Dear Mrs. Obama: We Can’t Fight Obesity Without Going Free-Range

Hi Readers: Here’s an almost perfect opinion piece by Dan Haley in Sunday’s Denver Post about how Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program is a great idea — get kids outside, exercising more — but it’ll never work. At least, not until we start a Free-Range Revolution (not that he calls it that):

…first we need a public service campaign to tell parents it’s OK for their kids to play outside. I know parents who constantly wring their hands over how it’s no longer safe for kids to play outdoors. But crimes against children have been declining since at least 1993, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Some 800,000 kids are reported “missing” each year, but only about 100 of those cases can be classified as “stereotypical kidnappings.” The rest typically are runaways and custody issues.

We should still tell our kids to be wary of strangers, to be smart about where they go and who they hang out with. But I’d venture to guess it’s no less safe outside now than it was in the 1970s. We’ve been scared indoors by a few horrifying, high- profile killings that play out on 24-hour news channels and relentless “stranger danger” campaigns.

Unfortunately,then Haley goes on to monger a little fear of his own, saying that when kids are inside they are sitting ducks for internet predators. (For more on how this danger has been exaggerated, please see my piece in The Daily Beast.)

But his main point is well taken. To say,  “Play like we did!” while also saying, “But you’ll probably get abducted if you do, and even if you aren’t, you should probably spend more time inside doing homework and test prep anyway, or you’ll never get into a good college, so your future is grim,” is enough to drive any kid to drink…a sugary soda or two. — Lenore

30 Responses

  1. In most neighborhoods, yes, parents should be encouraged to provide some basic training to their kids and let them outside for some fresh air and kid-type fun. But there are a lot of neighborhoods where they can’t just walk outside. If Mrs. O is speaking to everyone, then it’s better for her to keep her message targeted on being active and eating well.

    & his numbers are a little off –

    approximately
    -125 stereotypical kidnappings
    -68,000 non-family abductions (mostly taking place in own neighborhood or as kid goes between school and home)
    -300,000’ish custody/family abductions
    and the rest are runaways/reported missing

  2. How about letting them swim at summer camp instead of issuing them life jackets whenever they get within six feet of the water? Oooooh, can’t do that! We’d get sued!

    Read the comment from Kathy on this post:

    http://lettershometoyou.wordpress.com/2009/08/30/are-we-raising-our-kids-to-be-wimps/

  3. It’s funny- when I heard about Mrs. Obama’s initiative, the first thing that popped into my mind was, “Let kids play outside!”

    When I was a kid, my family struggled to make ends meet. We ate a lot of processed food. Stuff that was cheap and didn’t go bad too quickly. But I was as thin as a rail because we played outside all the time!

    She needs to put a swingset on the grounds of the Whitehouse and send Sasha and Malia out there with the dog. Send some secret servicemen out there with them because they probably are more of a kidnapping target than other children, and set the example!

  4. It’s true that “play outside!” might be dangerous advice in some neighborhoods, but then again, “don’t eat too much” is dangerous advice for anorexics.

    What would be nice is if she/we could refer parents to a source– a website database, or the local police department– which could give solid non-hysterical information about the relative dangerousness of their neighborhood, including statistics about crimes against children and some basis for interpreting those statistics. Unfortunately, statistics dictates that if someone set up such a program, then eventually they will be wrong somewhere in the United States, and that one instance would be popularized entirely out of proportion, anyone who says that the coverage is out of proportion will be demonized, and the program would be shut down or sued.

    So maybe the free-range movement *isn’t* best served by a national campaign; maybe grass-roots is the only way to go here.

  5. There is a swingset on the White House lawn that the Obamas put in. And I’m pretty sure the girls do have Secret Service protection out there too–being a special target I guess does require a bending of the free range thinking.🙂

  6. From the article:

    “With the rise of social networking, those pedophiles who’ve always been lurking have better access to our children — even when they don’t leave the house.”

    ‘Scuse me? They’re telepathic molesters, or what? They can’t actually DO anything to the kids unless they get physical access to them. Of course I don’t want my kids subjected to people saying creepy stuff to them, but there’s still some territory between that and actual harm coming to them. IOW, kids are not harmed by Internet predators unless the kids either leave the house to meet them (and I think parents STILL have SOME control over that, even in the Big Bad World of the Internet and Facebook) or the predators get into the house, which again, people still have control over.

    So it’s true that the Internet gives pedophiles a certain scope that they didn’t have before, but any given kid is not actually in any more danger just because they have an Internet connection, any more than any given kid is in any more actual danger because there exist in the world objects that someone COULD use to hurt them IF the kids were unprotected AND some person wanted to use those objects to hurt them.

  7. As you know Lenore, I’m a huge advocate for playing outdoors. I think you can probably achieve similar short term health results through indoor exercise, but it’s impossible to maintain because ultimately it always devolves into repetitious WORK. Playing outside, on the other hand, is never dull and the exercise happens simply by virtue of the fact that kids are enjoying themselves, doing what comes naturally.

    One thing I’d like to point out, however, is that Haley kicks off his piece by implying that his outdoor play counter-balanced his junk food consumption, which might have been true when he was young. But today’s junk food is a lot “junkier” than it was when we were growing up, and even our so-called healthy food has been junked up with all kinds of additives and other modifications, which contribute greatly to our obesity epidemic

    If you haven’t seen this Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef) presentation, it’s well worth the 20 minutes: http://www.ted.com/talks/jamie_oliver.html

  8. @ Wren – They did put a big playground up at the White House last year. Sometimes Obama even has meetings on the nearby picnic bench.

  9. Just to play devil’s advocate a bit, I personally don’t feel there IS an obesity epidemic; not among children, and not among adults. The BMI chart was changed years ago to make MORE people fat. The average person in North America is, according to the new bmi chart, overweight or obese. And even if there are more fat people (not to mention we’re taller), that doesnt’ mean fat is unhealthy. Fat is 70% genetically inherited. With more people on various medications, we get more fat people. There are over 300 medications with a side effect of weight gain. There are a lot of myths out there that are constantly peddled by the media and people like Mrs. Obama; http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/12/top-10-obesity-myths/

    Check it out, and my blog, if you want to know more.

  10. JeninCanada- I think that’s very interesting I’m willing to look further into it, as I’ve always had a problem with the BMI thing, but whether there is or isn’t a problem in the US with obesity I think we can agree that people in general being active and taking an interest in being healthy is a good thing. Doesn’t much matter what spurs them into action for me, especially if one of the side effects is kids getting outside to play more.

  11. Oh I’m totally with you; more activity and less sedentry is a good thing, but the goal shouldn’t be for weight loss, but for overall health. Sitting around on your butt all day eating ‘junk’ food is bad for EVERYONE, but the misconception is that fat people are fat because they do just that all the time. Forget about genetics and possible disability, or unsafe places to go outside and food deserts, fat people are just lazy slobs. /sarcasm.

  12. Speaking to the BMI thing, it is total crap because it doesn’t take in to consideration your skeletal frame size. My husband is 6’1″ and weighs about 215. He is NOT fat. He is just very dense and has a very heavy frame. But according to his BMI he is on the verge of obese. I, on the other hand, have a very small frame. I’m 5’4″ and weigh about 118. I am NOT skinny. But according to my BMI I could stand to gain a lot more weight and still be in the normal range. By my own standards I would be very overweight, but normal by theirs. It’s a very bogus measurement for anyone who is not of an “average” frame.

  13. I have to agree with the folks grumbling about the BMI charts, and the charts like my height/weight just fine. But I would sooner focus on being fit than a number on a scale.

    That said, it’s good to see anyone encouraging kids to get outside more. Too bad it’s so rare to see it without the fearmongering.

  14. Yes! I’ve always thought that outdoor activity (activity, in general) does not figure large enough in discussions of weight, and weight loss.

    For an interesting discussion of the ‘Can one be fit and fat?’ debate, see the link below.

    http://blogs.berkeley.edu/category/health/20091103/

  15. Yes, please! Can we just play outside and have that be its own end, rather than a means to an end?

    Then if we had fun, and became more active in general that we were before, then it is WIN WIN WIN all around.
    And if we had fun, and didn’t lose weight, it is still WIN.

    But if we are only playing outside as a means to an end- to lose weight, and then don’t lose weight, then somehow playing outside was a failure. Even if we became more independent, or created a new game, or made a new friend, or learned some significant things about slides and gravity (and healing)…

    Like a kid who is genetically predisposed to be fat doesn’t feel enough like a failure already? They have to fail at Playing Outside, too?

  16. @Jenincanada: Even taking the BMI chart away, we can use our own two ocular orbits to discover that kids are overweight. A 7-year-old with rolls is not healthy. An adult with a bulging, swaying, swinging midsection is not healthy.

    Personally, I don’t use the BMI to tell me we have an epidemic. I go out to the grocery store and see the people walking around… and where I live, though it’s listed as the 5th most healthy city in the US (Albuquerque), there are still a tremendous amount of people carrying extra weight to excess on their bodies. Our kids aren’t so bad here, but I’ve been in places where these poor kids are fat down to their fingertips.

    BMI has always had problems, they’ve come up with formulas to compensate, but never enough. So don’t use the chart. Just look around. You don’t need a chart to tell you there’s a problem.

  17. I’m not sure how you do it Lenore, but you have a knack of writing the hard-to-say stuff in a way that makes sense and argues for your point well. I’ll admit, I’m a bit envious.

  18. @ Nicola – I agree totally and think that part of the obesity problem is the denial that there is an obesity problem.

    Of course, internet crimes are increasing, the use of the internet has increased. However, the vast majority of internet crimes prosecuted in my courts don’t involve minors. They involve undercover officers pretending to be very sexually aggressive teenage girls (the men don’t start the sexual conversations but do respond to the officers overt sexual references). I’d be interested in seeing how much, if any, of the increase in internet child sex crime involve actual children rather than police stings that border very closely on entrapment. I bet it’s a very small percentage. I think we’ve only had 2 in the last 3+ years.

  19. Sorry, but there’s little correlation between kids exercising more and less weight gain.

    You have to change the food you eat, not exercise more. Eat real food, not fake food.

  20. Nicola and Donna: I’m not in denial, I’m just not swallowing the media we’re being spoonfed. Check out the links in my own blog and the one I posted instead of telling me I’m lying or in denial.

  21. I agree with Jack. Excercise won’t do it – you have to change what you eat. I was into sports as a kid, but had a lot of excess weight until I made a conscious effort to cut out the potato chips, chocolate bars and cokes. By the time I was 12 I’d lost the extra flab and felt a lot better for it.

  22. So, if it’s just the kids who live in gang-infested neighborhoods, maybe something else needs to happen so kids can play outside. But the whole country’s not in danger of drive-by shootings or abductions.
    One of the biggest at-risk populations for obesity are newly arrived immigrants, according to a study.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/03/AR2009090301785.html

  23. I’ll just say that:

    1) Any discussion of the causes in the rise of child obesity need to take into account that essentially all of the rise took place in the 70s and 80s; overweight/obesity in chidren has been flat since 1999.

    2) Everything science knows about the relationship between food and weight says it’s quantitative, not qualitative. Scientifically, “bad” foods are foods that are contaminated with microorganisms or that haven’t been properly prepared to remove poisonous parts. Everything else is “good.” Dividing the latter into “good” and “bad” foods is religious/spiritual/ideological, not scientific.

    3) I believe that the majority of those non-family abductions involve teenage girls who hang out with boys older than them. Also note that the legal definition of abduction encompasses actions that most laypeople wouldn’t think of as kidnapping (technically, if two high school seniors, one 18 and the other 17, ditch school and take a ride in the 18-year-old’s car, an abduction has occurred).

  24. I really don’t like these First Lady initiatives. The underlying messages are well-meant–drugs are bad, obscene music lyrics are bad, obesity is bad, etc.–but one high profile person, no matter how big her PR machine, simply isn’t going to make that much of a difference. And as the readers above point out, childhood obesity is the result of a variety of socio-political issues. “Let’s Move” is a nice idea and…that’s about it.

  25. ebohlman — but doesn’t your #3 only come in to play if someone reports the event as a crime? I don’t doubt that abduction statistics have their problems, but ISTM that a lot of the more benign things that would legally qualify as abductions don’t get reported as such, so we can’t assume that a large percentage of the statistics are attributable to that. Most parents aren’t going to call the cops if their 17 year old ditches school to ride around with an older kid — they’ll just deal with it some other way. Ditto with non-custodial parents taking the kids to the movies without permission — perhaps technically a crime if reported to the police (as opposed to calling your lawyer), but usually not reported as such, and so not included in stats.

  26. The link for your work

    The Myth of Online Predators

    is outdated. You should use this one instead

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-04-28/the-myth-of-online-predators/?cid=bs:archive1

  27. @pentamom – You’d think a parent would not call the police if their 17 year old ditches school but you would be oh so wrong. Parents call the cops on their own kids all the time. A large portion of what we deal with in juvenile court is runaway and unruly. Runaway is obvious. Unruly is basically just a kid who is not listening to his or her parents so the parents call the police.

  28. http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/newsroom

    Great article from the Alliance for Childhood on the importance of free play in fighting obesity in children.

  29. Well there’s little doubt that the risk of child abduction isn’t any higher than when I was a child. Heck, the most famous abduction case in my area was when the Lyon sisters disappeared in 1975. Then the question becomes: is it like seatbelts and bike helmets where we’ve realized that something was hazardous? And judged by any sort of emperical basis, the answer has to be NO. Especially considering that the cost of protecting children from it is so high.

  30. Jack writes: “Sorry, but there’s little correlation between kids exercising more and less weight gain. You have to change the food you eat, not exercise more. Eat real food, not fake food.”

    Jack, I think there is. But even if there weren’t any correlation, the sad fact is that American children aren’t outside, by and large. In an odd twist, the wealthier, the less fresh air. We lived in a modest town house development and the children were playing outside, with each other. I drove some miles to the exclusive gated community, and you would think you entered
    The Land of No Children. Yes, you could see swing sets and swimming pools deep beyond those gates, but they were empty of children.

    As a commenter noted above, can’t we just play for play’s sake without a means to an end? Play, especially the outdoor kind, has so many benefits, both physical and psychological. Yet children in this country are overscheduled and tired and suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder. And how about less homework so kids actually have time to play?

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