Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Open Season?

Did someone declare it open season on mothers while I wasn't looking?

Consider this article:

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Millions of poor children in the United States may be getting fat before age 10 because their mothers are stressed out and the youngsters seek escape in unhealthy comfort food, researchers said on Tuesday.

The stress is rooted in poverty and can be brought on by money woes, work loads, insufficient health insurance and other factors, said Craig Gundersen of the University of Illinois, who led the study.

"People will eat in response to feeling stress," he said in a telephone interview, and in this case children may be eating more in response to stress-related trouble at home. [...]

"We found that the cumulative stress experienced by the child's mother is an important determinant of child overweight," the research team reported in a study published in the September issue of Pediatrics.

Now, I'm sure that household stress and tension do contribute to emotional overeating, and also that emotional eating can contribute to weight issues, including obesity.

But this study focused on children under the age of ten!

Are five-year-olds really scarfing potato chips and snack cakes because Mom is a bit gloomy? Are two-year-olds raiding the fridge at midnight because their mothers seemed anxious or depressed during the day? Are seven-year-olds hitting the bottle--the Coke bottle, that is--because the lady of the house snaps at the slightest noise or signs of clutter in the after-school hours?

It would be one thing if this study determined that stress and tension caused mothers on occasion to bring home fast food instead of cooking a healthy meal, but the study specifically mentions children younger than ten "escaping" into comfort foods, and the mother's level of anxiety, depression, or other stress being a significant factor in the child's decision to do so.

Don't get me wrong: if mothers are unusually stressed or are suffering from psychological difficulties, they should be able to get help. But if children under ten are pigging out on junk food is the problem really an emotional eating reaction to deep parental stress--or simply a lack of general discipline coupled with busy parental schedules, too many convenience or fast food choices by the adults in the child's life, and perhaps in some socieoeconomic levels, a misunderstanding about basic principles of healthy eating, portion size, and the like?

It's so easy to blame moms for everything from children's eating habits to teen pregnancy and everything in between. It's hard, sometimes, to step back and realize that children have a tendency to act like children, whether that means sneaking an extra scoop of ice cream when mom isn't looking or sneaking out of the house to be alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The sad thing about this kind of focus is that what children really need is for the adults in their lives to model discipline, good judgment, and a firm grasp of consequences, yet nothing undermines a mother's sense of control faster than suggesting to her that even her normal, human moods and demeanor may be permanently damaging her children--or at least their eating habits.

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