Theodore Dalrymple is the pseudonym of one of the most intriguing commentators writing today. He’s also a medical doctor. Perusing the New England Journal of Medicine, the doctor ponders why it is considered wrong to blame parents for the obesity of their childer–and he reaches a disturbing conclusion:
“What was very striking about the two articles in the [New England Journal of Medicine], however, was the complete absence of reference in either of them to the responsibilities of parents towards their own children, or to the cultural context in which parents have largely abandoned such responsibilities. The articles mentioned that television advertisements had made it difficult for parents to control their offspring’s diet, and that they somehow transferred the onus for making a choice about diet from the parents to the children. A majority of children now claimed that it was they, not their parents, who decided what they ate. …
“Of course, the question as to why so many parents have transferred authority from themselves to their children as young as three years old is a very interesting and important one, to which more than answer can be given, and at more than one level of analysis. This transfer of authority is a mass phenomenon, otherwise the epidemic would not have taken place. Parents no longer seem in control of how much television their children watch, what their children buy with their money or even what they eat at home.
“The problem might be, for example, that people have come to believe that the satisfaction of choice, no matter how ill-informed, whimsical or deleterious, however childish or child-like, is the whole meaning of existence, at all the ages of man, from the very moment of birth onwards. Clearly, this has a connection with the notion of consumer choice: it is the wrongful extension of a principle that, in the right context, is obviously an excellent one. The epidemic of childhood obesity is a precise illustration of Edmund Burke’s famous dictum that men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion as they are (or have been in the past) prepared to place a limit on their own appetites.
“We might ask what kind of society we have created in which so many parents do not control the diet of their own children, and what such a lack of control – surely not confined to diet – bodes for the future. Perhaps parents are just too busy nowadays to make the effort; or perhaps they subscribe to the sentimental (and lazy) idea that to give children what they want exactly when and how they want it is an expression of deep love.
“But whatever the reason, the fact that two articles about the problem of childhood obesity in the NEJM could fail even to mention individual parental responsibility is indicative of what one can only call a totalitarian mindset. According to this mindset, it is for the government to solve every problem, either by prescribing behaviour, or forbidding it, or of course both. It is not that I think that the proposal that the government should ban the advertising of noxious products to small children is wrong; what bothers me is the failure to recognise that there is any other dimension to the problem, a dimension that is in fact much more serious.
“No doubt the NEJM does not want to court unpopularity, or even notoriety, by suggesting that millions of American parents are, at least in this respect, failing their own children (I suspect that they are failing them in other respects too). It is always safer, from the point of view of gaining the esteem of the intelligentsia and of avoiding their censure, to blame those in authority or large corporations rather than ‘ordinary’ people, who are by definition blameless victims. But to absolve ordinary people of all blame for the obesity of their own children, by simply omitting to mention it altogether, is to deny them agency as full human beings. Far from being generous towards, or respectful of, ordinary people, it is extremely condescending towards them. Poor things, they are but putty in the hands of television companies and the food industry.”