(This post was first published on US News and World Report in November 2013)
I’m not suggesting your child should never get weighed – certainly I’d encourage annual weigh-ins with your child’s pediatrician or family doctor to track growth curves – I just don’t want you weighing your child.
Aside from determining whether or not your kid has outgrown their car seat, or what size uniform or sporting equipment they require, there are three main reasons for a parent to want to weigh them. The first would be a worry about a child not growing sufficiently – and herein I’d encourage you to defer to your child’s doctor to determine whether or not worry is warranted.
But the second and third reasons are the ones that concern me. The second reason is a parent’s belief that his or her child’s weight is too high. The third reason is the second reason’s corollary, where a parent might be weighing a child to see if the child has lost weight or to keep track of the rate of gain.
The thing is, scales don’t measure anything other than weight. They don’t measure the presence or absence of health; they don’t measure whether a child is being fed a nutritious diet; they don’t measure whether a child is regularly active; and they don’t measure self-esteem. But they sure can take away self-esteem, can’t they?
And while I haven’t seen a study that proves it to be true, I’d be willing to wager that scale use in children has played a formative role in their development of mood disturbances and eating disorders over the years, as well as having had many negative impacts on their self-esteem, body images, and relationships with food.
Yes, childhood obesity is worrisome. And yes, if you’re worried about your child’s weight – especially if it’s having a negative impact upon his or her health or quality of life – you might want to try to help. But weighing your child doesn’t actually do anything. All weighing your child does is teach him or her that scales measure success, self-worth, and parental and personal pride – and that weight is all that matters.
You might think that tracking your child’s weight loss on a scale may be motivating, but celebrating a loss on a scale is no less risky than shaming a gain; they’re flip sides of the same coin – the coin that says scales measure success. And what happens if that child who is losing one day gains?
A child’s actual weight doesn’t really matter, at least not in any constructive, formative way. Ultimately, a child’s weight is not something that is directly controllable. Weight’s primary levers – eating behaviors and activity levels – have dozens, if not hundreds, of drivers and co-drivers, and many of them won’t in fact be modifiable.
Genetics, peer groups, socio-economic status, coexisting medical conditions (both mental and physical and for both child and parent), food available at school and after-school activities, and many more factors all have a very real impact on weight, while none are particularly changeable. Moreover, weight management is a struggle for highly motivated, fully mature adults with various weight-related medical conditions. Should we really be expecting children to accomplish a task that eludes many grown-ups?
If you’re worried about your child’s weight, look to those weight-relatable behaviours that you might actually help to change instead of weighing your child. For example, consider the source, quality and quantity of their calories and of the meals you’re providing them.
Look to your own examples for fitness, and cultivate active family outings. Review your home’s screen-time rules, and certainly rid all bedrooms (again, including your own) of televisions (which has been shown to dramatically increase risk of obesity in children. Cut your cable (and hence, eliminate the constant food advertisements your children are exposed to), and ensure that your child’s bedroom and habits are conducive to adequate sleep (as short sleep duration is also strongly associated with increased weight).
While it’s true that there are things affecting your child’s weight that you won’t be able to change, it’s also true that there are many things affecting their weight that fall within your parental discretion – and it’s there where you should expend your energies. Importantly, do so without explicitly putting a focus on weight as the cause of your home’s changes or the child as their sole target; instead, put the focus on improving the health of your family as a whole, with your changes affecting every member of the home, as the cultivation of healthy living behaviours provides benefits to everyone at every weight.
Bottom line: If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, don’t rely on a number to tell you or your child how he or she is doing. Simply measuring their weight does nothing to helping you understand how it got there nor will it do anything to help it to go away, but it may make your children hate themselves just a little bit more each time you put them on that scale.