A study from Cornell takes some extremely problematic conclusions from the finding that children with working mothers tend to have a slightly higher body mass index. The correlation was between total time working and the child’s BMI, so as the researchers were careful to stress, the “environmental factors associated with the total time that moms work” is the important element, not the fact that mothers are working, per se. But overall, the study blames women for this slight difference in BMI (which is itself an imprecise measure of health), rather than examining the many other factors are almost definitely involved.
“While we weren’t able to identify any specific environmental factors, it’s clear from other research that nutrition and sleep are important,” explained one of the researchers. “So, one possible policy implication is to do more to help working parents find quick and easy ways to prepare healthy foods.”
Because the effect was even greater among older children, the study authors speculated, “It is possible that because fifth and sixth graders generally have more independence and less adult supervision over their time use and food choices than third graders, maternal employment precipitates poorer food choices and more sedentary activity.”
So…why aren’t working parents the source of this problem, or even the solution? Why are mothers the focus? And aren’t there other factors contributing to the fact that children aren’t eating healthily enough beyond the fact that their mothers are irresponsibly refusing to feed them properly? One has to wonder about the assumptions that led these researchers to assume that the fact that mothers are working, while providing women with less time to prepare nutritious meals, makes it easier for families to put food on the table at all.
Alison E. Field, a Harvard researcher suggested, rightly, that we take these findings with a grain of salt. “For one thing, we don’t know why these mothers were going in and out of the workforce,” she said. “Some women choose to go back to work and others have to because they need the income. The reason the mothers are working can have a very different impact on how their families are eating, and that kind of gets glossed over in this study.”
One of the researchers admitted that the study didn’t investigate what role the fathers’ work placed in the children’s health, which is rather stunning. She blamed old data for the discrepancy, saying that employment patterns have changed significantly since then, but speculated that working mothers probably still bear the lion’s share of responsibility for kids’ diet.
But even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean that fathers stepping up couldn’t alleviate many of the problems that this study identifies – if they’re even problems. After all, these are very small weight differences, and as Field pointed out, they could be related to other large developmental changes occurring around puberty.
Clearly, this study reveals more about the researchers’ biases than it does about what women or families should be doing to raise healthy children.
Photo from Flickr.