I just read about an interesting new study on Medical News Online. The study was performed at Kansas State University and evaluated what children think about other kids with “undesirable characteristics, such as being overweight or aggressive.” The researches also looked at how children treat kids with these attributes.
Obviously, as a child obesity doctor, I was very interested to hear what they had to say. Past studies have shown that children are prejudiced against overweight kids. In fact, prior studies have determined that kids would rather be friends with children with physical handicaps (such as using a wheelchair or missing a limb) than with an overweight child.
But now, one out of every three kids in our country is overweight or obese. Unfortunately, there is no longer anything unusual about an overweight child. Does this change how overweight children are perceived by their peers?
No. It seems that it doesn’t matter that so many kids are now overweight. Overweight children are still discriminated against by their peers.
A major finding of this study was that children discriminate against kids with undesirable characteristics that they believe their peers have the ability to control. For example, they disliked kids with aggressive behavior and overweight children because they felt that these children are responsible for the characteristic and should be able to change it. They did not, however, look down on children with severe illnesses, such as chronic asthma. They felt that the asthmatic child could not help being asthmatic and they didn’t hold it against him.
Not only did the kids say they disliked the aggressive and obese students, they also said that they were more likely to pick on them. Boys tended to respond more negatively to kids with undesirable characteristics than girls. The study was done on third-graders and sixth-graders. Each child filled out a questionnaire with descriptions of hypothetical peers such as a poor student, a nonathletic student, an obese student, an aggressive student, a shy student, an asthmatic student, and a student with ADHD. The aggressive student was the most unappealing, followed closely by the obese student. The kids were most sympathetic towards the asthmatic student.