Childhood Obesity: Are Overweight Children a Product of Poor Parenting?

Oct 25, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

I see myself as a relatively nonjudgmental person. Be and let be. But yesterday I found myself being highly critical of some people at a restaurant. It's a place well known for their very large portions and huge desserts. I think people often go there because the restaurant gives them license to overindulge. (I can almost hear what some readers are thinking: "Why did she go there, then?" Answer: I was invited -- and I decided before I went that I would eat only moderate portions with no dessert.)

It's OK with me if adults decide to overeat or choose foods that are obviously quite unhealthy. (And having written two cognitive behavioral books for consumers on how to lose weight and keep it off, I'm powerfully empathic to those who struggle with food decisions.) But when it comes to encouraging already overweight children to eat in an unhealthy way, I have little sympathy.

The people at the table next to me were a classic example. A seriously overweight husband and wife were seated with their two young, seriously overweight children. The parents were urging the kids to finish what was on their plates. None of them could possibly have been hungry at the end of the meal. Despite that, all four ordered their own desserts, which were huge: an ice cream sundae, a banana split, a piece of cheesecake and a piece of chocolate cake. The adults polished off what the kids couldn't finish.

"But," you might say, "it could have been a special occasion." Yes, that's true, but why should any special occasion be an excuse for such a galling display of overeating? People should treat themselves on special occasions, perhaps by having moderate portions of their favorite foods. (They could have shared food, for example, or taken half of everything home.) But to model and actually encourage overconsumption does such a disservice to children. It doesn't matter if the kids are normal weight or overweight. There's never a good reason for overindulgence. And it's all too common for isolated instances of overindulgence to turn into consistent habits of overindulgence.

Why do parents overindulge their children? It's related to their beliefs, the ideas that guide their behavior. For example, perhaps the mother and father described above believe that:

  1. Restaurant portions are normal
  2. I should never waste food
  3. I should give my kids whatever they want
  4. It won't really matter if the kids overeat
  5. I am destined to be overweight and so are my kids
  6. If everyone at the table overeats, I won't feel as guilty
  7. It's normal to feel overly full

The poor kids. They look as if they are fast approaching obesity. They are learning such unhelpful ideas about food and eating, which are clearly influencing their eating behavior and their weight. They are growing up with distorted beliefs about what "normal" eating is.

"Why blame the parents," some might say. "Our society encourages overindulgence. Many cultures often view overeating and overweight as positives." Of course our societal and cultural beliefs and practices influence how we think and what we do. But the buck has to stop some place.

Yes, let's work on the bigger issues of the ubiquity of unhealthy food in the marketplace. The scarcity and cost of healthy food and the lack of safe outdoor areas to exercise in some neighborhoods are deplorable. But for those who can afford and have access to healthy foods, stop promoting unhealthy eating practices with your kids, especially your young kids. Teach them to eat only when it's time to eat. Stop allowing them to eat on demand. Encourage the consumption of healthier foods. Don't outlaw, but do limit, less healthy food. Recognize that what you do and what you say about food and eating can be key contributors to your children's health, now and in the future.