Fat Letters from School

by Robyn Wright on February 28, 2013

in Living

Fat Letter from SchoolSchools in North Andover, Massachusetts are now measuring students BMI (Body Mass Index) and sending letters home to the parents of students who are obese and those who are underweight. The focus in the news has been on the “fat letters” and the stories all just tag on about the underweight part at the end. I have some thoughts on this topic.

The biggest thing is that parents know if their kids are obese and kids know if they are obese. A letter being sent home is not going to fix this. I honestly do not have any experience with the underweight part – in my mind that might be a little harder to visually see since “thin is in” in our country. I am hoping some of you can comment on the underweight part below and that some of my fellow bloggers will address that part of the issue as well.

pres fitnessI have been overweight since elementary school. I knew it. My mom knew it. My dad knew it. We did not have letters sent home to tell us this. What I do remember is the dreaded couple of weeks where in gym class we had to do the Presidential Fitness Test. UGH! UGH! UGH! Now, it is not that I was not active at all as a child – I was. I took dance lessons, gymnastics, played softball, rode my bike all the time, took swimming lessons, and just was on the go a lot. However, that test sucked for not only me, but so many of my friends too. This continued all the way through high school and was worse every year! What impression it left on me is that it did not consider the emotions of the children and it did nothing to teach us about how to be healthy.

That is what needs to happen more than letters home. I think that schools can play a role in a healthier American population but it is about education and practicing what they preach. When my son was in elementary they did have “health class” every other week instead of gym class – they were trying. However, the meals served in the cafeteria, especially the optional menus, were not healthy enough. That is the first place to start – make the foods served at schools the kinds of food that health classes try to teach kids to select and eat. On top of lunch at school, there are the treats at school. School parties are filled with sugary snacks (yes I was a room mom and contributed to that myself). I’m not saying no sweet treats, but just one cupcake instead of a cupcake, 27 pieces of candy, fruit drinks, and more in one party. Even during school events like during testing weeks, school field days, etc. the kids are given candy as prizes and rewards. Why? Why do schools continue to say one thing but do another?

I am in know way saying that obese children are the fault of schools, but I am saying they aren’t helping. I compare this to recycling. When I was a kid there was really not very much said about recycling, preventing waste, upcycling, etc. and so as an adult it was not at the top of my mind either. However, in schools now they learn and practice recycling and being green daily and the kids get it. Then the kids bring that home and influence their parents and as they grow up it is just part of their life. Doing the same – learning and practicing – good nutrition and activity at school can lead to the same type of results I think.

As parents we ultimately need to take responsibility for our children’s health. Sadly I passed along many of my bad eating habits to my son. Even though I tried some, I was not following the same ideas that I was trying to get him to do. Now as I am working to get healthier I am finding there is so much to learn and it can be really confusing. Had I learned and practiced regularly as a child about health and nutrition it would have made a big difference.

So, instead of those letters stating the obvious schools need to focus on teaching and implementing healthy habits daily at school. Save the paper for something like a list of healthy choices the kids can post on the fridge at home.

What do you think about the fat letter idea?

© 2013, Robyn Wright. All rights reserved.

  • Daria

    That’s a tough one. I really like your suggestion of having the kids practice the skills they need to be successful adults – that includes food choices, as well as others such as manners, activity, kindness, humor, and more. I have some friends with kids that have too low BMI – they also know it and are often trying to up their weight with daily protein shakes or pediasure shakes, etc. but it’s almost tougher than higher BMI’s because they have to entice their kids to eat versus providing substitutes for food choices. My kids are “solid” and always have been. To me that looks healthy, but I get comments like “Wow, he’s really athletic for a bigger kid.” Trust me, my son is healthy, but his BMI is overweight. I hate to stigmatize a kid for a “phase”, a kid about to go through a growth spurt, etc. The balance of teaching good habits with maintaining and encouraging strong self esteem. It’s tough. I don’t know the answer.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      That is one of the big arguments too that the BMI is not really the best gauge to use. It does not take into account muscle mass – just total weight and height. I think that “solid” thing is not bad either – everyone seems to have their own body structure and I truly think some are just meant to be bigger or smaller (within a range of course).Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

  • http://twitter.com/Crissy Crissy Page

    I just wanted to say amen about the Presidential Fitness Test. I was skinny as a rail in elementary school, yet apparently terribly out of shape because I would have rather ate shards of broken glass than participate. Remember the shuttle run, with the pair of erasers? Pull-ups for Crissy=0, every. single. year.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      I do remember that shuttle run – ugh. And the pull-ups, situps, the short run, and worst that long, long run. The only thing that seemed fun was jumping!Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

    • http://twitter.com/SahmReviews Nicole Brady

      Oh, I LOVED the shuttle run! That was my favorite right behind the sit-ups.

  • tannawings

    I am kind of torn on this one because as you stated some know- but there are some that may not. Some parents are just really disconnected. I do hope though the BMI’s were kept private during this thing at school.

  • http://twitter.com/scentednights Ellen Christian

    I think that there may be some parents who aren’t aware. I’ve known parents who have said that their children aren’t overweight and that they are just big boned when you could see by looking that it wasn’t the case. A letter home might help these parents, but, only if it was tactfully worded with helpful resources so they can address the problem. I really hope that this was handled with kindness and discretion.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      I think that parents still know, even if they are saying out loud “big boned”. People with, and parents of kids with, weight issues can sometimes be embarrassed, feel guilty, feel shameful about weight comments and try to blow it off out loud, but internally they know. Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

  • http://twitter.com/SahmReviews Nicole Brady

    I know many parents who are well aware of the issue but lack the KNOWLEDGE or DISCIPLINE to keep their child from eating half a bag of potato chips when they got home because they were STARVING. Especially when we’ve been to the school during lunch and know that those children eat the unhealthiest part of the lunch and toss the healthy stuff. Not only a waste of money but also a serious eating problem. The school and the parents need to collaborate on getting that child on the right track. Sending home a note just saying they are fat isn’t the answer. Education – what schools do best – is key. Not just the child but the parent as well.

    As for underweight – my children are 10 and 8 weighing 63 and 37 lbs respectively. They’re small but they are active and eat healthy. At birth, our first was small and the doctors accused us of not feeding her – or of her not digesting well or having cystic fibrosis or something. She had more tests in the first few years of her life than most people have their entire life. The final diagnosis: She’s small… and it’s familial. Just like I had told them from the first referral when I handed them MY childhood medical log that my mom sent me. That jacket full of tests has stuck with her and we’re unable to get her insurance as a result. Labeling (whether weight, intelligence, characteristics, appearance, whatever) is never a good thing. The schools need to factor in more than just BMI if they’re going to start labeling children “too fat” or “too thin”. If they’re active, if they eat right, if it runs in the family all needs to be factored in.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      Agree – educate, educate, educate – and both kids and parents. So sorry to hear what your daughter had to go thru with all of those tests. What a nightmare that must have been during and then after with the insurance issues. Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

  • ciaraj

    there are various reasons why children are overweight. some may have medical reasons. that’s part of the reason i am overweight (though i was not as a child). i hated the presidential fitness test. i was fairly thin, not overly so, but because i had been sick a lot the first few years of my life, i was not very strong. i think that ultimately, if we want our kids to learn good eating habits, it has to start with us. as with anything, if we try to tell them to do something, but we do the opposite, they’re just going to think, ‘hey, mom or dad’s not doing it, so why should we?’

    in my house, i try not to eat too much junk, and i also watch what my girls eat, but my husband, he’s another story. he and my stepson eat so much food that if i see them eating one thing after another, i get literally sick to my stomach to the point of almost throwing up. my stepson is skinny, cos he’s very active with sports, but he eats more than my husband. i think he has a slight obsession with food even more than the hubs. he also eats all the wrong things thinking that’s going to help him gain weight (he needed to for football). luckily for me, my girls know that they my hubs and stepson eat is not good. the girls and i just need to exercise a little more. now if i could just get that energy i lack from being hypothyroid. double-edged sword over here: need energy to exercise, gotta exercise for energy lol i’m going to start up a routine with my girls soon. they both got new bikes, so they like to go on bike rides now. i’ll have to get me one, so i can go along, too.

    btw i don’t think ‘fat letters’ is going to help. if anything, that’s going to cause more retaliation. i think what the school can do, if they’re worried about kids’ weight, is to offer healthy choices for lunch (and breakfast if the school serves it). they also need to educate themselves more on nutrition and health, so that they can educate the kids. i’m not saying it’s all up to the school, but if the school is going to make a big deal about it, then they need to get with the program, too.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      Agreed, if the school is going to make an issue out of weight then they need to step up and do more than just tell parents your child is over and underweight!Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

  • Mendy Dinsmore

    They did that here at our local schools, NE Arkansas. It was embarrassing to the children and they were made fun of. I don’t think the letters are a good ideal. Most children get yearly exams at their dr office….I don’t think schools should tell the children they are fat or high bmi.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      So the letters were not even mailed privately to the families? That is just awful! Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

  • Johnna

    Sending home a letter to parents who may not have the skills or resources to correct the problem isn’t beneficial. It’s HARD, changing how we eat, battling obesity, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Sending home a letter that says, “Your kid is FAT,” or “Your child is very thin!” does little to address proper nutrition, underlying medical issues and the emotion that comes with any weight challenge. I’m not sure how this letter could be a step in the right direction. I vote for starting with change in the school cafeteria and classroom.

  • Kristin

    I do not agree with this at all. I would be mortified if it happened to me or my kids. I actually have read conflicting reports about how accurate the BMI is anyway…according to it, I am obese, yet I’m 5’8″ and wear a size 12. So, yeah, I’m not a big fan.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      Yes, the BMI is not a truly accurate representation. There is no account for muscle mass in it. It is a very vague guideline at best. Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

  • Theresa

    This is such a hard subject! I completely agree with your last paragraph! Schools should really be focusing on teaching healthy habits to students and parents!

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      It is a tough subject. No easy answers. Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

  • http://twitter.com/rkosully Robin

    Being underweight (and being “officially” diagnosed as anorexic) can pose just as many health risks as being overweight, so I do think it’s good that the schools are addressing both ends of the spectrum.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      Agreed, that is the one positive about the story I thought, that they were at least addressing both ends and not just the overweight. Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

  • terrik

    There is just so much here I don’t even know how to come up with any kind of cohesive comment so please forgive me for rambling.

    They should send letters home with every child, not just the ones who aren’t in the “correct” weight range.

    I absolutely dreaded and hated those Presidential Fitness Tests! The only thing I was ever any good at was the 50-yd dash. I couldn’t hang for two seconds from a bar with my arms. It was absolutely humiliating.

    Schools should have PE every day. The whole time my son’s been in elementary school, they’ve only had PE once a week. Yes, they have recess daily, but it’s not enough. Many schools also use exercise as a form of punishment (walk laps during recess if you talk in class, etc) and I think it’s wrong for kids to feel like exercise is for when you’re bad but candy and junk food treats are for when you’re good. That’s the message I think we’re sending.

    Overall health and fitness should be the goal, not weight or how many push-ups you can do. I think all schools should have some kind of garden or greenhouse where kids learn about and grow some of their own food. They should have PE every day, and it should be fun stuff where they’re all involved and get to choose some of the exercises.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      I agree that it is a totally wrong message to use exercise as discipline and junk food as reward! When T was in elementary school one of his teachers would take away recess from the entire class. T researched the importance of recess online and wrote a letter to his teacher sharing his findings with him saying that taking away recess would actually do the opposite of what they teacher had intended! I was so proud of T for doing that! Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

      • terrik

        Yes, I would be proud too, and that makes me feel better about “these kids these days”. Not letting little kids have recess makes them more likely to have trouble focusing and behaving. No offense, but little kids are much like dogs, they have to be able to run off energy or it comes out in their actions.

  • slehan

    I agree with: Save the paper for something like a list of healthy choices the kids can post on the fridge at home. I’m old enough that I never had to do the fitness test in school, but we had lots of gym.

  • AngelaLilly

    I find the letters very sad. I think they are shaming both kids and parents in a way. What kid wants to take home a letter from school? in what world is this not a “bad” thing emotionally for the kid? I understand the mentality of trying to help the kids that need help, but there must be a better way. As for the underweight issue, I agree it is as important as the overweight issue. Both are signs of food addiction and eating disorders, so they should both be taken seriously. Anorexia and bulimia are very dangerous and need to be addressed just as often as obesity. I have been both, so I understand how they are both connected to food addiction in many ways.

  • nanlara

    i don’t think it’s the schools postition to send home those types of letters, i agree with healthy snack bulletins etc as a better alternative. i think this is something pediatricians should be addressing, and i don’t think all of them do it. i have a nephew who has always been “bigger” and because there was never a huge gain just always big it was brushed under the table and never discussed, until suddenly the poor kid had to be put on a diet. i also have another nephew on the other end of the spectrum…thin, very thin…but again since no great gains/losses the dr. has never really shown any concern…drives me crazy…pull the parent aside and talk to them about healthy choices for both situations or suggest a dietician. My sons dr is great. even though he is a completely “normal” weight she has already talked to me about nutritional supplements cause he doesn’t eat the most varied of diets…even normal weight kids can benefit from schools talking to them about healthy snacks

  • http://twitter.com/rajean rajean

    Lots of great ideas in your post and in the comments. I think the schools often react, think “We need to do ‘something,’ and often that is not the right thing to use their limited resources on, but hey, they did ‘something,’ and that’s better than nothing.” PE should be offered everyday, because of levy failures, athletic & marching band programs are becoming far too expensive for many to participate and crimes against our children have many parents (rightfully so) scared to allow our kids to play outside and go to parks close to our homes.

  • http://twitter.com/AFadedGinger Ginger Kay

    I don’t think the letters are a bad thing. As a health assessment, I don’t see it as being different from the hearing and eye tests given at schools. (You might think that parents would notice their children not being able to see or hear well, but I was one of those children who “failed” the eye test at school.) Actually, I do remember annual height and weight checks in elementary school. I don’t recall if letters were sent home about them or not, but they were tracking us.

    I think there are many parents who might think their child is a bit heavy, or a bit thin, but not realize that they are obese or dangerously underweight. So I don’t think the letters are a bad thing.

    I do think that the stream of sugary treats given as prizes and rewards in schools are ridiculous. So are vending machines and ice cream carts and pizza parties.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn’s Online World

      I think if they are doing height/weight checkups on all the kids that the report should go to all parents then. Letting them know where their child is and what the “normal” ranges are. Of course I think the pediatricians are the best source for all of these checkups and information but I do understand that there are many families without access to healthcare like that. Such a tough subject.Subject: [robynsonlineworld] Re: Fat Letters from School

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