Weighing into family life
The case of Connor McCreaddie, a fat eight-year-old from Newcastle, shows that the obesity panic is taking away our rights - and even our children.
Connor McCreaddie is eight years old and weighs over 14 stone (89kg). Today, his mother will attend a meeting with social workers, police, nurses and a teacher in their home city of Newcastle, England, to determine whether Connor should be put on a child protection register, or even taken into care. We should all be shocked – not so much by young Connor’s girth, but by the willingness of the local authorities to intervene in the life of a child who is loved and cared for.
Connor’s weight is widely described as being ‘four times that of a healthy child of his age’; yet he is definitely not a normal eight-year-old lad. He is already five feet (152cm) tall and takes size-8 shoes. Clearly a large child overall, it seems unlikely that he will be skinny any time soon. Unsurprisingly, while he is capable of running around and playing like any other child, he gets out of breath easily, and carrying all that weight puts a strain on his body. Despite the best efforts of his mother, Nicola, he is a fussy eater who won’t eat most fruit and vegetables.
‘I was shocked to receive the letter’, Nicola McCreaddie told the BBC, referring to the written demand that she meet with authorities so that Connor’s safety and wellbeing could be assessed. ‘Obese children can now be classified as “at-risk” or “neglected” or something. I’d have thought it would be the opposite. If I’d neglected Connor he’d be skinny and underfed and undernourished.’ Ms McCreaddie was understandably distressed about the meeting. ‘I’ve been made an example of’, she said (1).
The UK secretary of state for health, Patricia Hewitt, weighed in to support health workers. ‘We have got a boy whose life and health have already been shockingly damaged because he is quite clearly eating the wrong food, and not able to take enough exercise. As I understand it social services and children’s services are rightly very, very concerned about this boy, and are trying to make sure that they give him and his family every possible support in dealing with what is quite clearly a growing threat to this child’s health and happiness.’ (2)
In fact, it is not at all clear that Connor’s life and health have been damaged. Obesity is a body shape, not a disease. Although extreme overweight is correlated with an increased risk of certain conditions, including type-2 diabetes, being fat doesn’t mean you are sick. Life for Connor would probably be easier if he wasn’t so big, but that’s a rather different issue.
Taking him away from his mother is only likely to make things far worse. How would putting him in care help him? There are occasions when local authorities take children out of the family home if they are judged to be in clear and immediate danger. But for Connor, wrenching him out of a home where he is safe and loved to put him into a local authority home or hospital where he would be under 24-hour surveillance is imprisonment by any other name. It would also be devastating for his mother. Not only is she threatened with losing her son, but her capacity as a competent adult is being officially called into question, too.
Much of this stems from making the welfare of the child ‘paramount’, as laid down in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and mirrored in UK law. It sounds like a noble aim, but in practice it means ‘welfare’ as determined by the state. If that coincides with the parent’s views, there’s no problem. But if social services or health workers decide, in their wisdom, that parents are getting it wrong, they can intervene in a manner that overrides parental wishes. Mix in the widespread and misplaced panic over obesity and you have a recipe for greater and greater intervention, even into loving and caring families where one of the children happens to be overweight.
Moreover, today’s interventionism into family life has a corrosive effect on adult and parental autonomy more broadly. Connor’s case is extreme, yet the controversy around it makes clear that the threat of intervention in one form or another hangs over the head of every parent. These days mothers are bullied into breastfeeding their babies, regardless of whether it suits them. Schools now routinely inspect children’s lunchboxes. Parents can expect a letter home if they don’t comply with what the food police have determined is a healthy lunch (see The battle of the lunchbox, by Jane Sandeman). Popular culture, from Supernanny to Jamie’s School Dinners, constantly reminds parents that they are incompetent, even negligent, if they do not follow the advice from experts, gurus, the powers-that-be. Much of the coverage of Connor’s case has implied that he is ‘loved too much’, treated too well by unthinking parents. Abuse has been redefined to include even loving parental behaviour.
Cases like Connor’s also allow comment writers to remind us of parental deficiencies. Take this editorial in Glasgow’s Herald newspaper: ‘If we love our children we should be denying them unfettered access to the biscuit tin. Indulging the appetite of a gluttonous primary-aged child, though not technically illegal, amounts to a neglect of parental responsibility as grave as supplying him with alcohol or drugs. Do parents not notice the pounds piling on, or has our society become so dazzled by the notion of choice that we have forgotten how to impose limits?’ (3)
So fevered is the panic over obesity that a ‘quality’ newspaper can seriously equate biscuits with drugs. And it isn’t just hacks who promote such flabby thinking. In May 2004, the House of Commons Health Committee led their report on obesity with the tale of three-year-old girl who had died where ‘obesity was a contributory factor’, and that story, too, gave rise to lurid claims in the media and in political circles about parents feeding their child to death. In fact, as we revealed on spiked, this was not a case of parental neglect; rather the three-year-old girl suffered from a rare genetic condition (see Choking on the facts by Brendan O’Neill). Salt may be frowned upon in our obesity-obsessed times, but we could do with a large pinch of it when reading about today’s obesity epidemic and how it is apparently killing off our kids.
We need to calm down. Very overweight children are unlikely to be simply the product of force-feeding or parental neglect; there is usually something else going on. Most people are simply incapable of eating enough to make themselves really fat. In turn, obesity – except in the most extreme cases – is unlikely to cause serious harm to children. What does cause considerable harm, however, is the ‘war on obesity’, which creates a culture in which all children are encouraged to fret about their weight and their food, parents are derided and threatened if they don’t follow official guidance, and families are pulled apart.
It is time we took our children back from those experts and snoops who would have us believe that giving our children a treat, loving them, is a form of abuse.
spiked-issue: Parents and kids
(1) Overweight child awaits ruling, BBC News, 26 February 2007 (video clip)
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