by KEITH O’NEILL
Childhood obesity has become an epidemic. The media are replete with indisputable evidence and have identified numerous contributing factors as the culprits. Poor eating habits, the widespread use of hormones and preservatives, the general lack of nutritional value in our processed foods, too much sugar and the lack of sufficient exercise have all been blamed, as well they should be. Recently, I read that childhood obesity has been declared a Homeland Security issue, because seventy percent of applicants were turned down for military service this year due to obesity and lack of fitness. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one-third of all children in the U.S. are overweight and the trend is growing.
The truth is poor nutrition and exercise aren’t the only factors contributing to the problem. In fact, I believe the biggest cause of the childhood obesity crisis in our country, in addition to fast food, junk food and too much of it, is the demise of the two best restaurant chains ever, the two most successful and popular family restaurants. In their heyday, they were regularly frequented by practically every family in America. Today, sadly, they have all but disappeared. What a shame. The décor was unique and comfortable, and the food was the best. The eating establishments to which I am referring are “The Breakfast Table” and “The Dinner Table.”
Historically, the breakfast table was where the most important meal of the day was served. Parents would sit at the table with their children, voicing their opinions on what was going on in society, along with dispensing solid advice on how to deal with life situations. They made sure that their kid’s homework was done, lunch was made or they had money to buy a nutritious lunch. Plans for the day and schedules were discussed. Strategies were put into place so that everyone got to where they needed to be. Parents made sure that everyone in the family ate a good healthy meal so they were strong, alert and prepared, so they could perform their best for the rest of their day.
The dinner table was where the greatest bonding occurred. The day was done and before night activities began, everyone was expected to sit down together for the last meal of the day, a healthy meal prepared and served with love. The events of the day were shared by each member of the family, as were important or just humorous stories. This was the safe haven for kids to bring up their problems, concerns and fears. Parents got to know their kids, and kids got to know their parents. The family bond grew stronger during these times. Families really got to know each other.
The time honored traditions of eating at the breakfast table and the dinner table weren’t accidents. Throughout history, those were the times families saved for family. The sorrowful demise of these great institutions began when “I’ll have to call you back, we’re sitting down to dinner” got replaced with cell phones, texting and earphones. The end came quickly, once the family communication stopped, everyone sitting in one room doing nothing but eating seemed unproductive, certainly boring and a total waste of time.
And so, the breakfast table and the dinner table are all but gone, replaced with the newest and now most popular family eating establishment, the car. Now, you can eat fast food, do your homework at the last second, play video games, text friends, and get somewhere all at the same time. Some call it multi-tasking, I call it a shame.
Not only did the breakfast table and the dinner table serve good, nutritious food, they consistently served up something that wasn’t on the menu, self-esteem. And, the reason they were so popular was this healthy diet of self-esteem that was dished out in the form of valuable, intimate quality family time. Emotional support was the specialty of the house. Meaningful conversation and communication occurred during these times, bringing a familiarity and closeness to families that has begun to erode over time.
Quality time has become less of a priority in our culture. I remember when eating in the car wasn’t allowed, let alone encouraged, and I’m not that old. Back in those days, obesity wasn’t the issue it is today. I recently heard that in the last thirty years, obesity has doubled in children six to eleven and tripled in twelve to seventeen year-olds.
Who’s fault is it? A lot of parents blame the teachers, our society and the government for the problems their children are facing and some of the choices they’re making.
Childhood depression, insecurity and obesity are becoming more and more prevalent in our culture. Although there are many factors involved, a lot of parents are reluctant to take responsibility for their part. Who’s to blame for the childhood obesity crisis? We, the parents, are the real culprits. It’s not about the quantity or the quality of the food our children are eating, it’s about the lack of emotional support we’re giving them, which in turn destroys their self-esteem.
Emotional hunger becomes physical hunger. Children use food to fill the emotional emptiness and it doesn’t work, because they’ll never come to a point of satisfaction. Emotional eating is all too common. Food can temporarily fill up our stomach, but will never satisfy many people’s hunger. The trouble is that no matter how much you eat you’ll never be satisfied if your emptiness is emotionally based. What is emotionally based hunger? It’s that empty feeling of loneliness, worthlessness and insecurity that comes from a lack of self-esteem in their daily diet. Obese children aren’t kids who eat too much, they’re kids who cannot eat enough.
We live in a microwave society where instantaneous gratification has replaced reasonable thought. Everyone’s in a hurry and parents have become too busy to give their kids the emotional support they crave, the guidance they need. That’s when the emptiness begins and the emotional hunger starts to manifest. This is when kids start eating poorly, constantly trying to fill the emptiness manifested by this emotional hunger. As the overeating continues and they add excess pounds, their self-esteem diminishes. Their hunger continues to grow and without the proper nourishment, will never be satisfied. These kids struggle to find their place in life, dealing with issues of childhood just trying to fit in. Their success is directly related to how they feel about themselves, their self esteem and it’s a strong belief in self that will dissipate this emotional hunger.
Obesity isn’t just the problem, it’s a symptom of a more deeply rooted, more serious problem, low self-esteem. The majority of how your children will feel about themselves for the rest of their lives depends on how you interact with them before they are five years old. Helping children develop healthy self-esteem is a job that has to be done by the parents, in the home.
When families routinely spent quality time eating together, obesity wasn’t the problem it is today. Neither was bullying. Both are symptoms of children with low self-worth. Children with low self-esteem become bullies, or allow themselves to be the victims of
bullying. When children get heavy, they lose even more self-esteem. Overweight children are bullied about their weight more frequently than other kids. They are taught to hate themselves because they are heavy.
Obesity isn’t the problem, lack of self-esteem is, and the ramifications of low self-esteem in children become catastrophic, when they grow older. A client of mine, in her forties, beautiful, successful and happily married, has a teenage son who, while bright, handsome and popular, shies away from the attention. I asked his mother why she thought he chose to isolate himself. Her response was, “I blame myself. When I was in seventh grade, a boy I had a crush on said to me, ‘You have a great body. If you put a bag over your head, you’d be perfect.’ That statement has made me feel self-conscious, insecure and inadequate, ever since. It has affected my behavior to this day and my insecurity is what I have modeled for my son.”
When children are young, their minds are like sponges and very literal, they believe everything they hear. My client was a woman who had it all – good looks, a solid family life, great husband, successful business and yet a comment from her past, made by a peer – a stupid joke at that, has had such a profound effect on the way she has raised her son. Consciously, she knew he was kidding, but unconsciously it stuck and those negative feelings have now been passed on to her son.
Tell children they’re fat and ugly and they will feel fat and ugly for the rest of their lives, even if they lose weight. And, when told they’re beautiful as adults, they will never believe it. And, they will pass those negative self-images on to their children. It’s not about the food our children are eating or the amounts of it, it’s about their self-esteem. They eat because their self-esteem is low. And when picked on for the cruelest reason, solely because of their physical appearance, their self-esteem goes even lower. Being physically healthy is obviously important, but without being emotionally healthy there is no balance. It is important to teach your children to be happy with who they are. Accepting who you are leads to contentment, and contentment is not settling, it is finding peace with yourself.
Dieting can help children lose weight, but it will not help them improve their self-esteem, which is the only way to cure emotional hunger. Children with good self-esteem, whether overweight or not, don’t allow themselves to be bullied, because they have too much self-respect. Build your children’s self-worth, and they will choose to lose some excess weight. Which brings me back to those two great restaurants, The Breakfast Table, and The Dinner Table. These time-honored traditions have disappeared and that is the number one cause of obesity and bullying. Families are no longer taking the time to sit down together for meals, because they aren’t making it a priority, they’re too busy. Physical, mental and emotional support has been sacrificed for convenience.
It’s time for parents to take responsibility for the consequences that their choices have on their kids. Children are hungry for love, guidance, advice and time, your time. It’s more important than ever to re-discover the road to The Breakfast Table and The Dinner Table, before the crisis gets worse. Oh, and let’s not forget The Bedtime Story, yet another perfect opportunity to build your children’s self-worth. Hopefully families will find these treasures and start frequenting them again because their demise has directly contributed to the obesity and insecurity of our youth. Build your children’s self-esteem and obesity and bullying will not be problems for them.
Eating together not only affords you the opportunity to watch the food you serve your kids, it gives you the chance to observe their self-esteem. Look for signs of problems, like lethargy, lack of willingness to communicate, overeating, all signs of a problem brewing. How are you going to spot that, when you never spend time together, looking at and talking with each other?
Live your life with integrity, so that your children will look up to you and want to be just like you. Take the time to teach your children the value of being responsible, honest, loyal and respectful. Show them that being kind and smart doesn’t make them dorks. Help them become good winners, as well as good losers, by always practicing humility. Allow them to embrace their uniqueness, instead of worrying about what makes them different. Setting boundaries and enforcing them will demonstrate that good choices earn rewards and bad choices have consequences. Let your children learn from their mistakes. Love them unconditionally and help them to love themselves, so they will feel worthy of good things.
If you do, the social issues that are bound to hit your children throughout their lives such as bullying, prejudice, jealousy and even the stigma of obesity, will minimize or disappear completely.