A week ago a story broke about a Massachusetts school that used the results of standardized BMI testing to send home letters to kids in the school who fell into the categories of “overweight” and “obese”. It caused quite an uproar with parents of those students and across the country. I’ve stewed on this for a bit because it sets off a series of reactions complicated by so many issues including the economics of shopping for healthy food, the self-esteem of developing children, popular culture’s obsession with skinny and the reactionary campaign of celebrating big as beautiful.
A copy of the letter sent can be seen here. It does state that BMI cannot account for all aspects of weight and it suggests that the results of this basic test be used to have a discussion with the child’s physician and to contact the school if they do not have one.
As a nation we have a problem with health issues related to obesity and the trend is growing, alarmingly so in children. This is a fact agreed upon by health professionals across the industry. It can be confirmed by a visit Walmart. How to handle it and when to handle it is where the debate comes in. Especially with children. However, it is important enough to address and work toward solutions on the issue of childhood obesity that First Lady Michelle Obama has made it her cause celebre during her time in the White House.
Children are at the mercy of the adults around them for learning healthy eating and lifestyle habits. No one can pretend that they haven’t seen a truly fat kid and shook their head at the bad parenting on display. I don’t mean husky kids, or those that have put on weight right before a growth spurt. There is a wide range of body types that happen as adolescence wreaks its havoc. I’m talking about the truly indescribably fat kids that no amount of hormone imbalance or baby weight can explain away. The ones who truly embody, so to speak, the problem of childhood obesity.
The decision to hand out the letters was a terrible idea. The school should have been more sensitive, with phone calls to the parents, or mailed out sealed letters. That is clear. However, I’m fascinated by the reasons for the negative reactions in some cases. One parent described that they were angry because some kids went to bed feeling bad about themselves because of the letters.
Let’s be honest. If that letter said a child was obese, not just overweight, another kid at the school or on the playground has said it before. More than once. I’m not saying that’s okay, but acting as though these letters suddenly ruined some heretofore perfectly healthy self-esteem in a child is highly unlikely. Kids are smart and intuitive, and they have functioning mirrors too if the mockery of other children wasn’t already enough.
There are undoubtedly some kids whose development and muscle mass skew their results, this is the issue many have with just using BMI as an indicator of health, and this would account for some incorrect results. However, I find myself irritated that the vast majority of responses were variations on “that’s offensive” (see my previous blog on this phrase here) instead of dealing with the insensitive nature of the news delivery and then moving on to dealing with the actual problem raised by the testing. One third of the students registered as overweight or obese. That is a problem. Children should be protected, and yes, absolutely, be sensitive to their emotions and feelings in addressing the problem, but address the actual problem!
It’s hard for me to take parents crying “That’s so rude!” very seriously because it seems like a standard deflection motivated by anger at the perceived implication that they are being called bad parents because their kid is fat. And actually, they kind of are. Being called bad parents.
Kids don’t make themselves unhealthy, they do not make enough of their own decisions to be held responsible. Their parents do. They should be held accountable or at the very least encouraged to teach their children better habits. These parents who are upset should meet with the school about handling sensitive issues, then they should do the work of focusing on their children’s health. Regardless of the botched delivery, this is what the school is at least trying to do. That is an effort above and beyond their required jobs as educators that should be molded into the correct form of expression and then applauded.
I hope that in between interviews about how offended they were, these parents made appointments with their children’s physicians, you know, just to do the good parenting thing and be on the safe side.