Hoo-boy. This weekend, Slate ran a roundup of prevailing explanations for the childhood obesity boom, with possible causes including kids not playing outdoors enough, advertising that targets kids, the spread of fast food, the wide availability of high-calorie snack foods and mothers working outside the home. Guess which one got the most attention? Yep -- the article's title reads, "When Moms Work, Kids Get Fat."
Now, I don't blame Slate for choosing the grabbiest headline. And the "moms work, kids get fat" bugaboo isn't exactly a false claim. In fact, Slate's source, a recently published paper titled "Maternal Employment and Childhood Obesity," makes a strong case: The rise in childhood obesity has coincided with a rise in maternal employment, and data analysis suggests that the number of hours per week a mother works directly impacts the likelihood that her child will be overweight. As Slate put it, "A mere 10 hours at work raises the chance of childhood obesity by 1.3 percentage points, which is about 10 percent." That is no small factor.
The problem is that it's lack of supervision, not maternal employment, that seems to be the real issue here. The study notes that "the results suggest that the mechanism through which maternal employment affects childhood overweight is constraint on the mother's time ... The increase in mother's time constraints may lead to behavioral changes affecting the child's nutrition and physical activity, such as the mother's greater reliance on calorie-dense convenience foods and her lack of time for supervising vigorous play." None of this useful supervision of playtime and food choice is something mothers are uniquely equipped to provide. It's just something mothers have historically provided. These days, there are still plenty of moms who are their kids' full-time, at-home caregivers, but that's no longer assumed to be the only option. If today's kids aren't getting the nutritional and cardiovascular monitoring they need -- if they're not getting enough high-quality supervision generally -- that is bad news. But why not look at the choices dads are making, or constraints on dads' time? And baby-sitters, and nannies, and whoever picks the snacks at after-school programs? Focusing exclusively on mothers isn't just outdated, it's incomplete.
The authors of this paper are economists, and everyone knows economists love to isolate a variable. And it's easier to isolate the variable of maternal employment than, say, per-family weekly consumption of Lunchables nationwide. But they still could have framed their findings in gender-neutral terms. Especially when they stopped talking about the 1960s and started plotting future parenting research. As it stands, the paper's "Future Research" section muses, "We also need to understand how working mothers select foods, the amount of time they spend at fast-food restaurants, and whether these mothers increase their households' consumption of processed foods." These are important questions to answer, and, if possible, moms should be encouraged to make responsible nutritional choices. They just shouldn't be the only ones.