Letters from Maine

Talking to overweight children


You are seeing a 9-year-old for her annual health maintenance visit. A quick look at her growth chart easily confirms your first impression that she is obese. How are you going to address the weight that you know, and she probably suspects, is going to make her vulnerable to a myriad of health problems as she gets older?

Girl who is overweight, with schoolmates on playground SolStock/iStock/Getty Image

If she has been your patient since she was in preschool, this is certainly not the first time that her growth chart has been concerning. When did you first start discussing her weight with her parents? What words did you use? What strategies have you suggested? What referrals have you made? Maybe you have already given up and decided to not even “go there” at this visit because your experience with overweight patients has been so disappointing.

In her op ed in the New York Times, Dr. Perri Klass reconsiders these kinds of questions as she reviews an article in the journal Childhood Obesity (“Let’s Not Just Dismiss the Weight Watchers Kurbo App,” by Michelle I. Cardel, PhD, MS, RD, and Elsie M. Taveras, MD, MPH, August 2019) written by a nutrition scientist and a pediatrician who are concerned about a new weight loss app for children recently released by Weight Watchers. (The Checkup, “Helping Children Learn to Eat Well,” The New York Times, Aug. 26, 2019). Although the authors of the journal article question some of the science behind the app, their primary concerns are that the app is aimed at children without a way to guarantee parental involvement, and in their opinion the app also places too much emphasis on weight loss.

Their concerns go right to the heart of what troubles me about managing obesity in children. How should I talk to a child about her weight? What words can I choose without shaming? Maybe I shouldn’t be talking to her at all. When a child is 18 months old, we don’t talk to her about her growth chart. Not because she couldn’t understand, but because the solution rests not with her but with her parents.

At what age does a child’s obesity cease being simply a parenting problem and instead become something the child must solve? Does that point come when we have given up on the parents’ ability to create and maintain an environment that discourages obesity? Is that the point when we begin asking the child to unlearn a complex set of behaviors that have been enabled or at least tolerated and poorly modeled at home?

When we begin to talk to a child about his weight do we begin by telling him that he may not have been a contributor to the problem when it began but from now on he needs to be a major player in its management? Of course we don’t share that reality with an 8-year-old, but sometime during his struggle to manage his weight he will connect the dots.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

If you are beginning to suspect that I have built my pediatric career around a scaffolding of parent blaming and shaming you are wrong. I know that there are children who have inherited a suite of genes that make them vulnerable to obesity. And I know that too many children grow up in environments in which their parents are powerless to control the family diet for economic reasons. But I am sure that like me you mutter to yourself and your colleagues about the number of patients you are seeing each day whose growth charts are a clear reflection of less than optimal parenting.

Does all of this mean we throw in the towel and stop trying to help overweight children after they turn 6 years old? Of course not. But, it does mean we must redouble our efforts to help parents manage their children’s diets and activity levels in those first critical preschool years.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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