The child's concept of obesity

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The objective of this study was to investigate children's thoughts about human fatness, and then to see how those thoughts about obesity reflect the child's cognitive growth. Piaget's developmental framework was used to demonstrate that the changes which occur in the children's thinking about obesity follow the same developmental lines as their thinking about other problems. The concepts of identity and causality were used in the study to examine children's thinking about both physical and social objects.

Four tasks were administered to three groups of children representative of Piaget's stages of cognitive thought: preoperational (4- 5-years-of-age), concrete operational (8- 9-years-of-age), and formal operational (12- 13-years-of-age). A clay and water task was used to measure conservation of objects, and Laurendeau and Pinard's Origin of Night questionnaire was used to measure physical causality. Thinking about identity as related to social objects was examined by a picture task and a clinical interview was used to measure causality as it relates to obesity of social objects, i.e., people.

An age-related sequence of increasing complexity occurred in the development of the concept of obesity. Parallel development of social causality with the other measured tasks was indicated by significant correlations. Chi-square analyses indicated that children tend to think on the same absolute level (preoperational or operational) on the measured tasks.

Analysis of data through use of Chi-square 2 x 2 tables and t-tests indicated that children progress in a different sequence of understanding according to their age. Younger children understand social causality before they understand physical causality or social identity. Physical conservation is the least understood of the tasks for the 4-5 year olds. Once children are able to think on a concrete level of reasoning, they understand physical causality at a higher level than they do social identity, physical conservation, and social causality. The understanding of obesity is at the lowest level of all tasks for 12-13 year olds.

These findings expand Piagetian literature to include a specific example of the application of the concepts of identity and causality to the development of a concept (obesity) dealing with people. It was shown that the understanding of obesity in humans is the last of the measured tasks; i.e., physical conservation, physical causality, social identity, and social causality to be understood on a formal level. The information from this investigation can be used to plan programs for children to help them obtain the information about obesity at a level they can understand and internalize. The findings can also be used as a guide for longitudinal studies on the same topic.