Childhood obesity: All daddy's fault?

A study finds fathers' parenting styles influence kids' weight.

Published December 19, 2007 1:15AM (EST)

Mothers have been blamed for their children's disorders for decades. Autism was the vestige of the detached "refrigerator mother"; schizophrenia the toxic byproduct of the overanxious domineering harridan. According to a paper on "Mother-blame," a study of clinical psychology journals from 1970, 1976 and 1982 found that mothers were blamed for 72 different kinds of problems including bedwetting, aggression, learning problems and homicidal transsexualism. Though subsequent research discredited the most ludicrous of these theories, maternal parenting styles still come under the microscope when looking for psychological origins for children's problems.

So I can't help brightening up when a study finds that fathers' parenting styles actually influence their children more than mothers' do. This month's Journal of Pediatrics published Australian research that found that paternal parenting styles are highly associated with preschoolers' obesity levels. Specifically, children of fathers who described their parenting styles as permissive had a 59 percent higher risk of obesity. The children of fathers who admitted to being "disengaged" had a 35 percent higher risk of becoming obese. In contrast, the fathers with authoritative or authoritarian parenting styles actually lowered the odds of their children having weight problems.

And here's the kicker: Maternal parenting styles had no effect on children's weight at all.

How's that for weird? Previous American research has pinned increased risk of obesity on -- you guessed it -- controlling, unaffectionate mothers. And who would question this? On a planet where women cook more, diet more, binge more and suffer from obesity more, findings that associate mothers' behaviors with their children's eating habits don't strike me as surprising.

Why would fathers' parenting even enter the picture? Old-fashioned hegemony, some researchers guess. One previous study showed that fathers' support and warmth was more influential in helping obese children lose weight and some have speculated that fathers may have more influence on the family environment as a whole.

Despite the tempting prospect of a new era of blame-the-patriarch research, this study concluded that parenting styles -- maternal or paternal -- have little sway over the swelling bellies of their little ones. According to studies of twins reared apart, the single strongest predictor of child obesity was their parents' BMIs -- a factor that may derive from genetic or environmental influences. So it's better to blame our parents' bodies, but not their parenting style.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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