Q: I have a ten-year-old daughter who is overweight. As her mother, this is very hard for me. She is a good-natured girl and doesn’t suffer much socially due to her weight problem. I feel, though, that I cannot love her as much as my other children. Whenever she eats, I feel like telling her not to. She eats big meals but doesn’t like foods that are too sweet. My husband is even worse about it than me, so much so that our daughter doesn’t want to eat meals in his company.
What is the right approach that we should have regarding this matter? Many times I discussed with her the priorities of good food. And she is more than willing to lose weight. I feel it is wrong to put her on a diet at such a young age. Could you advise us what route to take?
A: Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in most industrialized nations. It can lead to other significant medical problems later in life. It is appropriate, therefore, that you are concerned about this. Complex issues such as childhood obesity, however, rarely have a single cause. And since there are many contributing factors, it is necessary to adopt a multipronged approach in dealing with it.
A good place to start is a consultation with your pediatrician. Many medical conditions have a direct or indirect connection with childhood obesity. As a result, you need to rule out medical factors before initiating any other strategies to combat the weight problem.
A second contributing cause is inadequate exercise. Children today do not get nearly enough exercise. If they are not overweight, insufficient exercise is not a serious problem. If they are obese, their need for more exercise is critical. While it is not possible to add more hours to their already full days, it is possible to create additional opportunities for physical activity, which can go a long way towards reducing excess weight.
A third issue which contributes to excessive eating is the psychological state of the child. Food provides more than simply nutritional benefits. For many, it is also a source of emotional comfort. As such, it is susceptible to misuse. For example, some people eat when they are anxious or under stress to calm themselves. Others eat when they feel lonely and depressed to lift their spirits. And still others eat when they feel inadequate, to boost their morale. In all of these cases, food is abused almost like an addictive drug.
The role of parents regarding the psychological factors, therefore, is twofold. First, parents should be helping their child to identify the sources of emotional stress in his or her life. Next, parents should work together with their child to eliminate as many of those sources of discomfort as possible.
As you may have noticed, I did not mention any focus on eating per se. The reason for that is because when parents discuss food with overweight children it adds stress and thereby contributes to the problem instead of the solution. Even subtle comments about portion size, for example, can cause a child to eat more rather than less. If a child feels criticized or put down in any way, the child will be pushed to seek comfort in the only readily available location, the dinner plate.
Returning to your letter, there is ample evidence that you and your husband may be unwittingly contributing more to your daughter’s problem than to the solution. You write that you “cannot love her as much as [your] other children.” And your “husband is even worse about it,” to such an extent that your daughter refuses to partake of meals in his presence. Clearly these negative messages from you and your husband must be a source of stress and emotional pain for your daughter. By increasing her hurt feelings, therefore, you may be amplifying her need to seek solace in food which could trigger even more overeating.
The Navi Yeshayah declares, “With His love and his compassion [Hashem] will redeem [Klal Yisrael from their suffering].” (Yeshaya 63:9) Why, asks the Malbim, are these two seemingly synonymous expressions of “love” and “compassion” used when one would suffice? He explains that love refers to the feeling generated by positive attributes, while compassion is the emotion evoked by weaknesses. In this pasuk, the Navi is affirming Hashem’s concern for Klal Yisrael caused by both our strengths and our failings.
Similarly, parents must be able to love their children for their excellence and love them in spite of their flaws. And if they find that they are unable to do the latter, they must seek guidance from a professional therapist who can help them identify whatever psychological barriers are interfering with their ability to parent properly.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.