Should Schools Send Home Fat Letters?

My husband sent me a link to a story he read on the Internet yesterday about a school in Massachusetts who sent home letters to parents letting them know that their child was obese.  (The school told reporters that they were also sending out letters to parents whose children were classified as underweight.)

I really have mixed feelings about this issue because on one hand there is a very real obesity problem among children in every state in the nation but on the other hand, I hate for children to feel badly about their appearance or feel singled out from their peers. That is never a good thing.

Here’s a map from the CDC that shows obesity rates among just high school children from 2011.

The school indicated that they were just trying to help parents gain awareness about their children’s weight.

I know a lot of parents who do have a blind spot when it comes to their child’s weight and as a parent myself, I completely understand how sensitive a topic this is. No parent wants to hear that their child is overweight because no matter who it comes from, that feels like a judgement on the parent.

In fact it often is. Now I completely understand that there are some kids who are absolutely genetically predisposed to weight gain or have medical conditions that cause them to gain weight. I get that.

But I also see firsthand what some parents feed their kids both at home and in restaurants. And it is not always great. In fact sometimes it is downright terrible.

I know people who let their 5-year-olds have a couple of  sodas every day and think nothing of it. I see parents feeding their kids junk food on a regular basis and kids who do not remember the last time they had a fresh vegetable. Honestly.

But sending letters home to parents doesn’t seem like the most effective way of helping parents figure out how to make the changes that must be made if we are to optimize our children’s health. And that’s what we are doing when we feed our kids a healthy diet and encourage regular physical activity. We are giving our kids the best possible start in life instead of allowing them to settle for second or third best.

A far better way would be for the school to offer nutritional education to all parents, staff, and faculty in an attempt to spread the message of healthy eating at all ages.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. In order to shift the obesity rates back to a downward trend, it is going to take a grassroots, from the ground up, effort. Government regulations aren’t going to do it. It is going to take parents, grandparents, and even educations having a different outlook and making the nutritional changes necessary to optimize every child’s health.

What do you think a school’s role should be in informing parents of potential weight problems in their children? Diane

64 thoughts on “Should Schools Send Home Fat Letters?

  1. blackhuff says:

    I don’t have a problem if they ever do sent me a letter like this too me because I know it already. The thing is where they might indicate it, so that they make you feel bad about it.
    My son are overweight but it is not due to eating at my home. It’s because of how he eats at school. He receive junk food from other kid’s parents who pack lunches like that. I can’t control him any place other than my home. I can only control what is going on in my home and many don’t understand this.
    So I have problem when I school starts to make you feel bad about your child’s weight.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You are right that you do not have control over what he eats at school. In some school districts the kids and parents are not allowed to bring sweets or sweetened drinks into the school at all.

  2. jessey says:

    I live in MA. In our school letters are sent to all parents with their height and weight and bmi. I didn’t read the whole letter since my child is a healthy weight. The letter was mailed home addressed to us so our child never knew about it. While a lot of parents know their children are overweight I think having it speller out for them with suggestions on how to get them to a healthy weight is good.

  3. Deb says:

    Time to get past this attitude and see weight as a health concern like any other. Obesity is a huge drain on the US health system. The schools, ie government, need to take an active role in what the schools serve, whether or not they have soda machines, etc. Yes, people also need to be educated.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      The government is so influenced by lobbyist such as the food industry that I fear the government is unable to separate the needs of the people with their own needs.

  4. Leah says:

    I agree with the above. I see no problem in a school advising a parent if their child is obese or underweight. Unfortunately, I personally know a lady who didn’t do anything even after a doctor informed them their teen needed to lose weight. But you never might be the eye opener a parent needs.

  5. June says:

    I agree with the above. I think it’s appropriate to send home the letters, but I would hope that it would be accompanied by some sort of opportunity to attend classes, etc. so parents could learn about proper nutrition. I am a fifth grade teacher in CA, and I am appalled at some of the foods and drinks our little ones bring to school for lunch and snack. Full size bags of chips, tall cans of sugary drinks. I often will sit with the child and discuss the nutritional label, explaining why those aren’t healthy choices. I don’t discuss it in the context of weigh gain, but rather just HEALTH! When I started my weight loss journey, one of my reasons for doing it was to be a good role model for my students. I hope that I am today!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I would hope it was accompanied by some information or that the school district had a plan to help educate the parents and the children.

      I too discuss nutrition with my kids in regards to health rather than weight!

  6. Dr. J says:

    I think if the school has a health care worker making the decision, yes! If only based on a number then probably not as good an idea.

    Unfortunately, most of the parents that get the notice need a notice for them 🙁

  7. Leah says:

    Also, I’d rather them send those letters home than no longer allow students to take a sweet treat for their birthdays. Some school are prohibiting that now (treats have to be healthy choices like fruit, cheese, crackers and the like) in an effort to be healthier. It irritates me because outside a health issue such as diabetes I don’t feel a sweet birthday treat once in a while is going to cause obesity.

    I’ll stop…making the school do the parents job when it comes to the foods served is a soap box issue for me. Let’s notify the parents and encourage them to get involved with their child’s health.

    • C says:

      A sweet birthday treat is fine for your birthday but in a class of 20 thats 20 times a year plus holidays and anything else that might pop up. How can the parent stop their child in partaking in the celebration of someone else’s birthday treat? Its definatly a complex issue.

      • Diane Carbonell says:

        In some school systems where we have been parents were not allowed to bring in birthday treats just because of that reason. I can tell you that my friends whose children were in those classrooms were not happy though.

      • Babbalou says:

        Or more likely, a class of 30….which when added to the holiday parties is almost a party a week

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      The parents have to be involved for this to change. The children can’t change on their own. They really have little say in what they eat – particularly before they are able to drive.

    • Melody says:

      This issue goes the other way though as well…I would be very upset if I received a letter from my daughters school stating that she is classified as underweight…which she is. She is only in the 10th percentile for her age…that being said she eats super well and we sometimes wonder where she is putting it all. The school does not know this since they only see her for lunch. They do not know that we have taken her to our physician to make sure all is alright. I do not believe this topic is any of the school’s business. If they have a Dr. on staff that wants to talk to me that is fine, but not just the administration staff who have no real knowledge in this area.

      • Diane Carbonell says:

        I know they sent letters to parents whose kids fell outside the BMI ranges. I wonder if it was a nurse who sent the letters and how many administrators knew about it?

      • Janis says:

        They should definitely send letters to ALL kids, so no one is singled out. And that way, if a kid starts to lose or gain, they can go back and have a bit of medial history which can be provided to a family doctor.

        Again though, I’m not sure this is within the bounds of what a school is supposed to do. Schools, especially elementary schools, have such a difficult job to do. They are so much more than simply educational institutions.

  8. Madijo @ Fixing Me says:

    I live in New Brunswick Canada and my son’s school, and all the schools in his district do not offer junk food at school (all grade levels). They also have health class that discusses nutrition, and he was the reason why we both stopped drinking pop.

    I agree that obesity should be addressed in as many places as possible. I think that letters should be sent home and a response be required. I think that parents and child should be sent to a dietician (free), and have repercussions if they do not at least go. I independently went to one, so that my son would not grow up the same way that I did.

    We have children, and are not expected to take parenting classes. We have to be trained for any other job we do, why not parenting? I think that too many parents are ignorant of the harm that comes from being obese or overweight. Why not educate them? I think if my mother had been informed (she was/is clueless), that I may have had a better chance at not being seriously overweight all my life.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Some parents like you do want to be educated but there are a lot of people who think they already know all they need to. That makes me very sad because they are missing so much.

  9. Marc says:

    When I was in grade school (several decades ago) the teacher or school nurse would weigh each student and get their height at each quarter. It was part of your report card. At the end of the year we always commented on how much taller we were or how much weight we had gained that school year.

  10. joe says:

    I agree with what a lot of people are mentioning above. I think it is fine if the schools are doing this type of test. We need to stop thinking about weight discussion as some uncomfortable sensitive subject. It needs to be as easy to talk about as a cavity in your mouth. Bad brushing habits cause cavaties and bad eating habits cause obesity.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Discussions about weight should be open. There are so many emotions involved and perceived judgements on habits that it can be a very uncomfortable discussion. When I was heavy I never wanted to talk about my weight unless I was making fun of myself. I can only imagine how sensitive parents are about their children’s weights.

  11. Gwen says:

    I see the slippery slope. As long as it’s mailed to the parents, or everyone gets the letter to go home stating weight, BMI, whatever, so no one can make fun of anyone because of the letter, I’m good with it. I think it’s a great idea, for all the reasons listed above. We have to stop sweeping the problem of obesity under the rug.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I couldn’t tell whether or not the letters were mailed or handed out to the kids. If they were handed out to the kids then that is very bad. That kind of letter absolutely needs to be mailed and kept private.

  12. Janis says:

    I don’t think it will do any good. Many people are in denial about their kid’s weight because they are in denial about their own.

  13. Rachelle says:

    Since I’m not in the school district that sent the letters home I don’t want to pass judgement on how it was done, but I do think having education for both parents and kids alike is very important. I think there is something else schools can do besides just nutritional education however. The school can also put more emphasis on physical education. I live on the west side of the country and so I don’t know how true this is, but I keep hearing reports of schools in large cities, especially on the east coast, eliminating recess time and playgrounds. I know at the school my kids attend they have “mileage club” which encourages kids to walk/run a course during lunch recess. They have parents come and help hand out water for the kids and they get awards for every mile they complete. Each classes participation is also tracked and the kids love it!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It’s true in the south in some schools. No or little recess and PE as elective times rather than required.

      Your school sounds like they are being deliberate about helping the kids stay active and offering the parents a chance to get involved as well.

  14. LovesCatsinCA says:

    I remember looking aghast at an overweight woman in line at the supermarket who was venting to the cashier about how bad her 9 year old daughter felt and the mom’s indignance–that the daughter was being made to WALK THE TRACK during PE instead of doing what the other kids were doing… and then the kicker–she said her 9 year old weighed 200 pounds. OMG. OF COURSE she couldn’t run around with all the other kids–the school probably didn’t want her to injure herself and thought walking was a modest exercise for someone that size. This woman probably weighed 200 pounds herself, and seemed overweight but not really obese, or at the border as a full grown adult–but she didn’t seem to see that at 9, her daughter was obese and probably morbidly so. So maybe a both/and approach would be better. Fat letters AND education on nutrition for the parents.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen and it makes me so sad. I saw one parent get upset at a sales clerk because the store did not have jeans large enough for her daughter, who was about 10 or 11. The child had to be at least 200 pounds if not more. Education is key.

  15. Siobhan says:

    I think it’s so sad to see children who are obese and we’d all like to help them. I’m just not sure that a letter sent home is all that effective; I mean it’s not like the parents haven’t noticed. I think the majority of parents are informed about nutrition. I mean, look at the majority of us. We’re all very knowledgeable and yet even as adults don’t always put that knowledge to use and we WANT to change.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I know what you are saying but there really are a lot of people who honestly don’t understand nutrition. You would be surprised. I’ve known people who really did not know how to read a nutrition label or understand what the best foods to feed their family is. It can be sad but the best thing is that they can easily learn!

  16. PlumPetals says:

    I was reading your post and thinking exactly this when you wrote it: “A far better way would be for the school to offer nutritional education to all parents, staff, and faculty in an attempt to spread the message of healthy eating at all ages.”

    I absolutely agree.

  17. Jody - Fit at 55 says:

    Late – sorry!! I am so not sure about this. Many of the workers & school people have issues themselves OR do not even know the correct knowledge.. then you have the home where it starts.. the biggest issue!

  18. Janis says:

    There’s also the issue of serious childhood obesity stemming from a bunch of things that may be well outside what a school can deal with. The family doesn’t have the money or resources to feed the kid(s) well for whatever reason, the parents are obese themselves and in denial, or even in the darkest situation, that the kid has been molested and is naturally anxious to be as big as possible in order to stave off further assault from whoever did it to them — and who may even be in the house with them still. Or simply that the kid is flat-out already an addict at the ripe age of nine, to the only addictive substance that a nine year old can obtain in plain sight, crap food.

    A letter just can’t address this. I think the information could be sent in a nonjudgmental way (“Your child is in the Nth percentile for body mass index and is medically classified as underweight/normal/overweight/obese/etc.”) along with grades and other information. I don’t think it should be a special Fat Letter about the kid’s weight alone. But at the same time, I don’t think it will achieve anything, and if a “solution” doesn’t solve the problem or even address it, why are we doing it? Caring about a problem means doing what helps fix it, not doing pointless things in an effort to reassure ourselves that we care. Caring doesn’t mean doing pointless things.

    The letters are useless without things like:

    1) Assistance for families that simply can’t feed the kid well (no kitchen, no fridge, no reliable electricity, whatever), and good luck with that in our “tater tots with ketchup, which BTW is a vegetable” school system
    2) Education for the many “why, my kid’s not fat, he looks just like me!” parents
    3) No hesitation to call CPS where it’s needed — which enrages obese people to say but there are a lot of instances where morbid childhood obesity stems from an abusive environment
    4) A school environment where ABSOLUTELY NO FAKE FOODS AT ALL are tolerated. None. If the kid is an addict and someone somewhere has Ho-Hos in an enclosed environment, it will be like putting someone in juvey and naively thinking they can’t get their hands on any drugs while there.

    Without these structures in place, the letter will accomplish nothing. And again, if we meet a problem with a “solution” that does nothing or makes it worse, why are we doing it again … ?

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Absolutely true. Great points and I much more like the neutral tone of the letter you presented.

      Like I said as well – we have to have actionable steps along with the information. What are parents who don’t have the information or resources to do to “fix” the problem?

    • Dr. J says:

      Some people’s jobs are totally based on coming up with solutions that are never acted on!

      Another reason we are in the mess we are in!

      I was once asked to rewrite the history and physical exam portion of the curriculum for our school.

      After handing it in, the graduate dean put in in a draw and never implemented it.

      Some people’s jobs are doing that. I refused to ever do an assignment for him again! I had real work to do…

  19. Helen says:

    I have mixed feelings about this one. Not knowing exactly how the process worked, it’s hard to critique, but perhaps it would be better if the school notified the parents first that this screening were going to take place and the results would be sent home, like they do with vision testing. That would provide parents an opportunity to “opt out” their children if they were completely against the screening. It’s certainly not the school’s job to raise our children, but with childhood obesity being such a problem, early identification is certainly a good idea.

  20. Melissa says:

    I think it is okay for schools to send home letters to all parents educating them about healthy eating habits. I don’t think it is ok for schools to single out kids though who are overweight and then only send them a letter. Ultimately it is the job of the parent to make sure their child is at a healthy weight.

  21. Kat says:

    In the UK there are a lot of schools that won’t allow children to have certain foods with them to school. They also have a water “policy.” Children may only have transparent drinking bottles on the table so the teachers can see that they are only drinking water. Hmmm…

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I had a friend whose kids went to a UK school for a while and she was amazed at how much different things were over there. I like the transparent water bottle idea.

  22. Diane Carbonell says:

    The blind spot is huge when it comes to obesity. Parents I know whose children struggle with their weight seem to feel helpless, which is so crazy. Before a child can drive a parent has a huge influence on what their kids eat.

  23. Deb says:

    The parents that opt out are likely the parents of children who need it the most. I don’t get the singled out part. Obesity is life threatening and impacts every aspect of their life. If this were any other condition or disease we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

  24. Paige says:

    I agree with your corcern about what is the best way to inform parents that their child is ‘technically’ obese. However, I do believe that informing parents in an essential part of a well-rounded education plan for reducing the rate of childhood obesity. No matter how much children are educated in schools about the essentials of food nutrition, there still is a reality about what they are being fed at home. In order for children to be successful in losing weight, their parents must play a (very active) role in that journey. I think as long as the letters as kept confidential from the child’s classmates, then expanding the role of education into the home is something that is positive, and will inevitably result in better outcomes for obese children seeking to lose weight.

  25. I ❤ 2 Eat says:

    I don’t have children, so maybe my point is moot. But why is that a school’s responsibility to tell parents how to raise their children? Yes, parents should be conscious about what their children eat, especially with obesity causing health problems like type 2 diabetes in children. But is that letter from the school going to make the difference? I don’t think so. School’s should focus on educating children, and making sure AT SCHOOL children have access to healthy foods.

  26. Jan says:

    The problem should be addressed on many levels I think. Schools should definitely provide kids with the best possible choices of food and not even have the crap that’s in the vending machines available. Parents should get letters in the mail letting them know of the health status of their children. Nutritional education classes should also be provided to parents as well as children to help them with the issue. So I do believe that government regulations as well as proper available education is required to solve the problem.

  27. Helen says:

    I see your point, Jan and agree. Like Hillary’s book says, It Takes a Village. Where I live there are so many parents who are either too overwhelmed to handle the issue, don’t care, or not educated as to the risks (and often obese themselves) and when the child is truly in danger of health risk, where does child endangerment come in and the “mandated reporter” become and issue. It’s truly a larger social issue than a letter sent home to parents.

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