Parents who underfeed their children risk not only losing custody of their children but also facing criminal charges. Not parents who can’t provide— I mean the people who truly neglect their children. Few people would argue that a parent who refuses to feed his or her child deserves to retain control over that child’s future. Undernourishment can lead to all sorts of dangers, from delayed development, increased vulnerability to disease, anemia, hair loss, heart problems, etc. Removal of the child from such an environment and criminal penalties seem appropriate. After all, these parents are really hurting their children, putting them at higher risk for developmental problems, a host of diseases, and in extreme cases, even death. These are primarily negligence cases—the standard applied is the standard of care a reasonably prudent person would exercise under the same circumstances.
Those cases are the exceptions in the U.S, and, I would venture to say, throughout the world. As a general rule, parents try to provide for their children. However, in the developed countries there is a related, and, I think, more insidious problem—overfeeding. In the U.S., the childhood obesity rate is near 17%. The U.S comes in with a whopping 74% of our adult population overweight or obese, and by all counts we are doing everything in our power to continue that trend with the next generation. Given the prevalence of heart disease and other maladies associated with our ever larger population, I think that it is time we began to hold parents responsible for the weight of their children on both sides of the spectrum. Perhaps society isn’t quite ready to criminalize fattening your child up like Hansel, but it is time we took a good hard look at the problem, and considered if there is room for negligence on the other side of the aisle.
Whenever I broach this subject in company, I get a pretty stiff pushback. It is a topic that sparks debate on body image issues, self-esteem, and parental liberty. And while I am all for liberty, there is a fundamental societal health crisis, and we are fanning the flames by refusing to acknowledge the problem. The most common excuses I hear are lack of access to food, and lack of education. Both, I think, are excuses for sub-optimal health. Neither, in my view is an excuse for a child with a BMI over 30.
The poorest parts of America have access to decent food, if you’re willing to eat it (and, by extension, feed it to your family). I do not doubt for a second that Whole Foods has a better selection than the corner store, but both have milk, eggs, tuna, rice, and beans. There might be a dearth of fresh veggies, but canned green beans and frozen broccoli aren’t hard to come by in any market, even the ones that are half gas station. That this food is not the most sexy, most advertised, or most desired by the little ones I do not doubt for a second. But the decision of what food makes it to the table, the TV tray, or the car seat is ultimately controlled by adults, and it is time they were forced to take some responsibility. Parents— be they poor, wealthy, or somewhere in the middle—who feed their children a steady diet of hamburger helper, dominoes pizza, and fruit loops are not acting as a reasonably prudent person would in service of the best interest of the child.
Nutrition is complicated. I don’t expect parents to keep their kids fed like professional athletes. I don’t expect the average person to understand insulin responses, the role of fiber, or how different proteins and sugars interact. What I do expect, and I think we should all expect, is that obesity not be added to the list of complications. Obesity complicates every single other nutritional problem. I am yet to meet anyone in this country who does not know that if you eat too much, you will get fat. I have to assume that parents can make the intellectual leap to “if I feed my child too much, he will get fat.” I will hazard that a reasonably prudent person could make the further jump to “if my child is fat, I will have to feed her less.” While I understand that the nutritional quality of the foods may not be the best, feeding your overweight child more is not a reasonable answer. Obesity does not happen overnight. And parents need to be held responsible when they make the decision to keep feeding a child more and more every day.
At the most basic level, is the parents who control what their children are fed. They control whether the children have money to by candy and ice cream, and whether they eat the school lunch or have to eat canned Vegetable Beef soup (I’ll grant an exception for the kids on free lunch. That is a straight failure of the state to remove its head from where the sun don’t shine, and I have no ready-made remedy to counter the Ag Lobby on that one). Furthermore, it is not merely the abjectly poor in this country that are failing to stop shoving sugar down the kids’ throats. The string bean 6-14 year olds I grew up with have been replaced by rolly pollies (and for the record, I am not very old and I went to elementary school in poor rural Texas). This is a recent development, one we can see, and one we need to correct.
The obesity epidemic in this country (and coming soon to the rest of the developed world, if it isn’t there already) is real. It is obvious. Apparently, the threat to parents that their children will die at 35 from a heart attack has not been enough. And so we get sicker, the children get fatter, and the problems multiply. They have higher risk factors for heart failure, asthma, diabetes, developmental retardation, joint problems and early death. Their quality of life is diminished.
Parents should be held responsible for taking opportunities away from their children, and for putting them in harm’s way. An obese child is a neglected child. It is time we acknowledged that reality, and took some action.