My son’s mother and I are divorced and we share custody. “Justin” is eight years old and of average height, but he weights almost 120 pounds. The boy is morbidly obese, and I am deeply concerned about his health. With regard to his upbringing, this is the one issue over which his mother and I disagree; unfortunately, that disagreement spills over into several areas.
When Justin is at my house, I make sure he eats healthy foods; plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat foods. Justin is not happy with this arrangement, but he has learned the hard way that if he does not eat the food he is given less nutritional alternatives will not be offered. When Justin is with his Mom, the opposite is true. She has given in to Justin’s desires for poor dietary choices like macaroni and cheese, Raman noodles, hot dogs, and sugary foods.
We have only been divorced for two years, and Justin’s weight has more than doubled during that time. His pediatrician has ruled out any glandular problems, and agrees with me that Justin’s weight problem is related to diet; my ex-wife insists that it is “just baby-fat” and that he will lose it as he ages. I am afraid that my son will not be aging well and will die young if his diet is not overhauled now. He gets absolutely no exercise at his Mom’s house, since she allows him to sit around and play video games whenever he is with her. I try to make Justin exercise, but the effort it takes him just to ride his bike up and down the street is heartbreaking, and he is soon sweating, out of breath, and begging for a Gatorade.
My ex-wife could easily afford to buy healthy food for Justin – I have offered to purchase it for her myself, but she refused, telling me that money is not the problem; the problem is that at the end of the day she lacks the energy to argue with Justin over what he will and will not eat. She thinks it abusive to allow him to refuse a meal until he realizes that healthy food in a reasonable portion size is all he is going to get. (Portion size is something else his mother refuses to control; last Halloween she allowed him to eat an entire pound of chocolate in one night to make up for the fact that he did not have the energy to go trick or treating.).
I am considering suing for full custody of my son, a commitment I am willing to undertake to save his physical health, but I do not wish to take him away from his mother. I just want his mother to be a more responsible caregiver. Can you think of any other way to motivate her, short of taking our son away from her?
Fit And Frustrated
Dear Fit And Frustrated:
Your letter leaves me feeling a deep concern for your son. It is obvious from his choice of food that he is being malnourished while at the same time being fed to death! From the sound of his diet he is not receiving the nutrients he needs to fortify his growing body, and at the same time is receiving too much of nutrients meant to be taken in sparingly. A single serving of Raman noodles in sauce has over 1,200 mg of sodium; if Justin is eating the entire block of noodles, that is two servings – and more than a full day’s worth of sodium and carbohydrates, with little to no other vitamins or protein.
From what you say, your son will eat nutritious food in proper portions, he just prefers junk food. Since your ex-wife is worn-out at the end of the day and caves to Justin’s preferences, a plan that works for her will be the plan that is most successful. Her comment that Justin’s extra pounds are “just baby fat” is obviously a denial of the reality that is before her eyes. Rather than sue for full custody – a serious and dramatic step – try other options first.
Together – as a family – the three of you should see a Nutritionalist. Showing Justin a united front on this issue may be what he needs to realize the severity of his problem, and will also show that he can no longer pit one parent against the other. A Nutritionalist will teach you – as parents – proper meal planning and foods appropriate for a growing boy who needs to lose weight. S/he will teach Justin the definition of portion size and tasty substitutes for his favorite foods. For example, turkey hot dogs are fat free and make a delicious substitute for beef or pork frankfurters; fresh fruit can be sweeter than candy.
Justin also needs to start exercising. Nobody likes to exercise alone, so as his parents you need to make it a point to exercise with him. Since Justin likes video games, the Wii Fit or other game system that requires physical movement to play would be an excellent investment made on his behalf. Justin did not double his weight overnight, and it will take a while for him to lose it.
Making diet and exercise a punishment will only discourage him from following such a regimen, so I do not suggest that you withhold food from him. Rather, try to find compromise. Both you and Justin’s mother should try meal planning, and include Justin in the process; if he feels involved in deciding what’s for dinner every night there will be no battles to fight with him at the end of the day. In the end, you need to make Justin’s journey a journey towards better health and more energy, not about making him feel badly about himself.
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