As if the schools don’t have enough on their plates, the latest demand is to take the lead role in fighting obesity. In the United Kingdom, and closer to home, in Arkansas, students’ report cards even show their Body Mass Index.
The emphasis on the school’s role is overdone. What schools teach about healthy eating and living, the home needs to reinforce. And if it doesn’t, the school teachings won’t go very far.
Many schools already do a great deal. Since 2005, Ontario has required a minimum of 20 minutes of daily physical activity (on days when there is no gym class) from kindergarten to Grade 8. (Alberta requires 30 minutes daily, though it can be completed in more than one segment.) There are institutional guidelines for everything – from the fat content in school breakfast programs to the sugar and salt content of cupcakes sold at charity fundraisers. Useful, perhaps. But obesity hasn’t vanished.
The scare-their-pants-off approach of the UK and Arkansas is the hysterical reaction of those without a real answer. In the UK, 24 per cent of children are obese. As one politician said, “In the last decade British children have got fatter faster than anywhere else in Western Europe. We are at risk of an epidemic of vascular diseases as a result.” The increase continued even after a British White Paper obsessed over it in 2004. Arkansas is in a similar state of adiposity – 22 per cent of children are obese. In Canada, by contrast, the figure is 8.6 per cent. That’s up 2 ½ times – over 40-plus years. The world was very different in 1978. Few parents today let their children roam through ravines and parks after school.
The role of the schools is not to perfect children. Any attempt to do so would only cause shame to those who do not meet the standard of supposed perfection. In a typical Canadian classroom of 25, two children are obese. They know they stand out – they don’t need it said on their report card. Shame deepens the risk of psychological problems that some heavy children carry, risks we are all instinctively aware of.
The answer? Forget the need to perfect. Forget the Body Mass Index. Stress the benefits of movement and healthy eating at any weight – for parents, too.