• A kid comes home from school and tells his mom that (s)he is tired of being bullied for being overweight. The mom comforts the kid and says “let’s work on getting healthier together” and starts helping the child lose weight.
• A mom notices that her kid is overweight. Instead of saying “you’re fat and need to lose weight” to that kid directly, she gets the entire family to eat healthier and get fit.
• A self-confident kid is overweight and never brings up anything weight-related to their parents. The parents decide not to bring anything up because they don’t want to risk hurting the kid’s self-esteem.
These scenarios sound pretty believable, right? Now read these:
• A kid and her mom are shopping for clothes. The kid tries on shorts and the mom says, “You shouldn’t wear shorts. Everyone can see your fat.
• A kid is watching TV on the weekend. The mom says, “Stop watching TV. You’re gonna get even fatter. Go run.”
• A kid comes back from boarding school after a semester. The first thing that her parent says is “Wow, you’ve gotten fat.
The last three scenarios probably didn’t sound as familiar to you. Well, that is, if your parents grew up in America.
I recently read responses in the NYT to an advice columnist who said that pretending obesity isn’t a problem may prevent hurt feelings but can compromise health. While reading through many interesting responses from different perspectives, I found a line from Eileen Natuzzi, a Californian surgeon, that really resonated with me:
“The health profession along with society must stop skirting around obese patients and open an honest dialogue about how their weight is killing them and costing the health system directly as well as indirectly.”
I can definitely attest to how Americans tiptoe around the subject of weight with their kids compared to people of other nationalities. I spent a few years living in Taipei when I was in mid-elementary school. People in Taiwan are very blunt when it comes to talking about weight. It’s not uncommon to hear family members comment on each other’s weight and diets. Kids aren’t safe from getting criticized about their weight either.
A Taiwanese parent with an overweight/obese kid would never tiptoe around and sugarcoat the situation; they will nag and remind the kid everyday that (s)he is fat and needs to lose weight. The majority of parents don’t even think about how they might hurt their kid’s feelings. It’s just not something that’s really taken into account. If your kid is fat, then just tell them to their face — simple as that. This kind of bluntness about weight loss isn’t unique to Taiwan.
Other East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and China have similar attitudes about weight and parenting. But what happens after these kids turn into teenagers and adults? Apparently, the pressure from their parents and society to be skinny can turn into all sorts of problems, like eating disorders, low self-esteem, and low self-satisfaction. There’s a Wikipedia page entitled “Eating disorders in Chinese women.” The Wikipedia page for “Eating disorders in American women” doesn’t exist.
So now you probably think that the American parenting style of tiptoeing and being gentle about their kid’s weight is the better way to go. But check this out — there’s a huge Wikipedia page for “Obesity in the United States” and a nonexistent one for “Obesity in China.”
So actually our “nice” parenting style is far from perfect. When we talk about child obesity, parenting is important and deserves our attention because parenting is what leads to either good or bad eating/fitness habits. I think that we tend to overlook the role that parenting plays in obesity. Will having healthy school lunches really curb obesity if the other 16/21 meals of the week are eaten at home? Will required PE classes really motivate kids to exercise at home when all his parents do is watch TV? It’s not that these initiatives aren’t a step forward, but we shouldn’t expect them to be a “cure.”
Good life-long habits come from good parenting. But if we are more concerned about our kid’s feelings than their physical health, I don’t think that we’re making any real progress in the battle against obesity. I’m not saying that we should all start copying the East Asian approach, but something about our parenting style isn’t working. Maybe there’s a balance between the American and the East Asian approaches that we should consider.