Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Childhood obesity and how adults have contributed to it

Adult and childhood obesity and how these conditions are increasing in numbers in America never leaves the news cycle, it seems. We've all been hearing about it for years; we've all seen spots on TV or read features about it in magazines and newspapers, or heard about it on the radio, over and over. I do believe "the experts" who study such things when they say it is a "growing" problem, because undeniably, there they are before our eyes, seen almost every day in public places: morbidly, alarmingly, shockingly, inhumanly fat people. My heart aches for them as I watch them physically struggling with the literal burden of the consequences of their actions. Consequences that are viciously consuming them.

I know that "fat Americans" has become a pejorative stereotype around the world, especially among the Western Europeans, where obesity seems to be a growing problem too, but is reflexively blamed on "American conditions" like ubiquitous fast food. In Europe's jaundiced eyes the once "ugly American" is now an ugly, fat American. That, along with current talk about the medical issues and insurance and health costs being paid for by all Americans, makes me an involved and concerned participant in the national problem.

But it is really most heartbreaking, I think, to see obese children. One of the most memorable features of the summer day when I take my children to enjoy the local water park once a year is is seeing obese elementary-school-age and teenage children walking around in their swimsuits, their extremely unhealthy fat and unhealthy future prospects revealed. Invariably the adult or adults with such children are also obese. Though a live-and-let-live libertarian at heart, at such moments I confess I feel the wild, useless urge to call Child Protective Services to intervene in a clear case of longstanding and ongoing child abuse.

But denial is a deep vein in our society, and much is overlooked and blindly tolerated here, while we distract ourselves incessantly with other things that simply do not matter (like daily blow-by-blow reports of the Michael Vick case, to name the latest overhyped cause celebre).

It's no mystery that parents with unhealthy eating habits would pass the same on to the children they are raising (and feeding). It's also no secret that American children get less exercise these days to burn off the ingested fats and empty sugar calories than they did when Hector was a pup and children walked ten miles to school through the driving snow with only a cold potato or an apple in their pocket for their lunch.

But here's another couple of factors I've noticed that I haven't heard anyone else talk about:

The educators have institutionalized between-meal snacking

Somehow over the last couple of decades we've become pushers of the "snacking" society. (And why do I think this was probably originally marketing- and product-driven?) I first started to notice this fifteen years ago when my son was small and I was a new mother. I'd take him to suburban parks and playgrounds, and most of the other doting moms would be toting along juice boxes and crackers or tupperware containers of Cheerios for their own small fry. Even if the accompanying snacks were healthy, it still struck me as funny then: couldn't these children spend an hour or two away from home at the playground between two sit-down meals without going into shock? But over time it became a habit for me, too. I didn't want to appear unprepared, or have my own child seem neglected. Food was the comforter, the ace-in-the-hole. Peer pressure soon got to me, too. I started packing Cheerios in the diaper bag.

When my son entered half-day preschool, I realized the snacking habit was an institutionalized mainstay. Snacks were part of the preschool day, a refreshment, doled out on a regular schedule, to fill some sort of evident need between the breakfast and lunch served at home. I didn't recall ever being so tied to needing a snack in mid-morning when I was a kid (nor did I get such snacks, usually--I was too busy playing). But who was I to second-guess the preschool experts, who'd had years of experience dealing with small children? Not me, a first-time mother.

As both of my children went through elementary school, bringing "healthy snacks" each day was not just permitted, but strongly suggested (i.e. an assumed requirement). If I chanced to forget to pack a snack and an additional drink box in addition to the lunch I also packed, my child would feel downright deprived during "snack time" when teaching came to a halt and everyone else in class pulled out their healthy (and unhealthy) "snacks" (some of which by no definition could be considered a mere "snack"). My children felt reassured that if Mom forgot to pack a snack, at least they could go to the teachers' "emergency" snack pantry and grab some Goldfish crackers or something else to sustain them through the long, arduous slog toward their 11:25 a.m. lunch.

Deprivation and socialization were the name of this game, I realize now. It had little to do with needing actual food, and a whole lot more with institutionalizing snacking between meals. They were, consciously or not, teaching the children that people really can't and shouldn't go for several hours without thinking about their stomachs and eating. Obviously, "everybody does it," and teachers and principals approve!

Now I am wondering what effect this institutionalized snacking has had on the nation's kids as a whole. It sure wasn't a regular part of my school day back in the 1960's and 1970's.

Even more pernicious is the institutionalization of using candy as a reward which I encountered (and hated) in my children's elementary schools. As real discipline and the ability to remove or effectively reprove troublemakers went out the window, teachers took on a new tact of "positive reinforcement"--rewarding good behavior with candy (Jolly Ranchers were the Gold Standard in our suburb). Since my children were taught at home to be well-behaved and obedient in school, they "earned" tons of sugar candy. To add to the problem, each of their teachers would do the same, so that my kids would be raking in empty calories from the music teacher, the art mom, the science teacher, etc.

The parents showed approval with sugar, too. In my day, Valentine's Day meant you got paper valentines. In my children's day, they got paper valentines AND a whole lot of candy from their classmates to go with them. I was one of the few old-fashioned mothers who didn't include sweets with the valentines we gave (and how meager my children's offerings looked in comparison, in the eyes of recipients). Peer pressure yet again.

Complaining to the teachers about the "candy for good behavior" policy got me nowhere and made no dent on the deluge. I had to sit down and level with my kids that so much candy, while indicative of great achievement on their part, was not good for them to consume. They were understanding and good sports about it. But why do teachers take this route to further their own interests at the expense of the children? Treating them like Pavlov's dog with empty sugar calories as a teacher-approved reward in mass crowd control situations is not a lesson I sent my children to school to learn. And what does this practice teach children already struggling with eating issues?

The adults running the schools don't care about the kids getting enough exercise

Finally, lack of exercise. My children had regular physical education and recess almost every day in elementary school, for which I was grateful. They certainly needed and benefited from that, and their coaches were very good. But once they entered middle school, they had only one semester a year of physical education, and no recess at all. That meant, that for one-half of the entire school year, they had no P.E. at all, and the only exercise they got was walking to and from the bus and walking around between classes. In high school, they are required to take only one semester of physical education in four years. Who in his right mind thinks this is sufficient exercise for children cooped up in a school all day?

I have complained to my school board representative about this for years and nothing has changed. Not enough parents care enough to put the school district's feet to the fire and require regular daily exercise for children. Too many other things need to be shoehorned into too few hours, I'm told. It is left up to the parents to make sure their children get sufficient exercise during the few hours they are out of school and not tied up doing homework. The middle school and high school here have thrown up their hands and bowed out of something that was a part of my daily school life when I was a teen. Although private schools can somehow manage to find time for all the necessary academic subjects and physical exercise for the kids, our public schools have decided we cannot afford to make P.E. that much of a priority. With our finite resources, if we increase P.E. time, then music will have to go, we've been told. How many other schools across America have been allowed to get away with doing the same?

How much of these factors in my own experience in raising my children are common across America? How much have they possibly contributed to the growing problem of childhood obesity?

There are many fingers to point and many causes to blame when it comes to the problem. But I don't think I have ever heard of educators being put on the hot seat--and maybe it's time they were. I offer up this post not as an example of venting blame, but in the hope that those who see they might be contributing to a problem might choose to rethink their actions. Can we do better and choose smarter methods that will help to decrease childhood obesity? I think so.

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