The Mayo Clinic defines childhood obesity as “a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height.”
Physically, a child becomes overweight from consuming too many calories, burning too few calories or both. Emotionally, childhood obesity can lead to poor self-esteem and depression.
But can the reverse also be true? By telling our kids that they’re great just the way they are, are we enabling them to be overweight and unhealthy? We asked the experts — and their answers were mixed.
“Our tendency to celebrate everyone, no matter how minor the achievement, is more harmful than beneficial long-term,” says Suzanne Raga, author of YOU ROCK! How To Be A STAR Student & Still Have Fun. “It's true that parents should encourage their kids to love and be happy with themselves, but good self-esteem can only take a child so far.”
Raga explains that our “give everyone a trophy, including (and especially) the losers” mentality sets our children up for a harsh awakening in college and their first jobs, where a certain standard of effort is expected — and where not everyone will get an A or a promotion.
“Accepting and loving yourself is great and essential to happiness,” says Raga, “but parents should also instill in their kids a desire to improve their health and self-image.”
“While self-acceptance is extremely valuable, taking responsibility for our choices, behaviors and habits is valuable too,” says The Mojo Coach Debi Silber, a health and fitness expert.
“So many children are overweight due to a combination of poor food choices and/or a sedentary lifestyle,” says Silber. “They also lack role models and learn to eat to soothe, calm, numb, relax or simply fill the time.”
Over-scheduling our children doesn’t help. “Kids need to eat while being shuffled from one activity to the next,” adds Silber. “The ‘dashboard dining’ options are typically unhealthy. So while we want our kids to have a positive self-esteem, the choices we’re making for them aren’t supporting these goals.”
"I don't believe that we are enabling children to be overweight and unhealthy by promoting self-acceptance," says Beverly Hills psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich. “Teaching children self-acceptance does not mean that you are teaching a child that being unhealthy is OK, but rather that it is the job of the parent and child to ensure that a child is healthy.”
Dr. Fran Walfish, a leading child and family therapist in Beverly Hills, agrees. “Parents do spoil their kids, but to compare this to the obesity issue is truly apples and oranges,” she says. “Most children who are obese do not deal with uncomfortable feelings directly. Eating is a way of avoiding painful emotions.”
Dr. Walfish believes overeating is a symptom of childhood depression. “I have not treated one single family in which a parent wasn’t bothered by their child’s [being] overweight,” says Dr. Walfish. “My job is to get the parents off the kid’s back and stop criticizing the kid for being fat.”
“Childhood obesity is the result of bad eating habits, a slow metabolism and psychological issues,” says Erika Katz, author of Bonding over Beauty. “It’s not spoiling, it could just be lack of knowledge.”
As for self-esteem, Katz says, “I don't think we encourage obese children to be happy with being obese. But, we also can't make them feel bad and destroy their fragile self-esteem because the emotional distress can cause binge eating as well. It is hard enough to lose five pounds as an adult. Imagine being a kid and having to lose 50 pounds, being made fun of, and being depressed because of their body. Obesity is complex and should be treated as such.”
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