Why you should care
It’s high time we held folks responsible for letting their kids grow fat.
According to Cancer Research UK, obesity causes more cases of kidney, bowel, liver and ovarian cancers than smoking, and it’s a cause of more than a dozen different types of cancer. A third of people in the United Kingdom are obese and, according to the charity, 1 in 10 children are obese by age 5, rising to 1 in 5 by age 11. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 32 percent of children and adolescents in the United States between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight, and more than half of those children are obese.
If the word “obese” were replaced with the word “abused,” imagine the outcry. People would take to the streets, demanding change. These children need our help, they would scream. But the words obese and abused are interchangeable. Obese children are abused.
Hear me out. Child abuse is when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or inaction, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child. It’s much more than “just” acts of physical violence; it’s any form of maltreatment by an adult that is violent or threatens the child. This includes neglect.
The third strike results in temporary loss of parenting rights and possible criminal abuse charges, depending upon the severity of the case.
Displaying a clear unwillingness to meet a child’s basic needs — food, shelter, clean water, a safe environment — is a form of child abuse. Taking any intentional action that poses a threat to a child’s life or physical or mental well-being is child abuse. Abuse comes in many forms, and any parent who willfully allows their child to become obese may very well be guilty of abuse. After all, it constitutes a failure to act in a way that protects the welfare of a child.
If you saw a parent refusing to feed their child, you would be concerned, maybe even outraged. What if you saw a parent doing the opposite? What if you know a parent who stuffs their child with food, especially foods high in sugar and saturated fat? Whether a parent starves a child or stands idly by as little (or not so little) Jimmy gorges himself, it’s dangerous. A parent who starves his or her child is acting in a deliberately malicious manner, whereas perhaps the parent who overfeeds their child means no harm. But this is beside the point. I may be driving along in my car and hit a cyclist by accident. I never meant any harm, but try telling this to the police, or to the poor cyclist.
It’s high time we start holding parents of obese children accountable. How so? It may sound severe, but the loss of full parenting rights must be an option. Such a loss would, of course, be devastating to the child and adults alike. But it could also be lifesaving. Parents guilty of chronic abuse must realize that very real, very harsh consequences exist. Maybe a three-strike policy would work. The first strike would be a warning, with the second strike resulting in a more severe warning and mandatory training or counseling sessions. The third strike results in temporary loss of parenting rights and possible criminal abuse charges, depending upon the severity of the case.
In 2011, a 200-pound third-grader from Ohio was taken from his family and placed in foster care. According to a county spokeswoman, the 8-year-old was removed from his Cleveland home due to severe “medical neglect.”
Before asking the court for custody of the child, social workers worked with the boy’s mother for well over a year. According to a Seattle Times report, social workers said the mother simply wasn’t doing enough to control her son’s weight; her reckless behavior was putting him at an increased risk for diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. A few months later, after losing weight, the boy was returned to his mother.
Not everyone agrees with such an approach. Tom Sanders, head of the diabetes and nutritional sciences division at King’s College London, says state intervention isn’t necessarily a good idea. Instead, he argues, better practices are needed in the home.
“There are rarely simple solutions to complex problems,” says Sanders. “I think getting kids to be more active is crucial and to curtail the consumption of crisps and similar junk. Less time watching TV or hand-held devices is also important.” Parents should keep a close eye on portion sizes, which is “really central to controlling calorie intake,” he adds.
But for those parents who help children eat their way to obese oblivion? I say we should charge them with abuse.
Dr. John Glynn is a professor of psychology at the University of Bahrain in Manama.