It’s no secret that overweight kids are typically not the most popular kids on the block. Nor is it news that kids can be mean, forming groups of “haves” and “have-nots,” gossiping, ostracizing their chunky classmates.
You’d think that home would be a safe haven for them, but a new study in the journal Obesity reveals that even parents can come down hard on their heftier offspring.
Researchers at the University of North Texas in Denton have found that parents may be less likely to chip in and help their overweight kid buy a car. “No one is going to be surprised that society discriminates against the overweight, but I think it is surprising that it can come from your parents,” researcher Adriel Boals told Reuters. (More on Time.com: Study: America Is Officially the Fattest Developed Country in the World)
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifying 20% of children and 18% of teens as obese, that’s a lot of kids who could potentially get short-changed. In the current study, the researchers looked at 379 college students and discovered that those who paid for their cars themselves had a higher average body mass index in relation to students whose parents helped with the purchase. When they trained their sights on the 82 students who paid for their cars without assistance, they found that 39% qualified as overweight or obese versus 18% in the group that got a financial leg up. Neither gender nor family income played into why parents were more willing to help out their svelter offspring.
Regardless, parents might want to think twice before they’re mean to their chubby children. What comes around often goes around, and the latest stats show one-third of Americans are overweight and another third are obese. (More on Time.com: Explaining the Gender Gap: Obesity Costs Women a Lot More Than Men)
Why might parents discriminate against their own heavy, but ostensibly adored offspring? Maybe they fear — and rightly so — that they’re less likely to succeed in life. Studies have documented that overweight adults often don’t fare as well at work, in school and in love. They are also less likely to complete high school, enter and finish college or get married and more likely to be poorer. Maybe it’s subconscious: “I don’t think the parents are doing this knowingly,” says Boals. Or maybe it’s Darwinian: survival of the fittest, in a literal sense.
Dan Kirschenbaum, a professor at Northwestern University Medical School and author of the first book for professionals on treating childhood and adolescent obesity, casts a skeptical eye on the findings. “I don’t buy that,” says Kirschenbaum, who’s worked with obese teens for decades and seen no evidence that parents love their overweight kids less. Any chronic condition is stressful, and parents of obese children feel frustrated just like parents of kids with learning disabilities, for example. “It could be a reflection of greater strain in those relationships.”
If anything, parents of obese children are too caring, says Mike Bishop, executive director of Wellspring, which runs two boarding schools for weight loss: “From my experience, parents of obese children tend to be helicopter parents — overinvolved in their life and a little bit too caring, kind of killing them with kindness, which is how they got that way in the first place.”
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