People blame and judge parents for the heavier children

(The Conversation) – Americans stigmatize parents of heavier children by blaming them specifically for their children’s weight, according to experiments conducted by our team of psychologists.

The more a person views parents as responsible for a child’s obesity, the more likely they are to view such parents as bad parents who are lazy, forgiving, and incompetent.

Our results confirm what parents of heavier children have reported for years: that other people—friends, other parents, strangers, or even their pediatricians—blame them, dislike them, and think they are poor parents.

Why it matters

In the US, approximately 1 in 3 children has a body mass index that would classify as overweight or obese. The number has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning more and more parents are being stigmatized because of their child’s weight.

This parental weight stigma is just beginning to receive serious scientific attention, but it could have significant implications for parents, children, and families.

For example, family courts in the United States and internationally have removed obese children from parental care in large part based on their children’s weight. Family separation can have a massive negative impact on children. Our work suggests that if judges respond as our study participants do, they may view parents of heavier children as bad parents simply because their children are heavier.

In reality, weight is not just under personal control. In fact, dieting can lead to weight gain. Obesity is caused by a complex interaction of genes, environment, diet and activity.

Psychologists also know that weight stigma is linked to pervasive negative consequences, including bullying, ignorant comments, and feelings of painful invisibility — as well as reduced educational and economic opportunities, and poorer medical outcomes, which is important, and not just because of one’s weight. The insidious experience of weight stigma can itself facilitate weight gain and have other negative effects.

A child's feet stand on a digital scale.
Everyone loses in the game of blame. roman023/iStock via Getty Images Plus

What is not yet known

When parents of heavier children are blamed and stigmatized, how does this affect the parents, their children, and the parent-child relationship so important to healthy development?

For example, we don’t yet know if heavier children know that people stigmatize their parents. When this happens, these children may not only feel ashamed of their size, but they may also feel falsely responsible for how people treat their parents.

How we do our job

For this study, published in the journal Psychological Science, we conducted three experiments over the course of 2022 with over 1,000 US participants—roughly 75% white and 25% other racial/ethnic groups.

We randomly assigned participants one of four line drawings depicting a mother or father next to an 8-year-old daughter or son. We have also included a brief description of the parent and child.

The child with a “healthy” weight was described and illustrated in two line drawings and descriptions. In the other two, the child was depicted and described as “obese.” The parents were always presented and described as being of healthy weight. From this we could conclude that the responses of the study participants to the parents were due to the weight of their children and not that of the parents.

We asked participants a few quick questions about how good or bad a parent they felt the adult was for. Participants also answered questions about what they thought influenced the child’s weight (as well as their academic performance and athleticism, to obscure the study’s focus). Participants were given 100 “responsibility points” that they could assign to four factors that might be behind the child’s weight: parental behavior, child behavior, genetic factors, and societal factors.

As expected, people who viewed the obese child assigned more points of responsibility to the parent’s behavior and viewed that parent as a poorer parent. We found that the gender of parents and children made little difference, consistent with other work.

This is consistent with previous research showing that parents are more likely to be blamed for childhood obesity than society or the children themselves.

We also tested whether providing alternative explanations for the child’s weight would reduce parental blame. When we told participants that the child had a thyroid disorder that caused her to be overweight, they stigmatized the mother less and held her less responsible.

Next, our team examines how parents’ own weight, income, and race/ethnicity influence the stigma imposed on them because of their child’s obesity.


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