In the study, girls were more concerned about how being an overweight child would affect how they look and whether cool clothes would fit them, says lead researcher Susan T. Borra, RD.
Boys, on the other hand, worry that being an overweight child will affect their athletic performance and involvement in sports, she says.
"They don't see childhood obesity as a health problem, and neither do their parents. They worry more about how it will affect their child's fitting in and their self-esteem," Borra says.
Borra is with the International Food Information Council, a foundation supported by food and beverage industries to serve as a clearinghouse of scientific-based nutrition and health information.
Into the Minds of Children and Parents
Borra's study, appearing in the June issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, is reportedly one of the few surveying concerns from preteens -- kids between ages 8 and 12 -- their parents, and teachers about overweight children.
The number of overweight children is at an all time high -- up 50% since 1991, according to the researchers. And preteens, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's Office, are most likely to reduce regular levels of exercise, with girls decreasing activity by about one-third and boys by about one-quarter from previous levels.
Borra's study involved 112 children, parents, and teachers who were surveyed in 16 separate groups. Half of the children were considered to be normal weight by their parents while the others were viewed as slightly overweight; none of the parents considered their kids to be obese. Nationally, about one in seven school-aged children is overweight, and the number of obese children -- even preschool age -- continues to grow.
Children and Parents Think Alike
No matter their weight, the children -- and their parents -- had similar views, says Borra.
- Children often consider being healthy as a mandate. "You'd hear a lot of kids saying things like, 'My mom makes me eat fruits and vegetables' rather than them wanting these foods because they're good. The kids feel as they are made to be healthy," Borra tells WebMD.
- Both children and parents relate being an overweight child more to food than to a lack of exercise. "This isn't surprising, since you hear more about dieting to control weight than you do about physical activity," she says.
- Overweight children think they have limited opportunities for exercise because they fear they can't keep up.
- These attitudes largely exist because parents, children, and teachers think they lack the tools to properly address health issues related to overweight children. "Probably the take-home message of our study is that in our society, parents and kids are given the tools to deal with talking about sex, drugs, alcohol abuse, and other child health issues," says Borra. "But we haven't given them the tool to talk about obesity in a meaningful, motivating, and upbeat way."
What Can Parents Do?
"In order to prevent childhood obesity and make children aware of its health effects, parents need to change their own behavior and get active with their children to show them -- and not just talk about -- a value system related to better health awareness," says John Krampitz, PhD, of the University of Texas School of Public Health. He was not involved in Borra's study, but he helps implement health and fitness awareness programs in schools through the federally funded Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) program.
"It starts in doing something with the kids that involves activity, whether it's playing catch or shooting baskets for five minutes after work each day -- and giving them motivation and positive reinforcement to continue to want to do those things together," Krampitz tells WebMD. "As children reach middle school and their body image becomes more important, parents can slip in the health message. A mother can come to her daughter and say, 'I need your help because I want to walk each day so I can feel better,' and ask the girl to walk with her each day.
"When you invite the kids to join you in something that's good for them and for the family and showing by example, it really helps them get into patterns of regular exercise, good nutrition, and health awareness. The kids are listening, even if they're acting cool. And they're watching their parents more closely than you may think."