Are Parents to Blame for Their Kids' Obesity?
A public service announcement (PSA) called "Rewind the Future," launched as part of the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Strong4Life campaign, has garnered a lot of media attention—and considerable criticism—from health experts and parents alike. Although the PSA first surfaced in April 2012, it recently blew up on the internet, garnering an estimated six million views so far.
The PSA begins with a 32-year-old man named Jim who at 5'9" and 300 pounds is wheeled into a hospital while having a heart attack. After the doctor asks, "How the hell does this happen," the video flashes backwards through the man's life, attempting to illustrate how he got there. At various stages of Jim's life, he's shown eating ice cream and pancakes, being out of breath while playing with his kids or walking on a treadmill, hiding food in his room, playing video games, being rewarded candy by a teacher for earning good grades, being exposed to fast food by his parents (his dad orders pizza and his mom goes through a drive-thru), and acting up at meal time—and being pacified with French fries by his mother. The video ends with the message, "There's still time to reverse the unhealthy habits our kids take into adulthood" and a link to the Strong4Life website.
While the PSA has certainly sparked conversation, I was surprised when a Good Morning America poll inspired by the PSA revealed that eighty-one percent of viewers believe parents are to blame if their kids are obese. Only nineteen percent believe they are not. Although parents certainly play a major role in their children's eating habits, I don't believe pointing fingers and playing the blame game are the way to inspire meaningful change and better physical or psychological health in children. And while I appreciate the idea of prevention of obesity and its consequences, I don't feel that blame and shame as suggested in this video are the answer.
Several experts have also spoken out against the PSA. In his recent blog post about the PSA, Yoni Freedhoff, MD, a family doctor and Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa refers to the PSA as "...everything that's ugly about society's attitudes towards weight boiled into a two-minute video treatise on how gluttony and sloth are to blame for obesity....oh, and add in lazy parents." Although he agrees that parents have a role to play in all of this, he believes that fear and shame aren't likely to get them there. He writes, "If guilt or shame had any lasting impact on weight or behavior, the world would be skinny, as guilt and shame are the two things that the world bends over backwards to ensure that people with weight never run short of." Freedhoff also says that shaming the symptom without tackling the cause is likely only to add to the belief that fat shaming has a role to play in fixing the environment.
In another blog post, California-based registered dietitian nutritionist Aaron Flores wrote, "Just like many other ads, the sensational tone shames both parents and kids. It says nothing of the fact that health comes in different shapes and sizes. It makes it seem as if a parent makes one mistake feeding a child at an early age, they've doomed their child to an early death. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's this black and white thinking that leads us to think of foods as "good" or "bad" and lead to a life of dieting and binging." Flores goes on to suggest that what parents need is to learn how to help children feel comfortable with all different kinds of foods and to nurture children's self confidence with food and their body. He adds, "The last thing we need is to create environment that leads our children to hate their bodies, seek diets and (develop) unhealthy relationships with food." Terrific points, no?
Although obesity, especially among children, is certainly something we all need to be concerned about and address, the findings of a recent study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggest that this video and others like it may not be the answer. The study found that stigmatizing obesity-related public health campaigns were no more likely to instill motivation for improving lifestyle behaviors among participants than campaigns that were more neutral.
As someone who always thinks you can attract more bees with honey, I, too, believe that rather than shocking or shaming parents, emphasizing what they can do more of—for example, offering more produce and cooking more at home, and choosing choose smaller portions while dining out—can empower them to feed their children better and help children actually eat better. It can also have a wonderful side effect of helping kids develop more healthful food, fitness and lifestyle behaviors they'll carry with them as they increasingly make more decisions about what and how much to eat and move. Over time, this can help prevent many of the diet-related diseases many children, including those who are overweight, can develop as adults.
When asked about the rationale for the PSA, Stephanie Walsh, M.D., Medical Director, Strong4Life at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta wrote in an email, "The video was designed as part of a larger movement to empower parents" and to "remind parents of the power they have to influence their child's health and help them to consider making small steps towards lifestyle change." In response to criticisms that the video unfairly blames and shames parents, Dr. Walsh added, "This video was not designed to place the blame on parents or make people change; it was designed to make people consider making a change." She also suggests that people must first realize the importance of changing a behavior before they actually make a change. Although she concedes that the video dramatizes the problem, she notes that the scenes depicting unhealthy habits are real examples of the struggles many of their patients and families face— reigning in screen time, motivating kids to be active and decreasing the amount of sugar their kids drink. She adds, "The video was designed to focus on behaviors that we, as parents, can control."
What are your thoughts? Does this video go too far, or do you think it will inspire parents to help their kids eat and live better?
Image of mother and kids having a snack at a fast food restaurant via shutterstock.