Don't Blame Your Children for Their Weight

Role modeling: a parent's prescription for healthier kids.

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Earlier this summer, my office kicked off a three-year project in partnership with Ontario's Ministry of Health to help parents of children 12 and under with obesity. The program's extensive. It's one year in duration and involves unlimited one-on-one access to physicians, registered dietitians, clinical social workers, exercise specialists and, when needed, 10 hours of support from a clinical psychologist.

However, what it doesn't involve may surprise you – it doesn't involve the children. While the children will receive five hours of small group sessions with our clinical social worker, those sessions will be off-site and won't be focused on weight but instead on issues such as depression, anxiety, bullying, self-esteem, anger management and body image.

[Read: Parents, Make Back-to-School Season Healthy.]

Otherwise, the entirety of the program is to be delivered exclusively to parents. Studies on parent-only childhood obesity treatment programs suggest outcomes at least as good as those that involve the children directly. If you stop to think about it, especially with the younger kids, that result is anything but surprising; because at the end of the day, it's their parents who make those kids' lifestyle choices for them, and it's their parents who provide the role modeling they'll carry with them the rest of their lives.

But what has surprised me some are the stories I'm hearing from parents – both of their own efforts to help their children and of their physicians' efforts. Almost without exception, and bear in mind we're talking about preteens here, the stories revolve around trying to teach incredibly young children that their weights are dependent on personal responsibility – that if they just put their not-even-remotely-developed young minds to it, they could manage their weights.

[Read: It's Up to Us, Not Our Kids, to Change the Food Environment.]

It's not that these parents don't adore their children, or that their pediatricians – like the one who had a frank talk with a 7-year-old about ensuring she eat more vegetables and drink a glass of water before every meal in a bid to manage her weight – aren't well educated. It's that we as a society have bought in  – hook, line and sinker – to the notion that obesity is simple personal choice.

I explored that simple choice with one young mother who seemed somewhat flummoxed by the notion that personally managing weight was beyond the reach of her pre-teen, still-Barbie-doll-playing daughter. We chatted about her daughter's experiences.

According to mom, her daughter is bullied about her weight regularly at school to the point where she dreads going; was lectured to by her pediatrician, who provided her with all sorts of scary obesity health statistics; is regularly confronted by her parents about her dietary choices, often leading to uncontrollable sobbing; and is now no longer able or comfortable to participate in many physical activities she once loved. I asked mom simply, "Given all of the suffering your daughter's weight so clearly brings her, do you really think she hasn't tried to help herself?"

[Read: Examining Your Pediatrician's Feeding Advice.]

Kids today haven't suffered an epidemic loss of willpower. They're not sloths. They're not gluttons. They're not lazy. They're just normal kids living in a world where there's a torrential current of calories pointed at them; where we've normalized the use of sugar and junk food to mark every single life event, no matter how small; where governments are complicit in consumers being duped by lax front-of-package labeling laws that allow cereals like Froot Loops to boast about its nutritional benefits; where schools serve no-name junk food and teach kids that if a chip is baked, it's suddenly good for them; where young parents may be two generations away from regular home cooking and nightly family dinners; and where what were once portions designed for fully grown adults are now featured on kids' menus. And trust me, I could go on.

[Read: We Must Be Kidding! The Case for Eradicating 'Kid' Food.]

If you're concerned about your child's weight, finger-wagging blame isn't going to help. Rest assured the one thing your child doesn't lack are the crushing feelings of guilt and shame consequent to their weight, and were guilt and shame sufficient to inspire lifelong change, the world would be much slimmer.

While there is no simple set of instructions likely to help with your child's weight, I can set you up with one simple instruction with which to evaluate your parenting therein: Without compromises, live the life you want your children to live.

[Read: 10 Ways to Raise Healthier Kids.]

For most of us, including me, when we take a few moments to stop and think about the example we're setting, changes aren't very difficult to find. Those changes may mean some sacrifices on your part. It may mean more cooking, less restaurants, cutting your cable and getting more active. It may also mean being more patient, more thoughtful, more caring and more loving.

Teach your children by means of example and not lecture. Start there and slowly, as a family, you'll undoubtedly improve your health and potentially your weights as well.

[Read: Diet Alone, or Live it Together.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.