Genetics, poverty and limited access to healthy foods have long been known to affect a child’s risk of obesity. But a new study suggests parenting style could have an impact too.
The nationwide Canadian study suggests a link between parenting style and obesity risk in kids, with certain styles upping the risk. The research, published in Preventive Medicine, is based on a Statistics Canada national survey of more than 37,000 Canadian youth from 1994 to 2008.
The study uses a decades-old framework for parenting styles, which divides them into four main groups:
• Authoritarian: Parents who are demanding but not responsive.
• Authoritative: Parents who are demanding but responsive to their children.
• Permissive: Parents who are responsive but not demanding.
• Negligent: Parents who are neither responsive nor demanding.
The results showed that, for the population as a whole, preschool and school-aged kids with “authoritarian” parents were between 35 and 41 per cent more likely to be obese than those with “authoritative” parents.
“Kids are kind of born with this innate ability to self-monitor their eating, though there are always extremes like Halloween,” said Lisa Kakinami.
She is the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics in collaboration with the PERFORM (that stands for prevention, evaluation, rehabilitation and “form”ation) Centre.
But an “authoritarian” parenting style can override that instinctive self-monitoring, she said.
“If you tell your child to always finish what’s on their plate, you’re teaching them to override their own signals of feeling full.”
Geoff Ball, an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s department of pediatrics, stressed that a weakness of the study is its reliance on parental-reporting. He explained parents might not be the best gauge of their children’s weight and height as compared to outside, unbiased measurements.
On the flip side, the large, nation-wide sample size does offer a solid look at how Canadian parents are raising their kids, he added.
“One of the take-home messages is the parenting style that’s less associated with obesity is one referred to as ‘authoritative,’ ” Ball said. “Parents are responsive to their children’s hunger and their cues, not ignoring them.”
That means providing the food, and letting kids decide when — and how much — to eat, he said.
“We’ve all seen that situation where kids can’t leave the dinner table until they finish their broccoli, and it’s a stalemate. That’s not a healthy way for food to be enjoyed.”
That doesn’t mean parents should bow to their children’s whims, of course, since that might involve some less-than-healthy choices. “But encourage them to start with healthy items, so if they get full, they’ve at least eaten their vegetables,” Kakinami said.
Alongside the link between obesity risk and parenting style, Kakinami said a second key finding from the research was a link to the household’s poverty level.
Among children living in poverty — as in, those living below the Statistics Canada low-income cut-offs — the risk of being obese was 20 per cent greater compared with the risk for kids not living in poverty, regardless of the parenting style used.
But for kids in higher-income families, certain parenting styles made a clear impact on their obesity risk. “Authoritarian” parenting was associated with a 44 per cent higher risk, while “negligent” parenting was associated with a 26 per cent increase.
The findings come at a time when 31 per cent of Canadian children from ages 5 to 17 — or 1.6 million kids — are overweight or obese, according to a Statistics Canada survey from 2009 to 2011.
Dr. Katherine Morrison, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at McMaster University, said this research is an important piece of the discussion about preventing obesity for both parents and clinicians.
“When we’re treating families that have these challenges, it’s also important for us to think about how families parent,” she said.
The self-reporting aspect is another weakness, Morrison said, since parents were gauging their own parenting styles.
While Kakinami acknowledged the study’s limitations, including that parenting styles can change over time, she said it presents a “stepping stone” for further research into how parents contribute to their children’s obesity risk.
“Family dynamics are important to a child’s health,” she said.