Discussion forums and newswires have recently sparked a debate which asks this very question. A South Carolina mother has been charged with criminal neglect after authorities learned of her 14 year old son weighing 555 lbs.


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Is deliberately feeding your child in a manner that will eventually cause health deterioration and obesity neglectful? Abusive? Or, is it simply less-than desirable choices and part and parcel of our super-sized society? There are many factors and grey zones in this debate. Let's discuss!

Where do you draw the line?

This is likely the crux of the debate - at what point is imparting a consistently and prolonged unhealthy eating environment considered abuse? (This is of course assuming that this type of parenting IS abusive and/or neglectful in the first place).

I think the word abuse conjures up powerful and disheartening images of physical, emotional or sexual harm, and it may be difficult for some people to make the leap for this definition to include allowing your child to become morbidly obese.

This kind of precedence is a slippery slope and needs careful evaluation to figure out how to best serve the obese child.

Aside from the fact that half of US parents would be incarcerated if we had a hard-lined law against this kind of thing, there are other issues to consider such as:

  • Are we going to decide on a weight cut-off according to age?
  • Will courts account for potential metabolic abnormalities?
  • How could we possibly police the lifestyle habits of the accused to prove or disprove the child is being put at risk?

There are clearly many grey areas in this debacle. In terms of where we draw the line, Richard Balnave, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, says most state laws require that the child's health be in imminent danger for criminal charges to be filed. Obese children are rarely in immediate danger.

While there is no immediate danger, the child is being set up for big problems down the road.

Beyond the definition of Abuse

I think that what gets lost in these debates is the deplorable environment children are exposed to - particularly children of low income families. Parental neglect, albeit a large piece of the problem, is part of a more systemic issue that plagues our youth. Rather than focusing on the prosecution of these parents, perhaps resources should focus on how to treat the root of the problem, which goes beyond irresponsible parenting.

Parents need to be the one's responsible for giving their children the opportunity for a healthy upbringing - no arguments there. Many of them need help however, in the form of education and access to healthy foods and opportunities for activity.

It is going to take a collaborative effort from parents, schools, government, the medical profession, big food companies and charitable organizations to help these children - both as individuals and through their parents.

Do you think child obesity is child abuse?
At what point do you feel parents guilty of criminal negligence, if at all?
What do you feel is a feasible solution to this problem?