When I heard about the 218-pound 8-year-old Ohio boy who was removed from his home because he was too obese late last year, my heart sank. The boy was placed in foster care and away from the only home he’s known, based on a judge’s ruling of medical neglect by his parents.
I’m a pediatric nutritionist and registered dietitian and I work with obese children daily. I understand the whole health angle here. But the extreme complexity of family dynamics around food and parenting is a multifaceted issue that isn’t easily solved.
Of all the ways to deal with this issue, this was perhaps the least useful. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this story that should have been resolved before removing the child: What’s the eating environment in the home? What’s the parenting style? And the $64,000 question: Are the parents using food to control the child’s behavior?
In my practice I see many parents using food to control behavior. Teach a parent to handle food tantrums appropriately and establish a regular schedule of meals and snacks and you’re halfway to solving the child’s obesity.
So what would I do? After ruling out any medical reason for his weight gain, I would find out more about the family dynamics and lifestyle, including details about the parents’ eating habits and home food environment.
Addressing obesity on any permanent basis means looking at how the family approaches food and feeding children. To do otherwise is to expect a child to have better eating habits than his parents.
Next, I’d want to know if the parents felt their child’s weight was a problem. Cultural issues are a factor here. Many parents truly feel that fat children are healthier, and that a normal-weight child is a sign of poor parenting. Some parents feel it is improper to deny a child food for any reason.
I’m NOT willing to place blame on the typical external factors like fast food, low income and sweet drinks. This gives people a reason to take no action until legislation and policy changes happen. That’s a luxury our kids can’t afford at a price they shouldn’t have to pay. Telling a child “no” is a skill ALL parents need to have and to practice without guilt.
An 8-year-old isn’t buying huge amounts of food for himself; a parent or caregiver is. And that’s who we need to be dealing with, not a child protective agency, at least not until the last resort. There’s no evidence here that this was the case.
This child needed intervention about 100 pounds ago. If it didn’t happen then, it begs the question, why not?