My most vivid childhood memories are from grade school. They are awful memories of ugly days, too many to count. I was “the fat kid.”
Every year, the school nurse would make her way from room to room, a doctor's scale in tow. When she got to our room, we were called by name, and we got weighed. It was like walking to the gallows. I used to think that my misery was unique, but at age 58, as a psychotherapist who has heard thousands of people tell their most intimate secrets, I've learned that I am far from alone. Memories of gym evoke similar stories, people learning to hate school, developing bad thoughts and feelings about themselves that have lasted a lifetime.
This year, the school department where I live announced their plans to fight the childhood obesity epidemic. When I heard that they were going to weigh the kids, grade them, and send notes home about being overweight, it shocked me. How demeaning. How could people who supposedly understood kids think this was a good idea? Are they planning to do this to high school kids too? Appalling.
Today, in my psychotherapy practice, I specialize in weight control. By luck or grace, at age 33, because of my unique “education” and training, I lost 140 pounds and solved my obesity problem. More importantly, I discovered an extremely rare body of knowledge about obesity, its cause, and its solution. With what I now know, it's become painfully apparent to me that most doctors, therapists, nutritionists, teachers, and trainers don't know what the problem is or how to solve it.
It's terrific that the schools have decided to fight the obesity epidemic – but let's declare war on the disorder, not the people who have it. As an expert on the subject, I'd offer the following recommendations regarding how schools should (and should not) respond to our growing obesity epidemic:
1) First, admit that while you know the science related to biology and nutrition, you do not understand all the mysteries of human behavior, self-control, habit management, or exactly how to solve obesity. Don't talk to the kids as if you do. This is the domain of a small set of highly specialized clinicians in behavioral medicine. Few people have their expertise. Tell the kids that you can teach them about science and the obesity epidemic, but you can only teach them what you know. They need to take what you can teach them and keep learning.
2) Don't weigh the kids. Don't send notes to the parents about their child being overweight. Don't do anything that would shine the spotlight on them because they are fat. They already know it and feel bad about it. They will be advised about their weight, individually, at their regular medical check-ups, and if check-ups aren't happening, address that as a separate health issue.
3) Instead, teach them about science and health. Teach them about personal responsibility. The kids need to know who and what to believe and how to separate reliable sources from unreliable. They need to understand that no one else will make them healthy and happy if they don't take on the job themselves. They need to learn to discount diet gossip and nonsense “news.” They need to learn how to learn, and they need to learn real science.
4) Children are often powerless to alter the food at home, but instead of singling out the parents of the overweight kids, send a notice to all parents about the obesity epidemic. Remind parents that the schools' responsibility is education, and does not overstep or relieve them of their responsibilities as a parent. Then, offer all parents the help you are planning to offer the parents of the overweight kids. Concerned parents will accept the help, and the ones who are not concerned won't, whether or not you single them out.
5) Stop perpetuating the myth that lack of exercise is the cause of the obesity epidemic and that exercise is the solution. Our obesity is due to our over-eating, to our love affair with consumerism as a way of life. A hard workout may burn the equivalent of one coke, so it is common to exercise and then negate the effects when you have an extra coke (or more.) People who start to exercise will often gain weight instead of losing it. Exercise is vitally important to health, an issue as important as obesity, but it is a separate issue.
6) Get the “junk food” vending machines and merchants out of the schools. There is no justifiable reason for exploiting the kids by selling them a lifestyle that is killing us. Get the money to run the schools somewhere else.
7) Teach the kids about the forces and rules of the marketplace. Teach them that some advertisers and merchants will mislead them, even into scams and dangers like cigarettes, unhealthy food, and weight loss quackery, when they can make money doing it.
8) Have your schools “model” healthy behavior and thinking. Your dieticians and cafeterias can present healthy foods and portions instead of the unhealthy things that we think are normal. School personnel should be required to advocate a healthy lifestyle instead of endorsing the American norm of celebratory gluttony. Faculty and staff would be terminated, I'm sure, if they were to openly advocate sexual debauchery or alcoholic binge drinking. Holiday-superbowl-party-picnic gluttony should be held in the same esteem. It's no less life threatening.
9) Most importantly, develop an ongoing program to draw kids into the pursuit of health and happiness. Our social institutions need to develop a “health culture” to counteract the consumer culture, and the schools are the backbone of our social institutions and culture. If we can rally kids to promote school spirit, to be patriotic, to support the troops or the United Way, we can certainly rally them to be committed to their own highest potential and best health. Rather than focus on obesity and find kids to fault, let's champion success and health, and pull all the kids into a lifelong campaign to have their best health and best life. In their hearts, they all really want that. We all do. If you hold it out for them to aspire to, they will reach for it.