So, by now, if you're a blog/web surfer, you've come across the criticism of a high society mom who put her clinically obese 7-year-old on a Weight Watchers-style diet. The mom then detailed in a Vogue feature article her months' long struggle, which ended with her daughter, Bea, losing 16 pounds.

Jezebel dubbed it the Worst Vogue Article Ever (I have no basis for comparison, as I'm pretty sure it was my first Vogue article) and quoted the founder of the Weight Watchers diet that the mother used. The doctor said that the mom's intentions might have been good, but she got the spirit of the program wrong by publicly embarrassing and confronting her child about diet issues, instead of empowering her daughter to make smart choices. Here's a sampling of the mother's writing:

I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French Heritage Day at school involved nearly 800 calories of Brie, filet mignon, baguette, and chocolate. I stopped letting her enjoy Pizza Fridays when she admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week. I dressed down a Starbucks barista when he professed ignorance of the nutrition content of the kids' hot chocolate whose calories are listed as "120-210" on the menu board: Well, which is it? When he couldn't provide an answer, I dramatically grabbed the drink out of my daughter's hands, poured it into the garbage, and stormed out.

I cringe when I recall the many times I had it out with Bea over a snack given to her by a friend's parent or caregiver … rather than direct my irritation at the grown-up, I often derided Bea for not refusing the inappropriate snack. And there have been many awkward moments at parties, when Bea has wanted to eat, say, both cookies and cake, and I've engaged in a heated public discussion about why she can't.

The whole "controversy" strikes me as self-serving. The mom wrote in a provocative manner, and it turns out she is being rewarded for all of the attention and negative publicity with a book deal. The bloggers and advocates out there were only too happy to react with criticism and to get their names and opinions out in public. And, suddenly, you have all these headlines focused again on our American fascination with weight -- and less on the more important issue of health.

 

The mom seems oddly aware that she made mistakes in publicly shaming her daughter -- potentially raising her daughter's anxieties while lowering her daughter's weight. I'm betting most parents -- if they suspend their disdain -- can recall similar instances when they erred in how they managed their kids' eating or other behaviors in public. Eavesdrop in any restaurant for long and you'll hear someone admonishing kids for what they're eating or not eating.

But I'm no expert. And I didn't want to rely on the half dozen experts who made themselves available to me this week via their publicists to discuss the Vogue article. So I called Simone French, a researcher at the University of Minnesota on what influences child eating habits, and asked for her reaction to the article and the criticisms of it.

First, she said that weight loss to that extreme is inappropriate for a seven year old. In many programs for overweight children, the goal often is to simply "stabilize" their weight levels as they grow. Second, she said the focus seemed to be on the girl's behavior, and less on the family's changes to improve the health of her eating.

"It's the whole family," French said. "It;s not like 'our fat child has to eat fruits and vegetables and the rest of us are going to order pizza.'"

French's team at the U is currently recruiting 500 low-income families in the Twin Cities, and will be studying whether home visits and parenting classes improve how parents regulate their kids' diets and physical activity levels.

Communication before parents and children leave home usually helps to set expectations and prevent the kind of embarrassing confrontations that this mother and daughter had in public, French said. That's true whether the issues are about food or toys or other potential sources of conflict.

Healthy eating programs for overweight children often focus more on giving choices to children -- with all of the choices being healthy -- than saying "no" to something children want and then telling them they must have something else, she added. "It's all about setting limits and using positive reinforcement and giving your child choices."

 

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