Monday, 30 March 2015

Parental love is blind

Some interesting health news this week is that parents don’t seem to notice when their children are overweight.

In a study of nearly 3,000 families, only four parents thought that their child was overweight. It also found that 31% of the parents tended to underestimate the weight of their child. Experts are agreed however that one in five British children are significantly overweight, so these results  are cause for concern. How on earth do you motivate parents to turn this tide if they are just not seeing weight gain in their own offspring?

One theory is that we have, as a society, lost our sense of what normal weight looks like. This is possibly true. Then there is the increased amount of cheap junk food available and the fact that children are less active than their parents were when they were young.

I have a couple more thoughts about the reasons for this mismatch in parental perception, both of which are rooted in individual psychology rather than factors in society.

One is that we all tend to find chubby babies, and things that look like chubby babies, appealing. This was first identified by Konrad Lorenz, who studied animal behaviour in the mid 20th century.  Lorenz proposed that nurturing responses in humans are “released” by baby-like features - round chubby faces, etc. This idea has been used to explain the appeal of those breeds of dogs and cats that have been bred to have human-baby-like faces. It’s normal to have a round face and a layer of sub-cutaneous fat when you are a few months old but not when you are eight or nine. However this possibly-innate nurturing response could, in part, explain why parents, seeing their older child looking rounded and baby-like just think “Aaah! Isn’t he/she still my cute, chubby baby!”

You could take this a little further – although it this is just hypothetical. Assume Lorenz was right and that baby-like appearance stimulates nurturing. Part of nurturing is to offer food. If it looks like a baby – protect it and feed it!  This is certainly the case in Lorenz’s beloved bird world. A parent bird sees the brightly-coloured gaping mouth of a nestling and stuffs in worms. So it’s just possible that the chubbier the child the more its parents are stimulated into feeding it. A bit like the hedge sparrow, frantically feeding a huge baby cuckoo that has taken over its nest.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that parents (and doting grandparents) tend to think their own child is beautiful. It seems to be part of the human bonding process – a bit like when adults fall in love. When we go to the primary school concert we are not much interested in looking at the other children. We only have eyes for our own little darlings. Others may, in passing, seem pretty or plain, but our own are always the most beautiful in our eyes.  Love, as they say, is blind and parental love is no exception.

If these instinctive forces are at work, albeit fuelled by the availability of cheap junk foods, a decrease in activity and children’s cuckoo-like tendency beg for sweet treats, the increasing weight of children may be an even harder tide to turn.  This is a link to another study in which the majority of respondents were found to be basically satisfied with their child's physical appearance, eating habits, and exercise behavior.

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