Childhood obesity – why finger-pointing won’t work

Opinion: What about tax write-offs for sports?

‘A health problem as sticky as obesity needs to be treated with sensitivity and tact, and I daresay one-on-one professional help to decode the emotions that food arouses.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘A health problem as sticky as obesity needs to be treated with sensitivity and tact, and I daresay one-on-one professional help to decode the emotions that food arouses.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Apr 7, 2014, 07:29

It’s 7.55am on a school day and I need dynamite to blast my daughter out of bed. I’ve no bread to make the school lunch. The uniform is covered in dog hair. The cats, the dog and even the guinea pig are whining to be fed. Into this bubble of domestic bliss comes chirpy advice from the radio: Parents, make your children play!

It’s like this. A push is on to make children lean again. If parents would just get a clue and drag their flabby sprogs away from screens, we’d soon see the lard melt from their bones. Ten minutes running around the garden here, 15 minutes kicking a ball there, and hey, presto! Child obesity will be banished. To which my only reply, aloud, is: “Would you ever take a running jump!”

I am fed up with being lectured from on high with simplistic advice on complicated problems. The latest outburst of nagging is from Safefood, an all-Ireland body. Its adverts say one child in four is obese or overweight, so parents have to get them moving. Translation: if your kid’s too heavy, it’s your fault.

The right thing
Like all such campaigns, this one starts from the assumption that parents are thick. If only we’d develop a little common sense and do the right thing, all would be well. As it is, we need to be prodded.

What next? Ads telling us to dress our children in warm clothes during the winter? Reminding us to give them water every day? To state the obvious: if one kid in four is too heavy, that means three out of four are fine. (Unless, like two of my three children, they’re underweight, which is a health problem that’s ignored.) So, as a group, Irish parents are coping pretty well, thank you.

For the minority of kids who are too heavy, I suspect more help is needed than Mammy and Daddy saying, “Hey, Tubby, get moving”. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard that weight loss is down to a simple formula: burn the calories you eat. Only it’s not that easy, is it? If it was, we’d all be thin. It ignores the ingenuity of the human mind – capable of such leaps as “I’m so upset about my weight. I know: a Custard Cream will cheer me up. Or three.”

A health problem as sticky as obesity needs to be treated with sensitivity and tact, and I daresay one-on-one professional help to decode the emotions that food arouses.

As for the finger-pointing, spare me. It doesn’t work anyway. What works is a child saying, “Mammy, Katie’s doing gymnastics and she says it’s really fun. Can I go? Please? pleeeze ?”

I’m lucky in that all of my children enjoy various sports and activities. But they don’t come cheap: scouts, €80 a quarter; kung fu, €64 a month; lifesaving, €45 every 10 weeks; swimming, €67 for 10 lessons; gymnastics, €10 a lesson; family gym membership, €950 a year. On the long finger are kayaking and horse-riding, because at the moment we can’t afford them.

Shelling out
Obviously if we had no wage coming in, none of the above would be possible. As it is, we’re shelling out from an income battered by the usual cuts in pay and child benefit, the universal social charge, hikes in carbon taxes and so on. Forget hounding parents to get our kids moving, and offer some real help. Should teaching a child to swim, for example, be a luxury?

As I understand economic theory, subsidies and tax policy are supposed to encourage behaviour that’s in the public good. How about giving us a tax write-off for these expenses, subsidising the cost of classes, or restoring our child benefit so it’s easier to pay market rates?

Failing that – and I’m not holding my breath – make a simple pleasure such as taking a walk safe for all children. We live in rural Ireland, so no footpath or cycle path for us. If my kids were to walk or cycle to school, they’d have to share the winding road with tractors, lorries and cars allowed to go at 80kph. Not a chance.


Mary Feely is a freelance writer

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