We all know that childhood obesity can have long-term health effects. Kids who are overweight in early childhood tend to retain their chunkiness and even become heavier as they grow older, out of proportion to increases in their height. The good news recently is that childhood obesity rates have leveled out. The bad news is that parents of overweight kids may actually think children’s weight is normal.
Are you blind to your child’s size? According to a new study published in Sweden, involving parents of 16,000 children aged 2 through 9 from all across Europe, half of parents whose children are too heavy for their height believe their children’s weight is just fine. Four out of 10 of these parents are even worried that their kids might become too thin. How can this be?
Parents in the study were asked to describe their child’s weight as under- or over-normal or right on target. They also were asked about their concerns about a change in weight their child might experience in the near future. These perceptions were then compared with children’s actual measurements and Body Mass Index.
Parents of children whose measurements indicate they are overweight or obese were likely to believe their children’s weight is just fine. Half the parents living in Northern and Central Europe believed this, while a whopping 75% of parents in Southern Europe were blind to the facts.
Parents of children who were obese or overweight were more likely than parents of children who were underweight to believe their children were too thin or might become too thin. Forty percent of parents of heavy kids thought this way, in contrast to just 33% of parents of slender children.
The study didn’t indicate the weight status of parents, so there’s no way to tell if parents’ perceptions were influenced by their own weight issues. However, overweight is less of an issue in Europe than it is in the United States, so the population of children to which overweight kids might be compared by their parents is smaller than it is in this country.
The study’s author, Susann Regber, speculates that parents simply don’t notice. She believes that as small children grow, it’s difficult for parents to tell when weight becomes out of proportion to height, so concerned are they about children’s overall health and food intake. She says, “Many parents simply do not see the increase in growth, and are dependent on objective information from, for instance, child welfare centers and school health care to act.”
Since we all know the negative effects overweight and obesity can have for children’s health and also for their acceptance by other kids, it’s natural to be in denial about children’s weight. We tend to believe that early pudginess is just puppy fat that will disappear as children grow taller. It’s reasonable to imagine that our kids’ weight is within the normal range.
So what can we do instead?
- Pay attention to what pediatricians or your child’s teacher tells you. If they say there’s a problem, don’t argue.
- Ask your pediatrician about your child’s size. Now that you know you’re not a very good judge of this, go ahead and ask for an expert opinion, if your child’s doctor doesn’t offer one on her own.
- Make certain the meals and snacks you serve contribute to your child’s nutrition. Avoid junk food and fast food meals. Maybe you’ve thought your child was of normal weight and her food choices didn’t matter. Now that you realize you could be wrong, be more careful about food.
- Stay active. Make being active what your family does. Keep the television and gaming devices off more than they’re on. Get outdoors every day and play hard.
- Yes, I’m including you. Be a role model, both of what and how much to eat and how and how much to play. Good health is good for everyone!
The idea that we may be blind to the reality of our children’s weight is eye-opening. Now that our eyes are open, we must pay attention to what we see.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.