Viewpoint: Childhood obesity and passive parenting

Mickey Mouse in front of a display for healthy food in Washington, DC 5 June 2012

The reason American children are so fat has less to do with the sort of television they watch and more to do with their parents' choices.

Is it just me or does it seem un-American for Mickey Mouse of all, er, people, to swear off junk food because Michelle Obama, the naggiest first lady since that busybody Eleanor Roosevelt, asked him to?

Sorry, but I have been in touch with my inner libertarian since New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to ban the sale of giant sodas, thereby making New York the only city where you can buy a 40-ounce (1.2l) vat of malt liquor, but not a 40-ounce tub of Coca-Cola.

Nevertheless, as the father of three small children I welcome Disney's move, though do not forget last year's report that Disney has quietly begun marketing to newborns and, yes, preborns.

"To get that mom thinking about her family's first park experience before her baby is even born is a home run," Disney's consumer products chief told The New York Times, presumably with a straight face.

That Mickey can be a real rat.

Be that as it may, parents can use all the help we can get helping our children navigate sensibly through the aggressive culture of marketing.

My wife and I realised what we were in for shortly after our first child was born.

It turns out marketers had discovered that babies learn to recognise brand logos very early. That cute little book a kindly aunt had sent to our one-year-old to help him play creatively with his breakfast cereal in his high chair? It was actually a savvy attempt by Cheerios to imprint brand recognition on his impressionable baby brain.

He is 12 now. Cheerios is his favourite cereal. Coincidence? Hmm.

We turned into hostile helicopter parents about marketing to our children. We restrict what they can watch, and have taught them the habit of muting commercials. If there are fewer commercials promoting junk food to kids, well then, hooray.

Parental passivity

The problem is that you cannot lay all the blame at the foot of marketing. After a certain age, peer culture is more influential on children than parental instruction.

American children these days are accustomed to having sugary snacks after every outing or minor group activity.

The parent who will not serve a Capri Sun and a bag of crisps after a play-date is thought of as some sort of pervert - the same sort of weirdos, as a matter of fact, who would not let their kids watch television.

Michelle Obama hailed Disney for changing its business model to tackle obesity

Come to think of it, it is good that there will be fewer junk-food commercials on children's television. But it would be better - much better - if the kids were not watching TV at all, but were outside playing.

Which brings us to a more fundamental problem: absence of parenting.

For some reason mothers and fathers these days find it all but impossible to say "no" to their children.

It is not a secret that childhood obesity rates are sky-rocketing, and that junk food makes children fat. Nor is it a secret that parents largely control their children's access to food.

True, television commercials make it harder for parents to exercise authority over their children's consumption habits, but also more necessary. Parental passivity and abdication of responsibility for their children's diets is appalling.

'Mean Mommy'

And it is part of a bigger challenge. I have recently talked with several teacher friends, both from state schools and, in one case, a posh private academy.

The teachers all complain that the mothers and fathers of their students expect them to assume the role of parent, imparting basic instruction about manners, personal responsibility, health, and such-like.

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The food writer Michael Pollan got it right when he said: 'Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food.'”

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A teacher whose students are mostly poor is so discouraged by having to mother her kids that she is thinking of leaving the profession.

A teacher from a school where students pay $18,000 (£12,000) a year in tuition told me that the well-off parents figure that for that price, the school should effectively take on the role of mean parent, freeing actual parents to be their children's cool older friends.

There is nothing wrong with the government restricting advertising to children, nor is there anything wrong with a big corporation like Disney voluntarily restraining child-focused marketing.

But nothing can substitute for engaged, discerning, and authoritative parenting - exactly the sort that contemporary Americans seem unwilling to do.


If parents prefer to molly-coddle their children with junk food it surely has something to do with their unwillingness to be more responsibly austere with their own diets.

I was an obese child - yes, I had unrestricted access to junk food growing up because in our house food was love - and have struggled with my weight all my life.

Eating more sensibly, both in terms of quality and quantity, was something I had to teach myself as an adult. It takes time, effort, and a conscious commitment to be counter-cultural but it is possible to conquer a dependence on processed food and massive quantities.

It does not require one to become a pale and parsimonious lettuce-nibbler.

The food writer Michael Pollan got it right when he said: "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food."

He meant that the less processed our food, the better it is for us.

He also implied that our great-grannies knew how to cook and did not rely on pre-made foods, which tend to be high in fat and carbohydrates.

True, many modern families do not have the time to prepare all their meals from scratch. But there are shortcuts and they are easy to learn.

I have observed, though, that in the kitchen and at the table many people, no matter what their income, prefer to practise learned helplessness rather than take responsibility for themselves and their children.

As the food writer Jane Black has observed, studies show that Americans do not lack information and opportunity to eat more sensibly - they just prefer the taste and convenience of junk food.

So, bully for Disney and Mrs Obama, but let us be grown-ups about this: the reason American children are so fat has less to do with the sort of television they watch and more to do with the fact that American adults - the people who are supposed to be taking care of kids and forming their character and habits - would rather eat like children: what they want, as much as they want, when they want it, and cooked by someone else.

People may say they hate the nanny state, but they sure do live like they need a nanny.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservative. Email:


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  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Dumb obese parents who cannot control their dumb obese kids.If you don't want your kids controlled by TV then stop being lazy and letting them watch all the TV they want cause you can't be bothered to interact and think of things to do with them.
    I live in the Rhondda and obese kids are a problem here,but you then see their obese parents and know where the blame lies.It's disgusting

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    We have the same problems in Egypt; it is trendy to eat junk food and if the kids like it and demand it then they get it, the little darlings can't be denied anything as they might cry!! We also have the same problem with schools being expected to parent but when they do the parents complain!! Not all parents of course but too many, it makes it hard for the mean mums like me:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    As children you develop a familiarity and a taste for foods that you carry with you into adulthood. Children raised to eat healthily will generally make choices for healthy food as adults.

    I don't have a sweet tooth, enjoy raw vegetables and love fruit. All things I ate as a child growing up. Parental control over children does not need to be confrontational, it can be passive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    We don't have a TV or microwave....our kids eat quite healthy. We do buy occasional treats but really don't have to, because EVERYwhere we go (bank, stores, library, restaurant, campground, church, relatives/friends) - my kids are continually being offered free ice cream, suckers (lollipops), gum, and other sugary or salty snacks. It's not even special anymore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    There's only so much parents can do. My kids don't get junk food at home, and we often discuss the dangers of too much (diabetes, obesity, etc.) but since my son began walking to and from school himself, all his pocket money goes to buying Coke, chips and candy. Junk food is cheap, tasty and on every corner. Try being 12 and ignoring the temptation, even if your parents explain the dangers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Food,and the consumption of, has been over the past 50 years been increasingly exhorted as a necessary pleasure and entertainment. Through the ages we accepted food as fuel with little choice on whether liked or disliked. You ate what you were given. As with supermarkets, choice confuses and we order or buy too much and waste a lot. Boosting growth!
    Cool the commercial bait or defy Michelle!

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Many years ago, as a medical student, and long before obesity became a fashionable topic, I made the empirical observation that the thickness of a patient’s medical file correlated closely with the extent of his or her waistline. This fact gave one a quick insight into the state of their health, and also of their cost to the NHS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    All true. Sadly, not only in U.S. In Britain fast-food outlets are full of obese parents filling the faces of fat children with upsized burgers. Even here in Singapore, where obesity is at an earlier stage, MacDonalds is a default choice for many parents out with kids on Saturday. Fewer truly obese people here than in Europe, but many more noticeably fat vs 20-30 years ago. It's getting worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    If we were worried about being smarter instead of "healthier", we would know there is no scientific measure of fat and the "obesity crisis" is made up of arbitrary standards as is so much in medicine. Why doesn't Mrs. Obama and these "health experts" work to help the hungry in in this world? Because it is easier to pick on the fat kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    @9 Daniel

    [Companies] are legally obligated to make the most profit possible for their shareholders, without any other considerations (apart from the law).

    Not true. Board level executives answer to shareholders for re-election. Shareholders are free to consider bottom line profits or look for ethics, growth....other things. There's a whole host of ethical companies out there, it's not legal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    The education authorities are missing great opportunities to teach children the value of healthy diets and basic cooking skills.
    When I was at school food tech classes were entirely focused on the 'development' and marketing of food. This teaches children to associate food with commercial gain.My mother was taught to cook in food tech, not how to design attractive packaging for pasta sauce.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    The stress of modern living means many of us eat for comfort and
    we are easy prey to 'hidden' persuading.
    They give you 'big' because it's 'added value'.
    Millions are spent by corporate pushers to make us and our children want this rubbish.
    So long as it deflates our wallets, they don't give a tinkers if it inflates our waistline.
    Carry on consumng and you will be damned to a slow lingering death.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    As a father of one and soon to be two, am I naive to think that I can just tell my kids the truth? The truth is that I eat what I like, as long as I keep in mind all the variables. I ride a bike, I have no car, and I run. Exercise is cheaper than health care though I do have that. Weight is a vampire, it sucks energy, quality of rest, money, opportunity, and respect. That's just how ppl are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Is Disney tied to the US govt-? As parenting is left to institutions, familial and neighborly concern for each other will decline. When we give up our freedoms, we will have fewer ways to help each other. Maybe it’s too late and we’ve lost interest - in ourselves. It seems like we’ve already given away the farm, just for a little restless sleep.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    "@17 Mscracker
    But a "non-political source of news and views"? Seriously?"

    Compared to the biased opinion mongering of CNN and Fox news, the BBC is the pinnacle of impartiality. Find me a major US news website that can cover the Wisconsin recall election showing both sides of the story like the BBC has, just as an example. Even after 3yrs in the US, I still get all my US news from the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Maybe it's time we treat junk food like we do cigarettes. Every hamburger carton and French fry wrapper have pictures and facts about all those horrible statistics and diseases that children have to look forward to. The truth is I think it would much easier to make the fast food industry follow standards and remove things like trans fats and high fruitcose corn syrup from the menu.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Parents ARE to blame. Our elementary school principal banned birthday treats and he has seen no end to complaining & whining about it from the PARENTS (the children couldn't care less).
    Our PTA Co-President became enraged when I lobbied for students to be able to purchase salads previously only available to teachers. I was successful but took a beating from both the PTA & Food Services employees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    On the one hand you have parents teaching their kids good eating habits on the other they are being bombarded with programming on childrens channels to eat this very stuff. Children are a special case and should not be the target of advertisers to exploit their vulnerbailities. Kudos to Disney.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Remember, this is the BBC, you can't say someone is obese, fat or lazy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I agree parents are the first to blame for our fat children, but to have the nerve to call Michelle Obama naggy is mind-numbing. Not only does obesity tarnish our country's reputation, but it is a major strain on our healthcare system, and thus economically. Promoting a healthy diet and regular exercise would be better for us culturally, medically, and financially. But you're right, HOW DARE HER!


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