Mother and Child

Does It Help if a Mother Thinks Her Child Is Overweight?

What mother thinks is important. Children want a mother’s approval and mothers tend to see the best in their children. So is it a problem that mothers tend not to think of their children as overweight?

Some researchers think so. “We know that parents tend not to recognise when their children are overweight or obese,” says Angela Jones from the University of Newcastle. “Parents play a key role because of how they shape children’s health behavior.” So Jones and colleagues are engaged in a program to train parents to recognize and act if they have a child that is overweight.

Evidence to the Contrary

Interestingly, a new study in the International Journal of Obesity undermines this assumption. In that study, Kathryn Parkinson and colleagues – including Dr. Jones – examined the relationship between a mother’s perception of her child’s weight status and the child’s subsequent weight gain.

They found no benefit:

Mothers tend to classify their child as overweight in only more extreme cases. It is an important finding that no beneficial impact was shown on later child BMI in overweight children whose mothers classified their child’s weight status as overweight at an earlier stage.

The Potential for Harm

A considerable body of literature points to the importance of a healthy body image. Mothers are perhaps the most important influence for girls in developing a healthy body image. And yet, in all of this work to train parents to start looking at their children as overweight, we can find no consideration of the potential for harm.

Maybe mothers think their children are perfect for a reason. Maybe a harsh critique of a child’s body image – especially coming from a parent – will not lead to better physical and mental health.

In fact, weight-based bullying and stigma are important sources of harm for children with excess weight and obesity. And research suggests that parents are a source of that bullying for more than a third of the kids who experience it. Do we really want to promote weight stigma?

We have serious concerns about training parents to think of their children as overweight. A person’s body shape and size is not a matter of choice. Healthy habits and behaviors are more important.

Perhaps shifting the focus to healthy behaviors would be more helpful.

Click here for the study by Parkinson et al in IJO. For more on the importance of mothers for a healthy body image, click here.  You can find more about the efforts to train parents to recognize see their children as overweight here, here, and here.

Mother and Child, painting by Mary Cassatt / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


May 22, 2017