Passive Enabling and Child Obesity


In the previous post, Childhood Obesity News considered the difference between active and passive enabling. During Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, it becomes clear that for a parent to be unaware is a kind of passive enabling. The goal is to bring public consciousness to the point where it is simply impossible for parents to remain oblivious to the reality of their own situation and their children’s.

One very large problem is that overweight and obesity have pretty much become the “new normal.” Perception is always influenced by the environment. When parents see their kids among classmates and friends of the same age, a lot of extra pounds become invisible because, next to a child who is 100 pounds overweight, a child who is a mere 25 pounds overweight doesn’t look so bad.

Looking into the matter

Studies of parental awareness have been done before, as Karen Kaplan explains, with mixed results. (Some parents have resisted warnings that their children are overweight because they believe the standard should not be the same across races and ethnic groups.) Researchers from three universities teamed up to look back at the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They wanted to see if parents have always been so blind to their children’s obesity.

They compared the records of two different batches of kids — some tracked from 1988 to 1994, and a comparable group tracked from 2005 to 2010. All these kids had participated in studies where their parents (usually the mothers) were asked to assess the child’s weight as “too high, too low or just about right.” All the numbers are in Kaplan’s article, and here is the gist:

A new study in the journal Pediatrics finds that American parents are significantly less likely to make an accurate assessment of their children’s weight compared with parents from an earlier generation. If moms and dads don’t see the problem, they aren’t likely to be part of the solution, the researchers say.

Here is pediatric dietitian Melanie R. Silverman on the problem of post-soccer practice snacks:

To have cupcakes, candy, brownies, chips and sugary drinks brought by parents and handed weekly to our kids on the soccer fields after their games sends the wrong nutritional message…. [W]eek after week, parents complain to me from all over the country about the types of soccer snacks served in their towns. They are outraged and fed up. And they should be.

Especially disturbing are the times when athletic practice runs from, say, 11 a.m. until noon. Nobody should be having any post-practice snacks at lunchtime, or any drinks except water. Remember the old saying, “Hunger is the best sauce.” A child who has just worked up an appetite through athletic practice is a child in a position to appreciate a heaping plateful of steamed veggies or a nice salad. This might even be the opportunity to introduce some new, untried food. How sad to have it thwarted by the child being full from ingesting two doughnuts and a bottle of soda.

When parents allow a situation like this to persist, it is a kind of passive enabling that doesn’t have to continue.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “New culprit in childhood obesity,”, 08/27/14
Source: “Soccer Snack Insanity,”, 11/06/2013
Image by Warren Long

One Response

  1. Parents who enable their children to develop unhealthy food preferences (starch and simpler carbohydrates to the exclusion of protein and fiber) are keeping a shallow and fleeting peace. It’s at least a less veiled enabling behavior leading to more obvious tangible harm but, like any other form of enabling, betrays an insecure parent who can’t handle emotional adversity. Parent first, and true friendship will one day likely be the result.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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