Home The Op-Eds Is Obesity A Form Of Child Abuse?

Is Obesity A Form Of Child Abuse?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Tuesday, May 25th, 2011, Dr. Oz hosted an episode of The Dr. Oz Show where the topic of discussion was a round table, of sorts, asking whether or not obesity is a form of child abuse. Now, I didn’t catch it from the beginning – the DVR missed the first ten minutes or so – but considering what I caught, I have my fair share of concerns. (Besides, this blog post has a pretty good recap.) Since I missed the beginning, I don’t want to comment on the show, but I do have a few thoughts on the overall sentiment and the question in and of itself.

Apparently, this situation has happened before, already. A child went to the school nurse for a legitimate reason, and instead of the nurse calling the child’s parent… she called child protective services who then sent notices for the parent to appear in court. Since the parent had moved, she never saw the notices… and this resulted in her losing custody of her obese child.

I find it very interesting that, in a country where 70% of the population is clinically overweight – and even though “bodybuilders/marathoners/athletes are overweight too,” the fact that it’s 70% leads me to believe that more than a few of those people are not, in fact, any of those three – that there is such little compassion for the struggle of weight management that we’d genuinely try to classify “letting your child become overweight” as a form of child abuse.

Mind you, we’re not talking the typical 30-40lbs overweight, however we are still talking about something we consider to be such a serious and drastic issue that we’d remove a child from their home, cause undue stress to the child and basically tell them that the reason they can’t see Mommy anymore is because they’re too fat. Trust me – if a child would flip a divorce into being “about them,” a child will develop insane body issues once they learn the truth behind why they were pulled from their home.

I write a lot about compassion – and more on that tomorrow – because I genuinely believe it’s a key component to being able to continue on in fitness. It’s hard to keep challenging yourself only to watch you fail that day, and expect to keep on challenging yourself with the hopes that you’re one step closer to succeeding tomorrow. That’s hard, and for someone who is overweight, it’s very likely that they’re already hard on themselves. Hell, for anyone new to fitness or someone who’s afraid of embracing working out, it’s far more likely that they will expect results much quicker than they’d come – especially with strength training, because it takes a lil’ while to see any gains – and they’d consider themselves a failure instead of allowing themselves patience and support. Compassion is vital.

I remember when I went back to my old gym – yes, the one I wrote about here – last year to speak to the owner. I wanted to show him that yes, after I left, I kept going and didn’t stop. That wasn’t anywhere near as interesting as the fact that I was watching what appeared to be a girl no older than 10 be trained by him. He was going out of his way to make the entire session out to be about fitness and being more capable of participating in activity, not “being pretty” or “losing that gut” or any of the other cornball crap that trainers tell their clients when they’re trying to get ’em to “dig deep.”

Children are fragile… and observant. If my four year old can catch Mommy flexing her muscles in the mirror, then guess what? She’ll walk around flexing her muscles, too. (And yes, she does.) If a four year old hears Mommy talking enough about “being fat,” then guess what? They’ll start paying extra attention to “fat” on any body… including their own.

I bring this up because when I think of a country where at least half of us are clinically considered overweight, apparently against their will, I think of what mssages we pass on to our children. If we’re “fat” ourselves and have no compassion for “fat” people, what do we pass on to our kids?

This was a point that I did see on Dr. Oz’s show – in a lot of cases, the kids are overweight because the parents are overweight, as well. No parent [who takes proper care of their child regardless of weight issues] intentionally wants to jeopardize their child’s livelihood. In a lot of cases, the child’s weight is a mirror of the weight of the parents, and is simply living out the consequences of the parents’ behavior. It’s not an issue of abuse, unless you want to say that the parents are abusing themselves, as well. (And if you were to say that, I’d implore you to remember – it’s very rare that people even acknowledge sugar/food addiction as a legitimate addiction at all, so you’d be hard pressed to get anyone to understand that.)

There were two girls that Dr. Oz brought out, apparently “success stories” from “Too Fat for Fifteen.” One girl’s mother appeared to be overweight right along with her daughter, and the other girl’s mother was relatively fit which made her feel less-than, further compelling her to overeat. She ran to food for that “comforting” feeling. The overweight mother admitted, openly, that she didn’t like to cook and apparently frequented her local fast food joints for dinner. The thinner mom, who obviously – at least, to me – felt some kind of way about her daughter’s weight regardless of what she said on TV, might’ve been more fit, but you have to question what’s going on in the home to compel the daughter to rush to food for comfort, instead of the people very present in her life every day.

Now, Dr. Oz’s point was that since these two girls were successful by leaving their homes and going to a “wellness camp” to learn about food and weight management, that maybe this is the answer. I disagree. Why? Because the children cannot live at the camp permanently. They eventually have to go home and return to the very same environment that caused them to gain in the first place. That girl still had to go home to a Mom who buys fast food for dinner instead of cooks. The other girl still had to go home to family she couldn’t talk to whenever she became stressed. These things don’t go away. They don’t disappear. And while an adult might develop a sense of will power quicker, I doubt whether or not a teenager or adolescent has the mental agility to do the same without reverting back to those bad habits for the duration of the time they’re in their parents’ homes. Talk to the family, let them know they need to be a judgment-free resource to their child, so that she can get her comfort in the form of hugs, not harmful junk food. Counseling, educating… these things are valuable.

…and really, that’s my point. Removing a child from a home that has the potential to be much healthier with a little bit of education is ludicrous. If you’re going to reach into someone’s home, let it be to offer a hand of support and resource. It’s much more likely that the whole family could use the help, so if we’re going to intervene, that’s the way to do it. If you remove a child from the home and place them in foster care, I’m assuming we’re putting them in a home that’s already been educated on how to care for the child? I’m assuming each of these homes has been taught weight maintenance procedures? Why not simply teach the child in the comfort of their own home and family on how to handle these issues?

I guess that really, what I’m saying is that weight is a complex, multi-layered issue where any state involvement should result in education and support, not splitting up more homes and potentially putting kids in homes (if they, in fact, actually go to a home) that know just as little about wellness as the one they were first in. So no, in my opinion obesity is not inherently child abuse, because everything from money to marketing has left us with inaccurate perceptions of what “healthier lifestyles” looks like and no one has any interest in flat out stating what that’s supposed to look like. Address that with the entire household, and watch those families thank you in the end.

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Gabrielle May 30, 2011 - 6:46 PM

Very interesting subject. It cannot be defined as a form of child abuse IMO.
We were presented with two scenarios. The girl whose parents are obese and therefore do no know what healthy eating is, therefore it is hard to teach someone how to eat healthy when you don’t know yourself what it means. And then the other girl whose parents are fit. This was my case, my mum fed me with veggies, gave me water, put me into sports she did everything right but there was too much pressure and when you not home you’re free to eat what you want, you have friends at school who have sodas, candies and who share with you. Your parents can’t be behind you all the time. So I think it is about educating the kids however, without putting too much pressure on the kids because they are kids. I feel like it is ok to let your child eat sweets from time to time, because too much privation lead to the opposite effect, it was my case and I know plenty of overweight people in the same situation. It is all about balance IMO.
Besides I think sending the kids to a those camps is one of many possible solutions they learn healthy habits that they can teach to their parents back home. Other receive the necessary help as usually they are nutritionists as well as psychologists who help them assess the roots of their problem and give them the tools to overcome their problem. However, whatever the solution it can only work if the child is willing to make a real change.

Eva May 31, 2011 - 11:12 AM

I agree with you here. I think the problem is that we have such a shaming, blaming culture. If you’re overweight then it’s YOUR FAULT. Maybe it is, but let’s have some compassion about things huh? Nothing wrong with being kind to people.

Eva May 31, 2011 - 11:16 AM

BTW, it doesn’t make sense for the children to go to a “wellness camp” if the parents aren’t going to go too. I mean when a person goes to rehab for drug addiction or alcoholism, it’s always best for the family to go to some family program too, like the one at Betty Ford.

Kjen June 1, 2011 - 2:54 PM

I have not interest whatsoever in criminalizing obesity. In addition to being ideologically opposed to the idea, I also think its an impractical idea. If over 70 percent of adults are overweight, assuming that a fair amount of children are as well, our foster care system will be bulging with kids who may come from essentially decent homes (not taking into account their diet) but who are unfortunate enough to be overweight.
Honestly, Department of children services counselors have a heavy enough caseload and are already known to overlook/miss more immediately life-harming forms of abuse, I do not want them to have to to chase after b.s.

Lasciel June 2, 2011 - 6:11 PM

It’s a ridiculous concept for many reasons, one of the least of which is that foster homes and orphanages AREN’T wellness-camps. Most of them do nothing to make kids exercise and while they may not be stuffing kids full of candy and soda they don’t feed kids anything that’s especially healthier than they’d get in the homes of your average family. People do the best they can but many foster parents have very many children they’ve taken in, not very much money, and a kid placed in them won’t get any more attention or personal care than he would with his own family (that’s why foster homes are meant for kids who have downright abusive or criminally negligent parents)

Besides, parents aren’t the only ones feeding kids. Some students eat 2 out 3 meals at school-kids that stay late with daycares/babysitters may take almost none of their meals at home. Who do you report for child abuse? The schools?

Mallory June 18, 2011 - 10:54 AM

Also another point that was missed is that Wellness camps are ridiculously expensive. I know that the pricing for one of those types of camps run up to $7,000 for just 3 weeks. I sure many of kids who live in situation where they are under educated about good food choices, wouldn’t come from families that could afford that.

JKoi July 15, 2011 - 1:48 PM

While I do feel like the health of a child is the responsibility of the parent, and if the child is obese and the parent does nothing to fix it, then there should be some sort of consequence, definitely not for them to be taken out of the home or sent to a camp. I know that there’s outcries for education of living a healthy lifestyle to be “easily available” to everyone of every social class…but when does it fall on the individual to take that initiave to do? The internet has endless amounts of information on healthy eating, and if they don’t have access they can walk to the library and knock out two birds with one stone.
Another factor is that some parents are just way too busy for their children, to really take the time to listen to what’s going on in their lives, that why emotional eating occurs. I myself for a moment in my teenage years went to food as a friend because my mom being a single parent was hardly ever there-yes she made healthy meals but I went out and got junk food from my cousins and the local mini mart. Fortunately for me my mom began to realize what was happening and she took the time to listen to me and encouraged me to get into sports and other physical activities and I lost the extra 15 pounds I had gained.
I guess in the end I feel like other people’s children shouldn’t be our problem, it is the parent’s sole responsibility, until they show that they are seriously endangering the child’s life. Unfortunately, some are cutting it close.

Star Waters November 13, 2011 - 4:31 PM

I had the mishap of an experience, to have lived with an morbidly obese couple for over a year, when I was only 12 years old. I ‘was’ a normal sized child, with normal eating habits when I came to live with them, but that soon changed, leading me to a lifetime of being an overweight teenager, overweight young adults and then a morbidly obese woman for decades! These two ‘fat’ people owned a soul food restaurant, and would bring home burgers, real ice cream milkshakes and french fries for me as a ‘treat’ after closing their restaurant each night at midnight. Soon and very soon, the pounds packed on, and so did the desire to be fed late at night! They didn’t know any better! They were showing their love through food. I have completely and with love forgiven them! It is through that experience, that I am compassionately working with obese children and their parents to help break the cycle of another child/adult having to live the life I did! It starts with the parents. They NEED to be educated and trained on proper nutrition and a lifestyle to promote healthy living. That is NOW my purpose.

Lisa September 24, 2012 - 1:28 PM

I believe parents overfeeding their kids are just as abusive as parents starving their kids.

Paulette January 21, 2013 - 7:45 AM

I didn’t see the Dr. Oz but might go view it online. I have seen other shows that addressed that problem and I feel that in some cases it can be child abuse. A little 4 year old weighing almost 100 pounds and mom feeding him cakes for breakfast because he wants it. Most kids aren’t taken away from their parents because they are fat. When you report something that you think is child abuse, you can’t go to the parent and give them heads ups—If the person really thought she saw abuse then she took the proper procedures). I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a child to go to a wellness camp—if the child is willing—you can’t always change your environment, but you can give them the tools to handle it. It may help some kids after they attend the camp at the present moment. For some kids it might give them a foundation to tackle their problems once they get grown. You can have a fat parent who Is supportive in your endeavors, even though she might not set a good example herself—it happens all the time in other areas of life (parents who encourage you to go to school, work or church, but they don’t do it themselves).

Paulette January 21, 2013 - 7:48 AM

I saw one show where the child was only 4 years old (unable to get the food himself) and the mother (who was normal size) was feeding him cake for breakfast—this child was do fat he didn’t look real! That was child abuse!

Shira August 30, 2013 - 1:33 AM

Removing obese children from the homes may cause further trauma. Enroll the parents and the children in health, nutrition, and cooking classes and start an exercise routine. It’s hard for working parents to find time and programs to keep children active. Also, many organized sports and physical activities are too expensive and/or too far away from home. Gym classes are always first on the chopping block for school budgets. It’s not just the parents who are failing the children, it’s all of us!

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