I sheepishly admit that I get much of my news from Facebook, which is where I saw that the Israeli Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, a man who I greatly respect, proudly announced a new program that will start teaching math from the age of 4 and obesity prevention from the age of 6 to children who live outside of Israel’s main areas. At first, I thought that I read the Hebrew wrong, because those two items were so incongruously juxtaposed next to each other in the headline. However, after a second glance, I realized that my Hebrew comprehension is just fine; I am not the one with the vision issue.
My first reaction, as someone who lives in the world of eating disorders as a parent advocate, is that we do not have adequate eating disorders services in Israel to treat patients currently. Start adding obesity “prevention” programs to the mix, at age 6 no less, and the entire system is going to be taxed beyond its current questionable capability, because the number of new pediatric eating disorder cases is going to skyrocket. Instead of preventing a health crisis, the Ministry of Education is most likely going to create one.
Prevention is one of those meaningless words, because there is very little in life that can actually be prevented; and even that which can be prevented generally requires very drastic measures to do so. I can pretty much promise you that a school obesity prevention program designed for 6-year-olds is not going to effectively prevent a damn thing. My heart goes out to the children who will have to sit in a classroom and listen to their bodies being denigrated for being too large. Even if it’s not said outright, kids can read between the lines. I can only imagine the potential damage that this can do to a child’s psyche.
Furthermore, I would really like to know what evidence base the Ministry of Education is using to develop an obesity prevention program targeted toward first graders. I haven’t seen any real evidence that these prevention programs actually prevent obesity. And when they are done with an emphasis on weight and body, they risk triggering body image issues, disordered eating, eating disorders, and other mental health issues. If you are looking at the risk/benefit analysis, from where I am sitting, the risk factors outweigh the dubious benefits, pun intended.
If health is so important to the Ministry of Education, why do our kids only have gym class once or twice per week, and why is it treated as such an inconsequential class? Why don’t all schools have proper sport facilities? Why don’t more schools have sport leagues? It’s easy to throw a word like “prevention” into a headline but way harder to actually tackle childhood obesity in a productive way that fosters sustainable well-being and teaches children that you can be healthy at every size. If you want to give kids a take away lesson, make it that one. Practice healthy behaviors no matter what you weigh.
No school-based childhood obesity “prevention” program is going to factor in contributing factors and biological influences on obesity like genetics, metabolism, hormones, and environment to name a few. This is a compelling enough reason for me to predict failure, even without knowing the particulars of what will be taught to our impressionable 6-year-old children in school.
If we are looking at this as a health issue, I think it’s imperative that we recognize that obesity is a lot more complex than “eat less, exercise more”. To treat it as something that simple, and to educate children to believe that this is true, will go nowhere toward addressing childhood obesity issues, and will only cause further harm.
Health should not and cannot be connected to weight when it comes to educating kids, and healthy behaviors regarding food and exercise should be taught independent of obesity considerations. Keep weight out of it. Keep restriction out of it. Keep the vilification of foods out of it. Focus only on the positive. I was going to say to keep the focus on health, but that has become a totally ambiguous concept these days. When I was a kid, there was one food pyramid. Now there are around 10 different food pyramids and many differing opinions on which one is the “real” one. The answer is that none of them are. There is no one pyramid that is right for every person. So don’t tell a classroom of 6-year-olds what to eat. That’s what their parents are there for.
No matter how many obesity “prevention” programs are put into place, there are still going to be biological influences and there are still going to be higher weight kids. If you make health all about weight, they will have little motivation to practice healthy behaviors; they will feel like there is no point, which is tragic, because higher weight people who take good care of themselves can be healthy.
By all means, teach math to 4-year-olds. There is absolutely no downside to that. But teaching obesity prevention to 6-year-olds, in my opinion, is a whole different story.