The old saw about grandparents spoiling kids may not be so far off the mark according to a new study — and that may apply to both meanings of the term “spoil” — to overindulge and to ruin. Kids brought up by grandparents appear to be overfed, and as a result, their health is at risk.
The study, out of University College in London, followed 12,354 three-year-olds. Those being brought up by grandparents were, by and large, fatter than kids brought up by parents alone. According to the BBC, “Analysis of the kids suggested the risk [of being overweight] was 34% higher if grandparents cared for them full time. The results showed that those looked after by grandparents part-time had a 15% higher risk of being overweight for their age compared with those solely looked after by their parents.” The effect seems peculiar to grandparents, too, because the study showed no weight gain risk when the kids attended daycare full-time or when they stayed with babysitters instead of parents, unless the babysitters were engaged full-time.
The theorists are having a field day with this one, convinced that they know why kids get fat around their grandparents. According to Dr. Manny Alverez, the manager of Fox News Health, for instance, the problem comes down to a generational gap. “Grandparents perhaps are not well-versed in nutritional values, especially with trends in fast-foods and things like that,” he says. By his logic, grandparents don’t know that a meal with fries at McDonald’s lacks nutritional value, or that a Love-It size sundae at Coldstone Creamery once a day might add a tad of weight to a toddler’s cheeks.
But Dr. Alverez and Fox News didn’t do their homework. A recent Pew Survey found that the older you are, the less likely you are to eat fast foods at all. Fifty-nine percent of those in the 18-29 year old age group, the group most young parents would fit into, eat fast food at least once a week. Compare that to only 32 percent of people in the typical grandparent-age bracket, 50-64. When the firm Maritz Marketing Research of Fenton, Missouri, did research on the demographics of fast food consumers, they found that elderly consumers were more concerned about the health and fat content of food offerings than their younger counterparts. So the claim that grandparents are just ignorant and befuddled about nutrition doesn’t wash.
Dr. Alverez also says that grandparents may spend more time sitting around, not being as active as younger folks. Here again, the statisticians at Pew poke holes in his theory. According to the data, the most active age group of all, exercise-wise, is adults over age 65. And anyway, to blame toddler obesity on lack of exercise seems a bit overblown given the age of these kids — zero to three. Unless the grandparents strap the kids to posts, toddlers are going to explore and, well, toddle around. Even if they see their grandparents who care for them collapsed in easy chairs, kids under age three are still going to move — they aren’t going to copy grandpa and tuck in for a cigar in the next overstuffed chair.
And actually, the differences among age groups in terms of exercise are miniscule. Fifty-six percent of adults aged 30-45 claim they exercise, fifty-nine percent of those under age 29, and sixty percent of the seniors surveyed. The factor most closely related to likelihood of exercising, according to the data, is income, not age, with seventy-four percent of those making over $100,000 a year on an exercise program, compared to only forty-six percent of those making under $30,000.
But apparently, making plenty of money doesn’t extend downward when it comes to maintaining fitness, because the kids who were fat in this study tended to come from affluent homes — homes in which the parents had degrees and professional jobs that led them to leave the kids in the care of grandparents while they worked.
What then, could be causing the weight gain in kids who stay with grandparents? First, let’s be very clear here that the problem of overweight kids extends far beyond the grandparent factor. Only about 16 percent of the kids in the study received care by grandparents, and of those, only a small percentage had grandparent care full-time. In the UK, at least 25 percent of all kids under age three are now overweight or obese so clearly, not all the toddlers who tip the scales got chubby eating grandma’s cupcakes.
It seems that the indulgence factor is a more likely explanation. Grandparents know about the health impact of food just as well or better than parents do, and they know the value of exercise, but despite what they know, they’re probably inclined to cut the cute kids a break. They just don’t want to set limits, just as they may not set limits with themselves.
But then again, perhaps the problem isn’t with the grandparents at all, but with the demographic. Remember, it’s children from affluent homes that tend to get fat under grandparental care. Therefore, it seems worth asking if the kids get exemplary nutrition when they go home to mom & pop after staying with the grandparents? Probably not. Consider that the kids may wait until mom and dad come home before eating dinner, even if they stay with their grandparents during working hours. Could it be that working parents simply don’t have time to cook and so they take the kids out a lot, especially the more affluent ones, or that they give the kids more prepared meals? Since affluent kids of working parents had the highest levels of obesity in this study, this certainly seems a possibility.
In any event, the advice offered by Dr Catherine Law, the study director, is worth heeding. “Some of the things that might help would be educating the population in general about healthy lifestyles but also things like avoiding food as a reward and suggestions for building activities into daily life.” And note my emphasis on the words, “population in general.”
Or to paraphrase Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our grandparents, but in ourselves, that our children are porkers.”