Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Fat Letters" Creating a Backlash with Massachusetts Parents

So-called "Fat Letters" are being sent home to North Andover, Massachusetts parents telling them that their children are either obese, underweight or overweight, and you better believe that schools are getting grief over these letters from the parents and the media.

These "Fat Letters" are essentially part of the 2009 "BMI Initiative" that the Department of Health started. This initiative required the public schools in the area to calculate and document the BMI of teens and children at specific age intervals. This documentation, along with letters that include instructions on how parents can handle their child's weight issue, now nicknamed the "Fat Letters", are then sent home to the parents. 

The Debate

While the schools feel like they are taking an active approach to reduce childhood obesity, parents and children saw things from another perspective. Some children were embarrassed or felt a plunge in their self-esteem after being categorized as overweight by the school and the government Parents were outraged that the school - let alone the government - would categorize their child as obese.

The "fat factor" that these letters are based on uses the body mass index (BMI) calculation. Basically, the height and weight of the child are used to compute the number. Therefore, children who are active and play sports and have more muscle tone could land in the "overweight" category, like Selectman Tracy Watson's son, Cameron. Last year, she received a "fat letter" that told her and her husband that their son fell into the "obese" category.

"Honestly, I laughed," she said regarding her response to the letter that recommended that the parents contact their pediatrician about their son's weight problem.The actual truth was that their son participated in sports and was not anywhere near overweight, because we all know the whole "muscle weighs more than fat" concept.

"Overweight children know they are overweight," Watson weighed in about the subject. "We spend so much time discussing 'bullying' that to a degree our younger children think almost everything is bullying. I have heard one than one child express feeling bullied by these letters."

There are so many questions that are being asked and debates being fought out about these letters and the BMI Initiative in its entirety. People are debating whether the government should even play a part in creating initiatives focused on childhood obesity.

Especially when they are basing the entire health profile of a child on merely BMI. It seems that the initiative is a waste of time and not nearly accurate enough to make the assessments and recommendations that it does.

What Should Schools Do?

Parents are wondering if schools should be involved in this type of campaign. Shouldn't schools be helping children to build their self-esteem and teach them that they are NOT SUPPOSED TO BE CATEGORIZING each other like that? Where does bullying, as Selectman Tracy Watson mentions, begin and end? Where is that fine line?

Schools should be encouraging children to participate in sports and encourage an active lifestyle, but should schools be sending letters home to parents that categorize children into overweight, normal, or underweight sectors? And, why base it on BMI? Like Watson said, children are already aware of their body weight. Those who are overweight pretty much already know it. So, why does the school need to reinforce what is already known? It does seem kinda bullyish.

So, how can the school and government help to battle the childhood obesity problem without causing more problems (low self-esteem, depression)? Maybe it's not their battle to take on. The schools and government can create programs to encourage children to be as healthy as they can be. Let's stay on the positive, be encouraging. They could create active, physical, sports type programs that offer special incentives to students to stay healthy.

Who IS Responsible for the Childhood Obesity Problem, Then?

Truthfully, parents, you know that it's really supposed to be up to us to make sure that our children are not overweight, not the government and not the school system. Children will be children. They will eat what they are allowed to (plus sneak some stuff) and sit on their behinds as much as they are allowed to once they outgrow the "explorer" stage.

It's up to us, as the adults who know better, to establish rules for our kids to ensure that they do not become overweight. Yes, eating and mealtimes and appropriate snacks and exercise and all that fun stuff. WE, the parents, need to set the guidelines so that our children who are not obese do not become obese, and the children who are already obese start to reduce their weight in healthy ways.

We need to be informed and inform our children on the appropriate ways to reduce calories and the proper amount of "active time" that children should be getting each day.

We know that. We don't need our schools or government to tell us what we already know.

Don't you agree?

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