Childhood obesity is a ‘wicked problem’ but we shouldn’t blame parents


Sarah Berry

It takes a village, so the adage goes, to raise a child and it may also take a village to raise a healthy child and tackle obesity.

A new study by researchers from Harvard demonstrated that community-based programs can deliver modest improvements, even in a relatively short time. 

The school, after-school and health centre-based programs encouraged healthy eating, drinking fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, increasing physical activity and sleep, and decreasing time spent in front of technology. 

Researchers then compared the children from two communities doing the program with children from communities that didn’t and found a 2 to 3 per cent decrease in obesity in the intervention group as well as a reduction in soft drink consumption and, in one of the groups, less computer time.

One in four Australian children are overweight or obese. Blaming parents for the problem is shortsighted, said Professor Louise Baur, a paediatrician and an internationally renowned childhood obesity researcher from the University of Sydney. 

“The factors influencing obesity are largely beyond the responsibility of a family,” Baur said. “Of course parents have an important role in influencing a child’s food and physical activity environment. But, it’s not as though all these families have suddenly gone and done something really bad – many things have changed and most of them are beyond the control of an individual, or even a family, to modify.” 

Quiet streets, where children used to play and “just hang outside for hours”, are often a thing of the past, Baur says, as is walking or bike-riding to school. 

“I look at the school I went to – kids used to ride their bike or walk to school, now they’re not allowed because they’re worried about being run over,” she says. “Parents drive their kids to that same school. There used to be bushland where we’d play and now there’s a big motorway through that.”

She adds that “sophisticated marketing of food and beverages” is often targeted towards children.

“There’s a reason for it – it actually sells products,” Baur says, noting that food marketers and the food industry are “powerful” which is why such marketing has not yet been banned. 

“Now there’s a third person in the lounge room. There’s a different type of food being made available – fast-service restaurants have really sprung up. The amount and type of junk food has dramatically increased over the last two to three decades. Fifty years ago parents didn’t have to contend with that and now they do, so that’s hard. There are new pressures on families.” 

Socially disadvantaged families are particularly susceptible to these pressures and need support to resist them and create sustainable change.

“There is very strong social patterning of obesity, so if you live on the north shore or the eastern suburbs the prevalence of obesity is much less than it is in western or south-western Sydney,” Baur explains. “Every person and every parent has responsibilities in this area but the way we need to think of it is we, as a community, need to support parents in the important process of raising children and I think we’ve made it very difficult for people to make healthy choices.

“It’s very easy to blame parents, but they live in the same environment that their kids do – it’s difficult.

“Every complex or wicked problem needs a community response, not just an individual response. So whether we’re talking about poverty or education or abuse – we need a community response. Obesity is a wicked problem and we need a community response.”

A village approach to tackling obesity

There are various “onion skin layers” that need to be addressed to tackle the obesity epidemic; as well as the government, these include the food industry and its marketing of junk foods to children. 

“The minister for health has relatively only limited influence on the factors influencing obesity – the minister for transport or the minister for agriculture or the treasury will have bigger influence,” Baur says.

But, what happens on the level of the community can also make a huge difference to a huge problem.

“This sort of work is very welcome. It’s also keeping in line with some good Australian work,” says Baur of the Harvard study.

Baur notes the “world-first” whole system intervention program Healthy Together Victoria and a project in the Hunter region where experts are working with schools, sports clubs and hospitals to tackle childhood obesity at a community level.

People in the community are doing their bit too.

Champion surfer Sally Fitzgibbons has created the 500,000km Challenge where people can connect their fitness tracking app to the challenge page on Running Heroes and “donate” the kilometres they run or walk.

Once the community hits 500,000 kilometres it will “unlock” a $100,000 cash donation from partners of the Sally Fitzgibbons Foundation to buy skipping ropes and deliver educational material to children across Australia. 

“When you band together it becomes more powerful,” says Fitzgibbons, who adds that more than 2000 people have already signed up for the challenge and have “smashed” past 360,000 kilometres combined.

“We’re actually powering through and can see the target – 500,000k – being smashed and we want to head towards 1 million [kilometres] if we can and that’s going to attract more support.”

The 26-year-old former competitive athlete, who is now a “hobbyist” runner, says she wanted to create something where people could create change without having to “dip into the pocket”. 

“I’ve always seen running as one of the most accessible things you can do, so I geared it a little differently so you can donate kilometres and that unlocks the donation from our partners … they’ll do the big donation for everyone, ” she says. 



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