If Your Kid Is Fat, Are You to Blame?

If a kid is overweight and his parents don't do enough to trim him down, should they be charged with neglect?

A lawyer in Scotland says that's what's happening to her clients. In late October, local authorities in the northern city of Dundee took seven children—including a newborn baby (who was later returned)—away from a couple, claiming the chubby kids were "at risk." Local authorities say they're bound by confidentiality laws, so they won't name the family and can't say, officially, why they took the kids away. They claim they have tried to help the family in question over several years and say weight was not the sole factor in the decision to remove the kids. But the couple's lawyer says the authorities are just trying to save face; she insists that the parents are being targeted because they haven't done enough to help their fat kids slim down. The case has caused a big stir in the U.K.

But it follows a string of similar cases in the U.S.—including one in June, when a South Carolina mom, Jerri Gray, lost custody of her son, who at 14 years old weighed 555 pounds, after doctors expressed concerns about the boy's weight to social services. Similar cases have been reported in other states, including California, Texas and New York, in which parents of obese children have been accused of neglect or endangerment.

All of this has set off a round of public debate and private soul-searching on both sides of the Atlantic. Are parents to blame when their kids get fat? And if so, how much are they to blame?

All you have to do is go to your local shopping mall or fast-food restaurant to see evidence that obesity among both kids and adults is at an all-time high: Researchers estimate that about 32 percent of U.S. kids are overweight or obese. And each of us—fat, thin or somewhere in between—will be affected. Experts predict these chubby kids will grow up to be a huge drain on the public coffers, as obesity is tied to higher rates of chronic illness, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers—conditions that are expensive to treat.

But are Mom and Dad to blame? After all, they are in charge of their kid's diet—to some degree, at least. There are plenty of parents who regularly serve meals loaded with fried or fatty foods, sweets and soda. And who hasn't felt a mixture of pity and frustration at the sight of a more-than-ample-sized family loading up their shopping cart with potato chips, sugary cereals and gallons of ice cream? It's easy to wonder, Why don't they do something about that? But here's where indignation needs to be tempered by data: It turns out that lots of parents aren't actively trying to make their kids fat. In fact, good research suggests that nearly half of chubby parents don't actually perceive their kids as overweight. In other words, they truly don't see that there is a problem.

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