Our Backstreets #10: Mommie Dearest Strikes Again

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Perhaps some of you saw an Associated Press story in your local paper or online news service (Comcast, for example) this past week reporting on the findings of a study comparing obesity in children with parenting style. The headline in the Chicago Sun-Times read “Strict Moms Raise Fatter Kids: Study.” The lead graf was: ”’Clean your plate or else!’ and other authoritarian approaches to parenting can lead to overweight children, a new study finds.”

Well, it’s hard for me to believe that a study published in the June issue of Pediatrics actually cited the phrase “clean your plate or else” in describing its findings, but since I don’t subscribe to Pediatrics, I can’t say for sure. The AP article was bylined by Carla K. Johnson, who I have learned is supposedly the first medical writer to have started a blog. She is quoted in Poynteronline (“Everything you need to be a better journalist”) as saying, “People comment that my blog is fun to read. I try to look for quirky health stories, something I can make a wry comment about. . . . I’m bringing a more casual tone into some of my print stories.” So, I think maybe she made that lead up.

I’m intrigued by how many media outlets picked up this item. Not all of them used the accusatory headline that was in the Sun-Times. The Washington Post started with “Strict Parenting Linked to Overweight Kids.” ABC affiliate KATU-TV has “Study Finds Strict Parenting Can Lead to Overweight Kids” on its website. To be frank, however, the Sun-Times headline, while more offensive, was also more honest. The study drew from data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which surveyed only mothers and children.

I have limited access to the data used in this study. You have to pay to use it, and that’s exactly what a lot of academics do who can’t get funding for their own studies but need to publish to keep their jobs and gain that increasingly elusive tenure. What I have learned is that the study authors constructed four parenting styles using two scales—maternal sensitivity and maternal expectations for child self-control—and compared the mothers in the data mine’s longitudinal study with the weight of their offspring over time. Hence, the finding that what they called “authoritarian” mothering created fatter children.

Why the National Institute study chose not to involve fathers in their data mine is a basic question any reporter should have asked. A good reporter also would have asked about food choices that were the norm in the study households. Fast food is a popular—and fattening—choice because almost all kids will eat it, and modern families frequently don’t have time for traditional sit-down meals. In addition, there was no mention of the commercial food industry that creates demand for high-calorie cereals, desserts, and snacks through advertising and entertainment tie-ins as being a link in the child obesity chain. I question the peer reviewers at Pediatrics for accepting this article for publication, but I’m not really here to bludgeon the academic press.

Rather, I am tired of the media taking the easy way out on medical studies and especially looking for “hooks” that will resonate in the public consciousness. The long and complicated history of Mom in the culture wars that have dominated the second half of the 20th century is further tangled by reporters looking for wry and quirky data to feed undigested to media that are getting increasingly boilerplate in their coverage. (I also wonder why Carla Johnson [or an editor at the Sun-Times] felt the need to Anglicize the name of the study’s lead author from Kyung to Kay, but that’s another issue for another day.)

Moms have a hard time these days juggling multiple responsibilities, and don’t deserve to be made to feel guilty about whether their necessary disciplining is going to jeopardize their children’s health. I think perhaps journalism ought to worry less about strict moms and more about lax reporters and editors and the health of the news they’re putting out there. l

  • Anonymous spoke:
    19th/08/2006 to 11:26 am

    I appreciate your point of view, but comming from a very strict authoritative home where I never heard the words “I love you” and did not receive hugs I appreciate this study. I have always had a problem with my weigh and my parents tried to control this as well. Food was my friend and I learned early that it was comforting. My sister came in the picture when I was 13 years old. My parents were totally different to her – very loving. They were older and wiser, and she benifited from this. She is VERY thin and doesn’t have to work at it. I think that parents need to know these things – and what they do to their kids. And adult children can begin to heal and understand why they do the things they do.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/08/2006 to 11:41 am

    Thanks for commenting. I’m not saying parents don’t have an influence on their children’s eating habits. Indeed, parents are the number one influence on their children. I have a problem in general with the uninformed way reporters use clinical studies to create sound bites, disseminating bad and scary information along with the sometimes good and useful. This study was flawed and should have been scrutinized more.

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