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Nanny State no substitute for parental responsibility

By Jeremy Sammut - posted Tuesday, 28 October 2008

According to Professor Fiona Stanley’s “Risking our Kids”, which aired on the ABC recently, the next generation of Australians is at risk of having a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to the so-called “modernity paradox”. Apparently, the “toxic physical and social environment” created by “Western lifestyles” means that while Australia is “awash with cash”, many children are growing up fatter and sicker in “increasingly wealthy but unhealthy homes”.

The documentary blamed this on an array of supposed root causes. Economists, globalisation, and social injustice were all said to be responsible for the so-called “social determinants” of ill health.

The cargo-cult suggestion that “affluenza” is responsible for worsening health outcomes in Australia is not supported by evidence. The idea that prosperous and information-rich societies like Australia are at risk of an entire generation of people dying younger due to the effects of lifestyle-related disease is debunked by an honest look at the panic surrounding the misnamed childhood obesity “epidemic”.


A report released last week by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found there has been no growth in childhood obesity over the last decade. This confirmed research released this year by Associate Professor Jenny O’Dea of the University of Sydney, which found that rather than childhood obesity being a problem in the general population, the only significant increase is occurring among children in low-income homes - it’s poor kids, not rich kids, who suffer.

Because it blames the alleged epidemic on “economic rationalism”, the Stanley doco is sure to become grist for the mill of the public health lobby, which argues that contemporary society is so full of complex risks that only greater government regulation can shield individuals from the dangers of modern capitalism. Hence, health groups routinely call for “junk food” advertising to be banned during children’s TV viewing hours.

The notion is that Australian families need to be insulated from “multinational” marketing, and that parents, who are apparently incapable of saying “No”, need the government’s help to protect them from the “pester power” of children who demand fatty and sugary foods.

Never was the term “Nanny State” more appropriate, given that its parents who are treated like children. Not only don’t these strategies work, they are also counter-productive and overlook the real causes of child obesity.

Pockets of rising childhood obesity in Australia exist in communities which are awash with welfare. One in five people of working-age now depend upon government benefits. Welfare dependence, and the lack of personal responsibility this encourages in all aspects of the recipient’s lives, is inextricably linked with poorer lifestyle-related health outcomes in western countries throughout the world.

Obesity in children is also linked to the lifestyles of their parents, with the evidence strongly indicating that unhealthy parents pass their bad dietary and exercise habits on to their children.


The real problem, in other words, is permissive or bad parenting. Ineffective ad bans haven’t lowered child obesity in Sweden and Quebec because it is parents not governments who are ultimately responsible for what their children eat.

This obvious truth exposes the absurdity of the Nanny Staters position. Because children, by definition, are not responsible for their actions, the fundamental duty of parents is to parent effectively and safeguard children from risky behaviours that can damage their health and prospects.

Civil society once self-regulated parental responsibility by being prepared to judge why some kids were better cared for than others. Huge informal social pressures held parents to account and frowned on bad parenting. Clean, well-dressed, and properly-fed children were a symbol of their parent’s respectability.

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About the Author

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. Jeremy has a PhD in history. His current research for the CIS focuses on ageing, new technology, and the sustainability of Medicare. Future research for the health programme will examine the role of preventative care in the health system and the management of public hospitals. His paper, A Streak of Hypocrisy: Reactions to the Global Financial Crisis and Generational Debt (PDF 494KB), was released by the CIS in December 2008. He is author of the report Fatally Flawed: the child protection crisis in Australia (PDF 341KB) published by the CIS in June 2009.

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