Mothering Styles Tied to Obesity Rates, Study Says

By Carla K. Johnson
Associated Press
Monday, June 5, 2006

CHICAGO, June 4 -- "Clean your plate or else!" and other authoritarian approaches to parenting can lead to overweight children, a new study finds.

Strict mothers were nearly five times more likely to raise tubby first-graders than mothers who treated their children with flexibility and respect while also setting clear rules.

Although the children of flexible, rule-setting moms mostly avoided obesity, the children of neglectful mothers and permissive mothers were twice as likely to get fat.

"The difference between the different parenting groups is pretty striking," said the study co-author, Kay Rhee of Boston University School of Medicine. The study of 872 families appears in the June issue of Pediatrics, released last Monday.

Rhee speculated that parents who show respect and warmth within a framework of rules may help their children learn to make good decisions about food and exercise. Or it could be that strict parents create a stressful household where overeating becomes a comfort and escape, she said.

Other studies have shown the flexible parenting style, also called authoritative, has other good results for children such as higher achievement in school and lower incidence of depression, said John Lavigne, chief psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Lavigne, who was not involved in the new study, said most parents can learn a different way of handling their children.

"Some parents might have difficulty changing their style. But a lot of other parents are very amenable to change, if they only have the right kind of advice," Lavigne said.

Not enough fathers participated in the study to measure their effects on children's weight, Rhee said. And because more than 80 percent of the study participants were white, the findings may not be applicable to other racial groups, she said.

To determine parenting style for the new study, researchers surveyed the mothers and observed them interacting with their 4-year-old children. The children's body mass indexes were measured when they were in first grade.

Seventeen percent of the children of strict disciplinarians were overweight compared with 9.9 percent of the children of neglectful parents, 9.8 percent of the children of permissive parents and 3.9 percent of the children of flexible rule-setters.

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