Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

'Fat letters' from schools to parents are wrong

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Parents in 19 states are receiving letters from schools about their children's weight
  • Ruben Navarrette: Schools can't afford various classes, but they found funds for dieticians?
  • He says parents get stress about kids' grades, and now they have to deal with weight
  • Navarrette: Schools should focus on academics, not whether students are fat

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- The parents of elementary school students in 19 states -- including Arkansas, Illinois, California and Massachusetts -- are receiving letters regarding something that really isn't a school's business: their children's weight.

School dieticians measure students' height and weight and then factor in age, and presto! They are able to compute students' Body Mass Index.

Schools can't afford foreign language courses, sports programs or music classes. But they found funds for dieticians?

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Besides, the hocus-pocus they're practicing is not an exact science. There is a big argument going on among doctors and scientists as to what a BMI really means. For one thing, in measuring body mass, it doesn't distinguish fat from muscle.

Nevertheless, if a child is found to have an unhealthy BMI, his parents get a letter from the school informing them that their child could be obese.

And what do students call these notes? "Fat letters."

Oh, that's lovely. It makes you wonder what kind of people are teaching your kids. Many educators today might have a handle on math, science and reading. But they're flunking compassion, empathy, tact and sensitivity. Kids already have to put up with bullying from other kids at school. Now they also have to ward off insults from the adults who work in those schools?

And this isn't just happening in elementary schools. That's bad enough. These letters recently showed up in Southern California at a preschool. That means the students being weighed and measured were between 2 and 5 years old.

Imagine someone labeling a 2-year-old child "obese." These people are daffy. These "fat letters" belong in the trash can.

In Massachusetts, state lawmakers are considering a bill that bans schools from collecting students' BMI information.

The grade-school busybodies have the nerve to claim they're doing the labeling for the good of students and parents. The educators say they're bringing parents' attention to a potentially harmful situation.

That's spin. Why not just be honest and admit that this isn't about helping people; it's about what "nanny schooling" is always about: power and control.

The breach between teachers and parents is real, and it is as wide as ever. Whenever they're criticized for poor student performance, the first thing many teachers do is blame parents for not making sure that kids do their homework or not making education a priority at home. These public school weigh-ins, and the letters that get sent home, just give morally superior teachers more ammunition to fire at parents.

It used to be "you're a bad parent because you don't read to your child." Now it's "you're a bad parent because you let your kid get fat."

Don't they think that parents know whether their children are overweight and that the children know it, too? Do we really want to encourage a trend we already see: children going on diets? According to a study by Duke University, more than 40% of 9- and 10-year-old girls have gone on a diet.

To think, many of the public school educators -- and the dieticians in league with them -- actually consider themselves to be more enlightened than the rest of us. That's why, ironically, many of them have spent so much time over the years insisting that we must not label children over their academic performance.

They had a point. Schools have been slapping labels on students since before the invention of chalkboards.

In the 1960s, if you had looked through the school records of Mexican-American kids attending poor districts in Texas, Arizona or California, you would have probably found the letters "MR" next to many of their names -- for mentally retarded.

Later, as the self-esteem movement was catching on, students who might have once been labeled "lazy" simply became "unmotivated." Immigrant students who were once considered "limited English proficient" became "English learners."

My wife is a former teacher and a language therapist. She works with students who have dyslexia. The first thing she struggles with in evaluating a student, and preparing a course of study, is convincing parents not to be afraid of the "d-word."

The kinds of students she helps were once said to have a "learning disability." We don't say that anymore. Today, acknowledging that human beings process information in a variety of ways, we say that these kids have a "learning difference."

There you go. Academically, the enlightened view nowadays is that all students are different, that their brains are all wired in unique ways, and that's wrong to try to assess them with a one-size-fits-all yardstick and set rigid standards to determine who is intelligent and who isn't. The new consensus is that children's brains come in all shapes and sizes.

So why not be really enlightened and learn to think the same way about children's bodies?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT