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Do Very Strict Parents Raise Fat Kids?

Researchers are looking into whether parenting style affects kids' weight.

The June issue of the journal Pediatrics includes a study on the topic, done by Kyung Rhee, M.D., of Boston University's pediatrics department, and colleagues.

They found that young children who received love and clear limits from their parents were less likely to be overweight in first grade than those whose parents had exhibited permissive, authoritarian, or neglectful parenting styles at the study's start.

Obesity is a serious problem for American children. The CDC estimates 17 percent of U.S. children aged 2 to 17 were overweight in 2003-2004.

In their study, Rhee's team following 872 children and their mothers. The researchers assessed parenting style when the kids were about 4½ years old, then checked the kids' weight two years later.

They found that children of the mothers judged to be authoritarian were more than four times more likely to be overweight at that point than children whose mothers set firm limits but also showed warmth and sensitivity to the child.

The link between obesity and parenting style doesn't mean parenting style determined the kids' weight. Many other issues — including cultural influences — need to be studied, the researchers note.

About The Study

All the moms were healthy, at least 18 years old, and could understand English. Most were living with a spouse or partner, but their spouses and partners didn't participate in the study.

More than eight in 10 of the kids were white. About half were boys.

When the children were about 4½ years old, researchers videotaped them (with permission) interacting with their moms performing several tasks in a lab. The mothers also completed a survey about their expectations for their child's self-control.

Survey questions included:

  • How often do you expect your child to sit or play quietly (or refrain from interrupting) while adults are having a conversation?
  • How often do you expect your child to go to bed without a hassle?
  • How often do you expect your child to be on "best behavior" when you are in public?
  • How often do you expect your child to wait his or her turn without fussing?

    Four Parenting Styles

    The researchers focused on four parenting styles:

    Authoritative: Parent shows high demands for the child's self-control but also shows the child a lot of warmth and sensitivity.

    Authoritarian: Parent shows high demands for the child's self-control, but low levels of warmth and sensitivity.

    Permissive: Parent shows low demands for the child's self-control and lots of warmth and sensitivity.

    Neglectful: Parent shows low demands for the child's self-control and little warmth and sensitivity to the child.

  • Based on the survey and videotapes, the researchers classified 298 moms as authoritarian, 179 as authoritative, 132 as permissive, and 263 as neglectful.

    Parenting Style And Kids' Weight

    Two years after the videotapes were made, when the kids were in first grade, the researchers checked data on the kids' height and weight. They found that 11 percent of the first-graders were overweight, based on a BMI (body mass index) in the 95th percentile or higher for their age and gender.

    Obesity was then correlated to parenting style. The breakdown of overweight children, based on the researchers' observations of parenting styles two years earlier, were:

    Authoritarian: 17.1 percent

    Neglectful: 9.9 percent

    Permissive: 9.8 percent

    Authoritative: 3.9 percent

    Researchers made adjustments for factors such as income level, marital status, gender, and child behavioral problems.

    Not Blaming the Parents

    The study doesn't give a reason for the results and it doesn't blame parents for their kids' extra pounds. The results also don't prove parenting style was solely responsible for the kids' weight.

    Rhee's team doesn't claim that a child's weight reveals parenting style. Overweight kids — and children of normal weight — can come from any background.

    "It is clear that biological or genetic factors are involved in the risk for some children to become overweight," the researchers write. Researchers didn't have access to the parents' BMI.

    Culture May Count

    Culture may play a role in parenting style, Rhee and colleagues note. But with few minorities in their study, researchers weren't able to probe such influences.

    It will take more work to learn how parenting styles — including cultural norms and specific parenting behaviors — affect child behavioral patterns regarding eating and activity levels, the researchers note.

    A better understanding of those effects "may help to guide the development of more-comprehensive and more-effective prevention and treatment programs for overweight children," they write.

    SOURCES: Rhee, K. Pediatrics, June 2006; Vol. 117: pp. 2047-2054. CDC: "Prevalence of Overweight Among Children and Adolescents: United States, 2003-2004." News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.

    By Miranda Hitti
    Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
    © 2006, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved