The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Fat Chance of Children with Mothers Employed Full Time

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Public-health officials are in a near panic over the dramatic rise in childhood obesity. However, a study by researchers at Bowling Green State University seems to indicate that it is past time for these officials to start worrying about the rise in full-time maternal employment and the fall in marital fertility as prime causes of the epidemic in childhood obesity.

To be sure, obesity rates among children have jumped off the charts since 1980. The Bowling Green scholars begin their study highlighting the fact that “the prevalence of overweight and at-risk for overweight children [has] quadrupled” since 1985. This spike in childhood obesity particularly troubles the researchers because they recognize that “those who experience early onset weight gain are more likely to be heavier later in adulthood than children with later onset.” Since obese adults are particularly vulnerable to Type-2 diabetes and to heart trouble, health officials have good reason to worry about the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity.

To determine the social circumstances which foster childhood obesity, the researchers analyzed data collected from a national representative sample of children whose Body Mass Index was first measured in kindergarten and then re-measured in first, third, fifth, and eighth grades. Some of the findings coming out of the researchers’ analysis of these data are uncontroversial—even unremarkable. That children who watch a great deal of television tend to be overweight will surprise no one. Nor will it astound anyone that children who are particularly heavy at birth tend to be overweight in later childhood. Likewise rather predictable is the finding that children with less educated parents tend to be heavier. Even the finding that children growing up in the Northeast are heavier than children in other regions of the country is unsurprising given the heavily urban character of that part of the country.

But two findings are sure to provoke controversy because they highlight the ways that recent changes in American family life have fattened up a generation of children. One of the provocative findings of the new study is that “having a full time working mother” emerged as a statistical predictor that a child (male or female) would be classified as “always overweight.” The other provocative finding was that “having more children in the household reduces the risk of sustained overweight.” These two findings are clearly interrelated, given that maternal employment drives down completed fertility and thus figures as a prime reason for the sharp drop in marital fertility in recent decades.

Understandably, the researchers conclude by suggesting that public-health officials should give “more concerted attention” to the “serious condition of sustained overweight, characterized by practicing sedentary behaviors such as television viewing, possessing an above average birth weight and having a mother who works full time.” Given the way that academics and media pundits have made maternal employment and the retreat from childbearing immune from even the slightest criticism, these officials may face a stiff challenge in addressing the root causes of childhood obesity.

(K. S. Balistreri and J. Van Hook, “Trajectories of Overweight among U.S. School Children: A Focus on Social and Economic Characteristics,” Maternal and Child Health Journal 15.5 [July 2011]: 610–19).