Are Parents to Blame for Child Obesity?

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Statement of Research

Child obesity is reaching epidemic levels and local and state governments are looking for possible causes and solutions. Medical professionals have noted an increase in the number of cases of obese children and the host of medical issues that arise from the extra weight. Social workers and legal professionals have started to question just exactly how much responsibility lies with the parents when their children are morbidly obese and whether or not the child should be removed from the household. Medical, legal and sociological professions focus on the point at which obesity can be considered child abuse, and their arguments support the idea that a child’s obesity is the parent’s responsibility.


The medical implications of obesity on children are serious but can be avoided if the parents help their children make positive food choices. Obesity in children can cause medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, sleep apnea, intolerance to glucose and orthopedic and musculoskeletal problems (Lang, 337). These medical issues can persist into adulthood and can cause expensive and detrimental health problems, or even early death. However, these problems can be easily avoided by avoiding highly processed, high fat foods and balancing the caloric intake of the child. Since it is the parent who supplies a majority of the food that is eaten in a household, he or she can ensure that the proper food choices are made. It is this concept on which most of the legal and social decisions are made, because proper and balanced nutrition is the parent’s responsibility, there is the possibility that poor nutrition and child abuse can considered child abuse.

Literature Review

Child abuse is defined and clarified by social, legal and medical professionals and also includes the guidelines for removing a child from a parent’s care. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services, as quoted in Kellie Lang’s article “Parents of Obese Children and Charges of Child Abuse: What is Our Response?” states that child abuse can be considered “Any act…on the part of a parent…which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm…or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” Since the parent is responsible for the nutrition choices of the child, nutrition issues such as malnutrition are considered child abuse and the legal and medical professions. This also means that a parent provided improper nutrition that leads to obesity can be considered child abuse.

In a connection of both the legal and medical perspectives, Lang discusses a study by Mitgang that clarifies when a child’s obesity needs state intervention. The four components are the severity of obesity, the impact that medical treatment can have on the child, the complete situation that the child is in and how likely it is that a child will grow into an obese adult. With these factors examined, the social decision to remove a child from his or her parent’s care can be made. In one Texas case, Lang discusses a court case where a mother lost custody of her 136 pound five-year-old who was suffering from mild congestion heart failure. The judge ruled that the boy was in the same danger that a child who is starving is in; even though the danger may be spread over a longer period of time, even in adulthood (Lang 340). The response to the obesity, in the legal system, is to remove a child from the home and place them in the foster care system to experience a different nutritional atmosphere.

As a response to this case, sociologists began researching the possibility of the balance of dangers; the largest issue being whether or not foster care is more damaging to children than the obesity that they suffer at home. Lang discusses a study by Diekema that reflects on this very idea and examined “the significant psychological harm experienced by a child when removed from the home and noted that this must be considered in any protective custody decision” (338). This study was support by other sociologists who advocated different solutions, such as a “nutrition coach” who visits the family to help change eating habits instead of traumatizing the child by removing him or her from his or her parent’s care. 

Theoretical Framework

The arguments presented are based on current research, obesity legislation, and legal cases that have resulted in parents either losing or retaining custody of their obese child. Some assumptions can be made, such as that the parents may not be aware of how their nutritional decisions impact their child and that the act is not malicious in intent. This is a topic that has been increasing in awareness because of court cases that have removed obese children from their homes and placed them in foster care.


Examining medical, legal and sociology journals for the different perspectives relating to the immediate and lasting impact of obesity on children, the legal definition of child abuse, and the ethical dilemma of removing an obese child from his or her parent’s household. To ensure a balanced argument, articles that support both sides of the discussion will be reviewed. Interviews will also be conducted through e-mail or face-to-face format to ask a pediatrician more questions about how child obesity is diagnosed and the severity of the issue.  

Work Cited

Lang, Kellie R. "Parents of Obese Children and Charges of Child Abuse: What Is Our Response?" Pediatric Nursing 38.6 (2012): 337-340. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 June 2013.