Practical Steps to Fight Obesity, Part III

Even if parents understand the message about food and weight that can help their kids, it's not clear how to reinforce it. One way parents date themselves is how they discuss the role of television in their family. It's especially quaint when the smug ones boast about not having a TV in the house at all, as if they've risen above the riffraff to aspire to new cultural heights.

But the statement "I'll never let my kids watch television," once considered a critical element in defining ones family, is meaningless today. Sure, television still matters but only as one of many forms of entertainment. At least for now, the internet age has turned us all into consumers of content, however it gets into our home. And that's a fact for no one more than today's kids.

Children no longer need to wait for their favorite show each week, now it's instant gratification. Content in all its forms is available on every electronic gadget in the house and in every possible form to rope in a child. Perhaps even more troubling to adults who aspire to TV-free households would be the definition of content today. Scripted shows, reality videos, YouTube and movies all clearly fall into the content category. What about novels and news outlets? What about research, which, to kids today, constitutes creative googling or emailing questions to an expert they find online? When the only successful internet business model is based on clicks, a website will do whatever it takes to lure readers or viewers. As the line between knowledge and content blurs, there's no easy way to eliminate entertainment from the house. Every bit of information comes with an ulterior motive. It's all content now.

Advertising clued into this new opportunity long ago and capitalized on the easy access to children's minds with, not surprisingly, problematic results. The business goal was to rally children to ask parents to buy products, but the actual effect was to inculcate the suggestible with misguided information. The repercussions of the advertising onslaught were profound, note the toy fads and growing tween culture considers critical to the economy, and not challenged by alternative messages until decades later.

Public health spots and non-profit campaigns, the first alternatives were no competition for advertising. The ideals of consumerism and a free market even for children persisted. However, more recently, the creative freedom allowed by exponentially growing content outlets led some forward-thinking creative types to make shows intended to teach children ethical and moral lessons. These shows are so powerful that kids use and apply the information in school and at home.

That I know of, these lessons, easily tolerated by parents, are from the bottom of the creators' hearts. Among the messages are kindness towards others, tolerance of difference and self-respect. Sometimes the messages are more concrete like do your homework and clean your room. On that list a common theme is eat healthy food, but the message to eat more carrots, as I have written many times, has no real impact on how children learn to live in the world of plenty. 

The last post explained the new paradigm adults can use to teach children about food, weight and identity. The content children consume must reflect the same values to compete with the extant pressures from advertising and the drive to be thin. Older shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood were primarily educational and aimed at younger children. A new genre for older kids provides ready-to-absorb values to take into their world. Coming from coveted content, children accept this information much more readily than anything parents might say. Ironically, content provides an opportunity to challenge what kids learn in the world of plenty.

The momentum needed to start a shift in children's content about food and weight already exists. I began this blog almost three years ago in response to desperate emails from confused parents unsure where to turn for help with their kids' eating. Those emails keep rolling in. As many have told me, it's a full-time job just to get some worthwhile advice. The faulty paradigm of eat less and move more reinforces the problem. As the internet economy attracts the bright, creative minds today, content could quickly spread a new thought process about food and weight to kids, which if accompanied by adults and peers who feel the same way, might start to undo the toxic climate in the world of plenty.

The new approach to food and weight has three simple points. What you eat and how you look do not determine the person you are. In other words, it takes years of growing up to figure yourself out and there's no magic fix, including food and weight. Eating is about pleasure and sustenance. The body needs a variety of foods to survive, and human culture has long connected food with enjoyment and connectedness. Last, kids need to dissociate eating from good and bad behavior. Eating is only about eating, and praise and punishment must be separate from food.

The message is clear and simple. More importantly, rather than attempting to refute the years of successful advertising, this paradigm creates a new way to incorporate food and weight into kids' lives and minds and perhaps a new way to spread the word.

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