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Overweight Children: What Do They Really Need?
By Eleanor Reynolds, Children and Families Expert

By now, you’ve heard the bad news. Too many American children are overweight and at risk for diabetes and other related diseases. Why is this happening and what can be done? Before we can solve the problem, we must first examine the root causes of childhood obesity.  


A Look at Yesterday and Today

There are pros and cons to be found in every generation, including ours. In the past, fewer mothers worked outside the home. They cooked homemade dinners, were less aware of good nutrition, and were firm believers in the “clean your plate” and the “no dessert until you eat every bite” philosophies. Modern mothers, most of whom work outside the home, know more about nutrition and encourage their children to eat until they’re full regardless of the amount of food left on their plate. But today’s kids eat more processed and fast food. In the “good old days” kids ate oatmeal for breakfast and not candy disguised as cereal. A snack used to be an apple, not a bag of chips, and muffins, bagels, and cookies were once “regular” size and now they’re super-gigantic.            

In the past, children didn’t spend hours every day in front of a computer playing video games or watching TV. We like to think that they were outdoors playing ball with their Dad after he came home from work or running around the neighborhood with their friends. But I see a lot more Dads interacting and forming close bonds with their children today than I saw a generation ago. There are also many more physical activities for children to participate in, such as ballet, gymnastics, swimming, soccer, and softball. On top of that, mothers today seem to be fully involved in encouraging children of both sexes to participate in physical activities.


What Causes Children to be Overweight?

So if there are pros and cons in both the past and present, what causes obesity in our children? I think an underlying theme is parental anxiety. The shifts in the modern family have come so quickly that parents still doubt that they are doing the right thing for their children. As a society, we wonder if it’s harmful for children to have mothers who work outside of the home and attend child care programs. We agonize over the amount of time we spend with our families and at work. At the end of the day, when we haven’t given enough time to our children and when we’re exhausted and impatient, isn’t it easier to give in to their nagging and feed the children the fast food they’ve learned to crave? When we’re working so hard to provide everything our children need, why deprive them of all the things they demand?

An outgrowth of parental anxiety is the need for parents to be liked by their children. Because we have so many doubts about doing the right thing, we fear that our children won’t like us. We hesitate to set reasonable limits because our children might get angry. We compensate for the lack of time by giving in to our children’s demands, so we buy them toys, designer clothes, electronic games, trips to theme parks, and junk food.



Many experts focus on excess calorie intake and lack of exercise as the keys to overweight children. Naturally, those are factors. The real key, however, is giving children what they really need – our time, attention, intimacy, companionship, fun, guidance, and wisdom. We need to examine our lives, come to terms with our choices, and feel absolutely sure that what we are doing is best for our children so we can operate from a sense of strength and confidence. Children need reasonable limits and see them as a sign of parental love and concern. They may throw a tantrum when we set the limits, but if we’re strong, they feel safe throwing that tantrum. Children need role models who express joy and gratitude for the real and simple, non-materialistic pleasures in life. Children need trips to the playground or walks in the woods instead of passively playing video games. Children need regular mealtimes with the family where food is nutritious – the conversation that takes place at the table is just as good for them as the food. These are the ways to prevent overweight children.


Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers. For more information, visit her website at www.problemsolver.org. Reynolds is also the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach.