More Evidence That Parents Can’t Tell When Their Kids Are Overweight

Toddler eating a large plate of French fries
Photo: Mike Kemp/Tetra Images/Getty Images

There’s some evidence that American parents aren’t particularly good at identifying when their kids might have a weight problem. It makes sense given that parents wear a variety of blinders when it comes to their kids, and now new research in the British Journal of General Practice expands on these findings in a U.K. context. It turns out Brits might not be much better than Americans when it comes to potentially leading their kids down unhealthy nutritional paths.

The authors, led by James A. Black, were interested in comparing British guidelines that classify individuals into different categories — underweight, healthy weight, overweight, very overweight — to how parents classified their kids. To look into this, the researchers used a bunch of data from the National Child Measurement Programme, which “measures the heights and weights of all children” twice during their childhood: Once when they are 4 or 5, and again when they are 10 or  11. The researchers simply compared the clinical assessment of about 2,000 kids’ body mass indices with how those children’s parents assessed the healthiness of their weight.

In total, a third of the parents in the sample underestimated their kids’ weight, and less than one percent overestimated it. All things being equal, parents who were black, South Asian, male, or older were more likely to underestimate their kids’ weight (as we’ve noted in the past, there’s an interesting cultural element to questions of body image). And “[t]he point at which a parent was equally likely to recognise underweight as healthy weight was when their child had a BMI at the 0.8th” percentile. In other words, kids in this sample had to be pretty large before their parents would even think of them as being of a healthy weight, as opposed to underweight.

There’s wisdom in the countless jokes different ethnic and immigrant groups have about mothers (and in one memorably dirty Louis C.K. bit): Parents have a rather primal need to see their kids as well-fed. But sometimes, particularly in places where food scarcity isn’t an issue, this urge can backfire, and feeding kids too much can do more harm than good.

Parents Are (Still) Bad at Gauging Kids’ Weight