he war on childhood obesity just got a little more complicated. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics concludes that parents react negatively and defensively when doctors tell them that their children are "fat" or "obese," and would feel more motivated to help their kids slim down if the doctor instead used phrases like "an unhealthy weight." Should doctors choose their words more carefully, or should parents just toughen up and address the problem?
Doctors can be more effective if they watch what they say: "Physicians may want to brush up on their examining room manners," says Amanda St. Amand at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It's understandable that they want to jolt parents into action — 2 million American children are classified as extremely obese. But if they use harsh words that parents don't want to hear — and consequently ignore — they're not doing anybody any good.
"If your doctor called your kid 'fat,' what would you do?"
But doctors are susceptible to bias: Doctors should be extra-sensitive in these situations, says Melissa Hardy in the Los Angeles Times, to counter their own well-documented prejudice towards obese patients. "A 2003 study found that more than 50% found [obese patients] to be awkward, unattractive, ugly and noncompliant, and 1 in 3 considered them weak-willed, sloppy and lazy." A "dose of compassion — and diplomacy" is well-advised.
"Parents to pediatricians: Don't tell me my kid's 'fat'"
Besides, the word "fat" is never appropriate: This study appears to be a reaction to a British government doctor's recent recommendation that doctors stigmatize patients if that's what it takes to get them to lose weight, says Betsy Shaw at Baby Center. But it's possible to take "tough love" too far. The parents who bristle when doctors call their kids fat aren't being over-sensitive. The word has such unmistakable connotations of "laziness, un-attractiveness, weakness even," that it's taboo. Doctors should respect that.
"Calling kids fat won't help them change"
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Who are the real gay marriage bigots?
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why is American internet so slow?
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
- Religious liberty should be a liberal value, too
- Watch The Daily Show mock Fox News' confused man-crush on Vladimir Putin
- Don't worry: World War III will almost certainly never happen
- The new bride who had a horrifying allergic reaction to her husband's sperm
- 22 TV shows to watch in 2014
5 surprising facts about left-handed people
Subscribe to the Week