Policing Parents — When is it too far?


An 8-year-old boy in Ohio was recently taken from his family and put into foster care because he is obese.

It sounds extreme, but, according to officials, they’ve been working with the family for over 20 months to help the boy shed some of those 200 pounds. So, maybe this kind of intense intervention is necessary. Perhaps he is in immediate danger and this is the only way to get him to lose some weight which will remove that immediate danger. Perhaps this is the wake-up call his family needs to get themselves on the right path to a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps it was a last resort in a desperate situation.

But it’s a little troubling. Forget questions about how long it will take for the boy to lose enough weight to come home (10, 20, 50 pounds can really take a while to come off) or wondering about foster care (are the parents of the foster family experts in fitness and nutrition? If not, guidance will have to come from somewhere — and if so, why not send that expert guidance directly to the boy and his own family, which will also have to be done at some point?)

Mostly, it seems punitive. And, perhaps, the first step onto a slippery slope of policing parents, opening the door for intervention in other cases where society doesn’t like the way parents are behaving or raising their kids — parents who make what other people think are bad choices that have possible future negative consequences. (Clearly, I’m not talking about parents who do things like sell guns or shoot heroin while their kids sit next to them on the couch.)

Let’s take away the kid whose parents feed him too many products containing high fructose corn syrup or, honestly, too many sweets or fried food. (In fact, we should just station a DSS representative at every McDonald’s and movie theater in the country.)  Let’s take the kid whose parents let her watch too much TV or play too many video games. Take the kids whose parents let them stay up way too late.  Take the kids of a parent who smokes outside in the backyard.  Indulging in a couple of glasses of wine at dinner? Yeah, your kids too.

A couple of years ago I was pulled over by a police officer because Cooper had unrolled his window and was hanging his head out. He was fully buckled in his car seat, and, with my eyes on the road, I had no idea he was waving at the passing world. I think the cop did it more to scare my son than to punish me, but he did give me a stern mini-lecture about keeping my kid properly seated. He probably could’ve cited me (though, honestly, unless I’m turned around or I keep my eyes on the rearview mirror instead of the road in front of me, there’s sometimes no telling what the heck my older kids — who are perfectly capable of unbuckling themselves and moving silently from seat to seat — are doing back there). Some day, a cop might have the authority to arrest me — and take my kids away.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of dystopian novels lately. In my most recent read, MATCHED, by Ally Condie, society has decided what and how much each person should eat (foil-wrapped food engineered to meet the individual’s needs are packaged and delivered at meal time), how and where a person should exercise (a treadmill, used daily, monitors the main character’s use and analyzes the data), and even who a person should marry. I realize that our world is not a dystopian novel, but still, how far is too far? How much do we want other people telling us how to behave?

It’s wonderful that we as a society care so much about the health and education and future of our children. More needs to be done in so many areas, and dealing with the issue of childhood obesity is top of the list.

But treating parents like felons does not solve the problem, no matter how well-intentioned you are.


3 thoughts on “Policing Parents — When is it too far?

  1. I have pondered this particular situation, myself. In this case, I think authorities may have been right to remove the child. If the family had intervention for 20 months and the problem still wasn’t under control, there’s something wrong. Having worked with foster kids, I know that laws are different from state to state, and sometimes they leave kids in horrible situations WAY too long. And other times they set families up to fail. But they usually do try to do the right thing. I wonder why social services was involved in the first place. There may be more to the story than we will ever know.

    • I think you’re right that there is probably more to the story that we don’t know! And could the authorities consider obesity a form of parental neglect? Hmmm…

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