Do our jobs make our children fat?
Let’s start with full disclosure. I am not the poster boy for a healthy New Hampshire lifestyle. However, reading recently that more than one-third of school-age children in New Hampshire are obese started me worrying. Added to my worry was a new British study that was plastered across the morning news blaming working moms for our fat kids.
Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the United Kingdom researchers compared a large sample of children whose moms worked out of the home with children whose mothers had never worked. They found that the working moms’ kids were more likely to have poor dietary habits, engage in sedentary activity and be driven to school.
Thus the researchers drew a straight line from working moms to childhood obesity. However, if I could lock these researchers in a classroom here at UNH for a couple of hours, there are a few questions I’d like to ask them.
First, why do these studies never include men’s behavior? Aren’t we just as guilty for not giving our kids the right foods or getting our kids off the couch? With a dramatic change in the number of working women in the U.S. and Britain (upwards of 60 percent of women are now working outside the home) and the recent economic downturn seeing more men laid off than women, aren’t there more men spending equal amounts of time influencing their children’s behavior?
Second, in general, aren’t many stay-at-home moms able to do so because their families are more affluent than those households with low-wage breadwinners? Access to nutrient-rich food (and being able to afford it), having safe places and times to exercise and other essentials for healthy living correlate strongly with household income. Food prep and planning take time, something that two-income families or working single parents have less and less of.
More importantly, however, this study’s authors aren’t suggesting that moms shouldn’t work, but that parents need help fighting obesity among our children. In an era when colored, sugar-rich cereal is marketed as the “healthy choice,” isn’t it time that we begin to crack down a bit on companies that market the junk food/sedentary lifestyle to our children?
Isn’t it also time that those of us who can do a better job of modeling healthy choices for our kids? Shouldn’t we spend more time during the long New England winter to get out and enjoy it? Shouldn’t we watch what we’re eating as well as helping our children make healthy choices?
We have some great programs to take advantage of. One home-grown initiative is New Hampshire Healthy Eating Active Living initiative, or HEAL, a collaboration of more than 200 people from 45 organizations dedicated to making New Hampshire people healthier.
At the HEAL Web site (www.healnh.org), you can find information about exercise, diet, motivation, support groups, outdoor recreation, workplace and school wellness program, local agriculture and lots of great ideas. You also can find links to organizations throughout the state that are united in wanting us to look and feel better.
Also, we can all get behind initiatives in our own communities to support local agriculture, create walking- and biking-friendly downtowns and neighborhoods, and develop land-use strategies that favor public access to open space for outdoor recreation.
We’ve been betting our children’s health (and our own) against our jobs. The stress of our overworked and harried lifestyle is beginning to show prominently in our children and in our own mirrors.
This month my pledge is to skip a little time at the computer and head to the gym. If I get asked where I was, I’ll tell my bosses I was doing something positive for New Hampshire’s future.
Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.