This is Part 3 of the blog series: Looking at Childhood Obesity through a Different Lens. Here, I take a different look at child weight problems, uncovering some of the fundamental issues that need to be addressed. You can read Part 1 covering beliefs about childhood obesity here, and Part 2 about parent-child feeding interactions here.
Parenthood, and particularly the job of feeding kids, is hard. Many parents enter the job with great enthusiasm and optimism, only to find that the daily grind is overwhelming and difficult. Without preparation or training, parents may wing it, using trial and error. Feeding successes are super rewarding, making parents feel confident in their skills, but the mistakes can be defeating, confirming insecurities parents have about good parenting.
Why is the job of feeding kids more difficult today than in the past?
Job Training is Missing
Most jobs allow a window of time for on-the-job training—showing the scope of the job, expectations of performance and consequences of mistakes. Not so for parenting, or nutrition and feeding. Home economics, a once required high school subject for many American teens, is now almost obsolete, on the sidelines as an elective course. Today’s parents miss the key elements of Home Economics: food and nutrition, home management, childcare and parenting, human development and family relations. And a lot more! (remember laundry and sewing?)
What was once a given source of nutrition, cooking and child development education, is now a gaping hole in the preparation of future parents. When parents lack information about what to feed, how to do it, and normal child development, the job of nourishing a family is more difficult. Good decisions are difficult to make when you don’t have all (or most of) the information.
The Fading (Extended) Family
Gone are the days of grandma being a resource for childcare, Sunday dinners and colic remedies—whether this was wanted (and good) advice, or not—the supportive nature of the extended family doesn’t exist for many modern-day parents. Today’s parents are on their own to figure out nutrition and feeding. This missing support may add to the stress, challenge and fatigue associated with parenting.
The Information Super Highway Leads to Super Confusion
Lack of nutrition knowledge and support are leading parents to seek other sources for information to help with feeding their kids. Google healthy eating, nutrition, or diet and you’ll get a slew of information—some accurate, some not. You can find celebrities and their quick weight loss diets, moms who put their daughters on a diet, and stories of what worked for other families seeking an action plan for helping their child lose weight, become more active or simply “get healthy.” While it would seem that this accessible information would bring comfort and confidence to parents, for many it simply adds to the confusion and fear. And the greater risk of making nutrition mistakes in the pursuit of popular trends or media hype.
Fear of Impending Disease
To compound the issues, childhood nutrition problems are on the rise—from childhood obesity and eating disorders to food allergies, learning and behavioral challenges, and picky eating. With these looming, parents are scrambling to make sure they feed their children right and avoid letting ‘bad’ food take over the family dinner table. The combination of fear of causing a nutrition problem and pressure to raise a healthy child may lead to feeding mistakes, such as restricting a child’s eating to prevent weight gain.
Food is Omnipresent
Food is everywhere! Not only are there more opportunities for children to eat, the food available is packaged and palatable, something easy for them to accept. When food is sweet and salty, and friends are eating, it’s easy for kids to join in, rather than pass up the opportunity. This makes the job of feeding and raising healthy kids harder.
Too Many Food Decisions
Meanwhile, our food supply offers up the good with the bad: seemingly healthy food with undesirable ingredients lurking in the background. The ‘health halo’ elevates many foods to an undeserving status, confusing consumers even more. With all these small details to pay attention to, it’s easy for parents to become overwhelmed and give up on trying to sort through the plethora of food variety, opting for the easy path: convenience food items, dining out and the same old grocery list.
Less Time, More Demands
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, 70.6% of mothers, and 93.5% of fathers, with children under 18 years, were in the labor force. While this bears good news for the economy and household finances, it presents a challenge for pulling off family meals and healthy eating. Even stay-at-home parents are busy, volunteering, transporting kids, and leading events that approximate the demands of a “real job.”
These demands may negatively impact meal planning, cooking and eating together; increase fatigue; and support a desire to make the most of available free time. A recipe for undesirable eating.
Feeding is Hard
Parents today don’t have it easier when it comes to feeding their kids and raising healthy children, despite the obvious conveniences. Today’s parents are up against a variety of barriers that stand in the way to getting a healthy meal on the table, raising a healthy child and preventing the growing incidence of a number of childhood nutrition problems.
While I don’t have a solution for all the challenges outlined above, I do believe we can do a better job with the following:
- elevate the topics of nutrition and feeding in our educational curriculum;
- transform childhood nutrition from a food-focused endeavor to a “feed the whole child” mission including food, feeding and child development;
- change the food landscape at sporting events, schools and community organizations to promote natural, wholesome foods and less convenience items.
If you’re a parent, what challenges do you face in feeding your child? What ideas do you have to tackle some of these obstacles?