Two articles in The Times Saturday 11 February 2012; the first worrying about children who consider themselves fat when they aren’t. The second, a cry for help from Lucy Cavendish, mother of a fat child who doesn't understand her son’s fatness and doesn't know what to do about it.
Lets take the former first which deserves a blog to itself. God (or whatever) save our children from parents who make comments about weight, their own willpower or lack of it and who flaunt their own obsessive attachment to the gym, pilates or running marathons.
The second article resonated with me more, having it on good authority that being the Parent Of A Child Fatter Than Other Children (PFOC) has its challenges.
I understand that Lucy, like many other PFOCS, will first try to figure out why her child is fat. Is it the genes, is it something she has done, or something about the character of the child. She seems to be blaming all of the above. She once cooked like Nigella and now one of her children is paying the price. Or perhaps he just is lazy or is having a love affair with food. There was a fat ancestor somewhere in the past.
Even if it isn’t her fault, it is her responsibility to do something about it. Everyone tells her so. Some people are telling her to put her son on a diet. HORRORS! Please find her and warn her that dieted children are more likely to gain weight even faster than before the diet. It doesn't work to put children on diets.
When you have a fat child, people think you are a bad mother or at least an irresponsible mother. People will say how can you let your child get like that. Lucy feels guilty when she buys fattening foods and is bending over backwards to put everyone at home on a healthy eating programme. That sounds fine and will convince her that she is being a good mum. But, Lucy, if you are reading this, that doesn't work either. For every PCFOC buying normal foods in a supermarket there are a dozen parents buying ordinary food with normal skinny children. Many children just don't gain weight.
The Government has decided to wage war on the fat child with warnings about health risks and risks to emotional well-being. In some ways they are right and Lisa is correctly afraid that a fat child is probably going to be a fat adult. But many adults are fat who were never fat as children. I think it is these adults who find it hardest to manage their eating habits, since they were never called into question when they were young.
The days of bad interventions are gone. Doctors no longer give slimming pills to children as they did but rest assured, they don't know what else to do. Obesity is the physician’s Achilles heel. Instead we have do-gooding, Jamie Oliver, bless him, and earnest strategies trying to foster healthy eating for our kids. We have the dreaded “fat letter” and a fat lot of good that is going to do. We even have a MEND child obesity programme which appears to have failed Lisa and her son. Although MEND received a gazillion pound grant, I would love to meet just one cured-fat success story, a fat child made thin. I haven’t yet.
There is no doubt that there are some lazy, irresponsible and unknowledgeable parents who stuff their children full of junk. There are parents who simply do not know that their child is fat, because they do not know how to interpret what they see. Despite what we are led to think, I believe that these are in the minority.
The rest of us have to do daily battle, with our need to defend ourselves from criticism, and with the unending responsibility to conduct a battle, which we cannot win. There is a limit to the control we can exert and limit to the miles we can force these little ones to run. We risk doing damage in the process; a child deprived of treats will only want them more. We stop just appreciating our fat children and envelop them in the pall of our own anxiety, always wondering what to do that will work this time.
To the mother of a fat child I would say this. Really there is nothing you can do. This is a child who above all needs to be loved and celebrated, learn to view their difference as a gift to help you to rise above yourself. Let them eat all they want; do not try to convince them that they cannot be hungry; do not scrutinize their portion sizes; they really do need more than thin children.
Above all, deprive the child of nothing that you would not let them eat if they were thin. By all means take them out for a walk for fun, but do not heed the advice to deprive them of their TV and to force them onto the football pitch.
The child who is fully accepted and loved at home will be better able to overcome the difficulties they will face outside. To any young and vulnerable person, teasing and bullying is the worst thing that can happen. Above all it mustn’t happen at home with guarded comments such as “You would look better in that if you were a bit thinner.” A zero tolerance policy of teasing among siblings should also be in place.
Instead of trying to fix the child’s weight, fix their ability to manage these torments and to overcome them. You may need to call on professional help to keep their self esteem intact. Above all, you must find a way to let them know that it is not their fault. Nor, when they are children is it their responsibility to do something about it. Nor, strangely enough is it yours for now.
Having worked unceasingly with fat people for decades, I am now convinced that fatness is a disease that can only be managed, never cured. The best chance a fat child has of losing weight is to do it for themselves, when they are older, in time and in the best way for them. They have a far better chance of managing their weight in the future if you are able to give them a solid sense of self worth and self respect in early life.
So, if you are going to stop trying to manage their weight, what can you do? If I did have a checklist, it would contain some of the following;
Adore and be proud of your fat child, give them loads of hugs and listen to their problems.
Engage the school, make sure you let them know that your strategy for your child is long term and alert them to let you know if there are problems.
Make sure he knows that weight is not his fault. You might need help to put this in the right words. If he thinks it isn’t fair, he is right.
Ignore comments or assumed comments from others. Make sure that everyone in the family reads this blog.
Tell well-meaning others that diets make fat children fatter. Tell the child that missing meals is fattening.
Do not diet yourself, or make weight comments about yourself or others, do not praise beautiful children, do not use the child to compete with you in a weight loss programme.
Help your child to love a large range of foods.
Teach your fat child how to cook (all foods including treats).
Do not ban any food, under any circumstances including visits to Macdonalds, do not make comments, but use substitutions, like sorbet rather than ice cream for the family.
Get help if necessary to teach her how to combat teasing including Facebook bullying.
Make sure she is doing things she enjoys, from ice skating to dancing or tweeting.
If your child wants to diet, do NOT quickly agree and I advise some expert help, such as from me!
If she is bingeing or secretly eating, she is deeply alone and unhappy. Spend time with her and find out what she is feeling.
If you have any questions or concerns, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and meanwhile, celebrate your fat and hungry child.