LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–What do a super-sized “Happy Meal” and a Nintendo set have to do with the dissolution of the American family? More than you might suppose, argues a research scholar for one of the nation’s preeminent think tanks.
Stacking up medical survey after medical survey, the Hoover Institution’s Mary Eberstadt concludes scientifically what any trip to the local mall could prove anecdotally — American children are getting fatter all the time. In an article in Policy Review, Eberstadt provocatively asks whether the child-fat problem might be about more than just the advertising campaigns of the fast food industry.
“Maybe Americans are not wallowing zombie-like to the trough because Colonel Sanders tells them to,” Eberstadt writes.
Eberstadt argues that scientists and social theorists have identified adequately the “how” of childhood obesity — a steady diet of junk food combined with a sedentary lifestyle anchored to the television.
What is less often discussed, she notes, is the “why” of childhood obesity — which she argues just might be the disappearance of the nuclear family. While historically, “either parents or extended family or both have controlled most of what and when children could eat,” Eberstadt contends, now “our universe has become one in which adults, particularly related adults in the form of parents, are not around to do the policing in the first place.” In an era of both fatherless homes and two-career families, Eberstadt argues, American kids are now called on to make adult decisions about diet and activity.
Eberstadt asks: “Who is more likely to gain weight — the child who comes home to a mother telling him to wait for dinner, or the one in an after-school program or empty house with access for hours on end to snack trays and fast food and bulging cupboards and refrigerators?”
And, the research fellow concludes, the “fat” problem is not limited to children. She points to the wide array of overeating disorders experienced by adults — many of whom claim that food is being used to fill a “void,” a longing for something that just seems to be missing, even in hyper-affluent America.
Eberstadt further points to research showing that such disorders disproportionately affect women — those for whom the feminist revolution of family roles was intended to liberate. With such the case, Eberstadt does not reach a conclusion so much as she asks a jarring series of questions.
“So are American children fat and getting fatter because their mothers are?” she queries. “Or are both of them getting fatter in one another’s absences, and for the same reason: because the worlds of home and work are out of joint? Maybe, just maybe, that is partly what the consolation of calories is about.”
Is the child fat problem one more ripple from the implosion of the family in American society? Who can say? It is clear, however, that we are living in a society longing for the very thing the culture claims it doesn’t want — the consolation of home. Jesus spoke of children who ask their fathers for bread and they are not given stones (Matthew 7:8). Our culture has so isolated parents from children, however, that too many children never ask their fathers for bread at all — they simply retrieve another Twinkie from the cabinet.
It is here that the churches can model a better way — not by nostalgia for the 1950s but by proclaiming a biblical worldview of family, children and parental responsibility. The churches can reach out to single mother with real assistance — and with the blessing of a male presence in the lives of their children. Perhaps above all, our churches can demonstrate the biblical vision of husbands and wives who rejoice in one another (Proverbs 31:11) and in the matchless value of raising godly children (Ephesians 6:4). Our churches can dispel the sad myth that marriages and children are drudgeries to avoid by magnifying the joy that is to be found in them.
Will that make us thinner? I don’t know. But refocusing our priorities on what really matters — our churches and our families and our Christ — just might remind us that the kingdom of our God “is not food or drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17, NKJV).
Moore is assistant professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He also serves as executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement.