Receiving Unwelcome News
We all respond to bad news in different ways. For some people the easiest thing to do is bury their heads in the sand and pretend nothing is happening, while for others the ‘fight’ side of ‘fight or flight’ kicks in and they get angry. Both are perfectly natural reactions. Personally, I have always been one of those people who likes to tackle bad news head on and deal with it as calmly and matter-of-factly as I can.
I’ve written in the past about just what a blow it was to receive a letter from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) to tell me my son was overweight. It hurt, yes, but it wasn’t a shock since I had already noticed Harrison was struggling with his weight and we’d begun to take steps to address the issue. All sorts of things can go through your mind when you open that envelope – pain at the thought you’re being branded a ‘bad parent’, worry that perhaps there’s some truth in that criticism, anger and indignation that someone else should feel it’s their place to tell you how to parent, fear for your child.
In recent months I’ve noticed more and more stories cropping up in print and online about parents’ reactions to receiving NCMP letters. Most are furious at the wording of them, fearing that labelling children as overweight or obese could have lasting consequences for their emotional health.
The NCMP: Some Shocking Findings
The NCMP was set up in 2005/2006, and works by measuring the height and weight of children entering reception at age four and leaving junior school in Year 6, aged ten or eleven. For each child, a Body Mass Index (BMI) reading is then calculated and used to classify children as being underweight, of a healthy weight, overweight or obese.
The NCMP’s most recent report on childhood obesity reached some terrifying conclusions. In 2015/2016, over a fifth of reception children were classed as overweight or obese, rising to over a third for those in Year 6. Obesity as a whole was up from 2014/2015’s figures in both age groups, rising by 0.2% in reception and 0.7% in Year 6.
In reception it was little boys who were more likely to be overweight or obese, but by the final year of junior school the tables had turned and it was girls who were more likely to be carrying excess weight. The NCMP also found that other factors such as poverty and where they live can have a big impact on whether a child becomes overweight, with more than a quarter of those living in the most deprived areas being classed as obese.
Opening That Envelope
These figures are truly shocking, and for every child classed as obese that’s a letter in the post. So how should we react when we open that dreaded envelope? I for one had to stumble through the initial blow, pick myself up and start taking proactive steps to tackle Harrison’s weight problem.
In May of this year, Leicestershire mum Charlotte Moncur went to the newspapers after her son, Connor, was classed as ‘overweight’. She described the NCMP letter as a ‘kick in the teeth’ and ‘demoralising’, as her son is tall for his age, enjoys being active and likes helping her cook healthy home meals from scratch. Critical of what she described as an ‘outdated’ way of measuring the health of children, she has decided to lend her support to the Royal Society of Public Health’s call to scrap the scheme.
Another mum who backed protests against the NCMP was Mandy McGowan, whose five-year-old daughter Izzie-Rae was ‘fat-shamed’ by the letter in 2015, despite appearing to be a perfectly healthy size and shape for her age. Mandy McGowan described feeling like she wanted to cry on reading the letter, but also felt annoyed that there was no guidance in the letter on how to help children lose weight.
More troubling still, last year there were reports about an eleven-year-old girl who refused to eat for two days after her mother received an NCMP letter. Olivia Lyndsey was one of the tallest girls in her class and her mum is a dietician and fitness instructor, but Olivia became ‘distraught’ at the wording of the letter and began to refuse all food. Her mum said that schools needed to do more than ‘bring a measuring tape and scales into school to stress children about it’.
What More Could be Done?
While the NCMP is clearly a well-intentioned scheme, there’s no doubt that it has some major flaws. For starters, the fact that we only measure children twice during their time at primary and junior school means problems can go unnoticed until it’s too late – if you’re weighed at four and again at eleven, that’s a lot of time in between for weight problems to develop without anyone really noticing. Surely it would be better – if we are going to use weight and BMI as an indicator of health – to take these measurements every year or at least every other year?
That said, I remain to be convinced that calculating a child’s BMI is the best way to identify if they have a weight problem. Some of the children identified as ‘obese’ tipped the scales because they were keen on sports and had more developed muscle, while others appear to be a perfectly healthy size and shape or were perhaps just very briefly laying on a little extra because they’re bodies were preparing for a growth spurt.
Finally, the way these NCMP letters are worded can come across as tactless. It’s particularly hard for parents to hear their children are overweight when, as Mandy McGowan pointed out, there’s no guidance or support offered – too many parents feel helpless and abandoned, and it’s understandable why so many decide to either get angry with the system or ignore the problem altogether.
This is one problem we cannot ignore. If the NCMP is to continue we need to look again at how it operates and make sure parents are helped to get on board with their own child’s weight loss journey. Healthy living has to be about working together. At the moment it feels as though parents and the system are singing off very different hymn sheets…