t get to make up games, revel in the freedom of an unplanned summer’s day, or engage in the silliness that is part of the fun of being a child.  And often, if a kid shows any signs of rambunctiousness, he gets carted off to the doctor for a diagnosis of ADHD and a brain-numbing dose of some drug that is supposed to make him more docile and controllable.

It’s scary being a parent, with all of the stories of predators lurking and dangers for children seemingly around every corner.  Sometimes it seems that the best course is just to keep your kids inside, where you know they are safe.  But when we do so, we aren’t doing them any favors.

The First Lady’s Difficult Job

The First Lady’s job — and I think we all need to view it as a job like any other — is a difficult one that has changed over the years.  Ever since First Ladies moved beyond serving as the gracious White House hostess (and behind-the-scenes influencer of presidential decision-making) to become public figures in their own right, they have been expected to champion a  cause that commands broad public support and serve a kind of above-the-political-fray role in the national zeitgeist.  Some First Ladies — Hillary Clinton comes to mind — seem to have chafed a bit at the limitations imposed by this traditional role.

By all accounts, Michelle Obama has been a fine First Lady who has filled the expected role admirably.  She serves as a role model for many, and she has been an effective advocate for returning veterans and their families and for combating the scourge of childhood obesity.  No one disputes the country’s need to help our veterans, and whether you agree or disagree with how to deal with childhood obesity — and, specifically, how much of a role the government should play in specifying what children should eat, how much exercise they should get, and what should happen if they become morbidly obese — no one denies that encouraging children to eat right, get exercise, and avoid weight problems is a good thing.

Lately the First Lady’s role seems to be changing again, as First Ladies, and potential First Ladies, have begun to make major speeches at political conventions.  There is some tension between that activity and the First Lady’s traditional role as a kind of non-partisan national figure.  Some have dealt with that tension by confining their remarks to extolling the good qualities and hard work of their presidential spouse, how they have been good and caring fathers and husbands despite the weight of their duties in the Oval Office.  That kind of testimonial has been accepted as appropriate:  what loving spouse wouldn’t support her husband and be happy to describe his virtues?

Last night Michelle Obama gave her prime-time address to the Democratic National Convention, and I wonder if in doing so she hasn’t presaged another shift in the role of First Lady.  Mrs. Obama spoke eloquently of President Obama’s character, beliefs, and values, his important role as loving father to their two daughters, and how her story and his story touch upon the well-visited themes of the American Dream — but she also mounted a more full-throated defense of the President’s policy positions than you would expect in a “traditional” First Lady’s speech.  Mrs. Obama did it graciously but also unmistakeably, leading some to wonder whether, like Hillary Clinton before her, she may have her own political career in the future.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  In the modern world, where the endless campaigns demand so much commitment from candidates and their families and political spouses of both genders often are highly accomplished professionals in their own right, it is unreasonable to expect that presidential spouses will simply serve as an ever-smiling, neutral national symbol who never speaks a controversial word.  Perhaps it is time to accept that First Ladies — and First Gentlemen — can properly be advocates for the policies their spouses support and be recognized as such.  In the successful marriages I am familiar with, spouses tend to strongly and vocally support what each other are doing in their jobs and the goals they are striving for in those jobs.  Why should political spouses be any different?

A Story With No Good Answers

In Cleveland Heights, county workers have put an eight-year-old boy who weighs more than 200 pounds into foster care after concluding that the boy’s mother isn’t doing enough to control his weight.  The boy isn’t suffering from any medical conditions other than sleep apnea, but he is considered at risk of weight-related diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.  It’s the first time anyone in Ohio can recall a child being taken from his home purely because of a weight issue.

Childhood obesity is a problem in America — but when should the state intervene to deal with individual cases?  County workers say the boy’s weight is due to his environment and his mother’s failure to follow doctor’s orders; they consider the boy’s condition to be just another form of medical neglect.  The mother, and her lawyer, say the county overreached because the boy is in no immediate danger and the mother has been trying to control his weight.  They note that the boy is on the honor roll and participates in school activities, and add that removing a child from his home and family and putting him foster care can cause its own harms.

This case is an example of what can happen when less-than-perfect parenting and an activist government intersect.  I’m not in favor of officious government workers deciding what’s best for us, but I also question how an attentive parent could let a weight issue become so extreme.  If you conclude that the county acted correctly in this instance, where do you draw the line?  Could it have acted even sooner — when, say, the boy first tipped the scales at 175 pounds?  And if you think the county acted improperly, is there any point at which it should intervene short of the child developing medical problems that clearly are weight-related?

While we wrestle with these abstract issues of individual responsibility and government intrusion, however, I think of the kid at the center of this story.  It’s hard to envision an eight-year-old boy who weighs more than 200 pounds, and it’s even harder to imagine that boy having any kind of normal childhood — particularly now that he’s become the focal point of a much larger tug of war.