How Not to Be a Jerk to Kids with Allergies

I am not allergic to anything.  I don’t break out into hives when I eat nuts.  I won’t get a stomach ache after a berry binge.  I can go to Coldstone and worry only about the calories and fat content of my sorbet, not the potential life-threatening reactions I may have to the almonds, the dairy or the bits of Reese’s peanut butter cups.  I’m a lucky girl.  I’m also extremely lucky that my husband, my kids and my family members are allergy-free as well.  We can eat whatever we want, wherever we want, and we don’t even have to bring an EpiPen along.

Not every family is so lucky.

Last fall, Huck Finn started attending a preschool that is completely nut-free.  When parents heard about the nut-free rule, most were understanding and agreeable about it.  Some, however, were not.

“I just don’t understand why my kid should have to cater to other kids,” I remember one parent remarking.  “Joey loves his peanut butter sandwiches.  It’s not fair that he shouldn’t get to eat what he loves.”

Other parents piped in.  “I know!  Allergies these days are out of control!  Things were never like this when I was growing up.  I just don’t understand it.  What a pain in the neck.”

Those parents had a right to complain about the school’s food policy, I suppose.  I just wish they didn’t feel the need to.  Their comments were irrelevant to the situation, and worse, they were insensitive and rude.  Those parents were being jerks.

You don’t have to have food allergies yourself to have empathy for those that do.  You don’t have to make families feel guilty about their children’s health concerns.  You don’t have to be a jerk.

Here are some ways not to be a jerk to families with allergies:

  1. Don’t lament the good old days.  It’s not fair, or even accurate, to say, “I ate bologna sandwiches and drank from a water hose and turned out fine!”  or “There were never so many allergies when I grew up!”  I have no doubt that you ate bologna sandwiches and turned out fine.  I did, too!  Bologna sandwiches on Wonder bread were a staple in my house growing up.  We also duct-taped our moon boots shut on frigid days.  So what?  When you compare your childhood diet with today’s diets and look with fond favor on your bologna sandwiches, you are engaging in confirmation bias, something most of us do quite often.  You are finding a connection between your bologna sandwiches and your allergy-free status because you’re looking for a connection.  Some people who ate bologna sandwiches and drank from a garden hose now have children with allergies.  Your bologna sandwiches didn’t make you or anyone else invincible.  You just don’t need to say it.  You may also want to do some research into today’s food supply – the bologna sandwich you ate in 1983 isn’t the same bologna sandwich you’re making for your daughter today.
  2. Don’t wonder out loud why there are so many allergies today. Heart disease, obesity and diabetes are all on the rise, too – why is it okay to throw your two cents worth in on the subject of food allergies but not talk about those other conditions?  You may be idly curious, but families with allergies hear you say things like, “I just don’t understand why it’s so rampant these days – what is causing all this?” they hear, “You must have done something to cause your kid’s allergy.”  This is victim blaming – placing the responsibility of the allergy on the family or parent makes us feel blameless and a little more in control.  If we don’t do what they did, we won’t get allergies.  In the meantime, it makes the parents feel guilty for something they shouldn’t feel guilty about.  It may even make the allergic child internalize the guilt as shame, further isolating them from their peers and setting up a foundation for low self-esteem and destructive behaviors.  If you are genuinely curious about food allergies, do some research.  There are many resources online, libraries are stocked full of books you can read, and parents of children with allergies are usually very willing to talk to you about it.
  3. Don’t bemoan the personal inconvenience of packing an allergy-free snack for your child. Packing a nut-free granola bar instead of a Snickers may not be your preference.  You may even be like me and have an extremely picky eater on your hands.  When nuts, or berries, or soy, or dairy are off the table, it becomes more difficult to pack snacks and lunches.  I get that.  However, my slight inconvenience pales in comparison to the real life-and-death risk that some foods pose for other people.   Another child’s life trumps my kid’s food preferences.  You may have to think 30 extra seconds when you are packing your child’s lunch to remember not to pack nuts.  That’s not comparable to the time a parent of a child with allergies has to spend thinking about food.  When a child has a severe allergy, parents have to think about food at every second of the day.  They have to read every label on every single thing they purchase.  They have to plan ahead and talk to teachers and field trip chaperones.  They have to call parents before a sleepover and ask what is being served.  They have to provide alternate snacks for every school party, get-together with friends, pot-luck dinner, trip to the zoo and fundraiser.  They don’t have the luxury of going to the snack bar at the neighborhood pool and letting the kids pick out something special.  They have to figure out how to pay for EpiPens to have at school, at home, and on the go.  They have to worry about their children’s feelings of isolation and help them fit in with their peers.  They have to be diligent.  They think about food constantly.  They talk about food constantly.  They dream about food.  They worry more than you can ever imagine about everything from what crumbs were left on the neighborhood swing to what unknown danger may lurk in Grandma’s birthday cake.  What you have to do doesn’t compare to that, so don’t whine about it.
  4. Consider non-food treats for celebrations. In our food-obsessed culture, it’s hard to separate the idea of celebration and food.  They kind of go hand-in-hand.  But they don’t have to.  I’m all for candy and cupcakes and cookies … but I also like stickers, and balloons, and games.  A birthday party at school could be an opportunity to include every child with crafts and toys, or it could be yet another situation in which a child with allergies has to eat something different than everyone else and sit at a different table than everyone else and feel different from everyone else.  This goes beyond birthday parties, too.  If you’re feeling really crazy, consider providing non-candy treats on Halloween as a part of the Teal Pumpkin Project.  It’s a small way to provide joy for children who often feel left out and different.

Those with allergies may be the minority, and it may seem unfair that the majority should have to cater toward the minority on this issue.  That’s often the case in life, though.  It’s often the responsibility of the majority to care for the majority, because we are all a part of this same planet and we owe it to each other to care for each other.  We healthy, allergy-free families have a responsibility to help care for our friends that do have intolerances, sensitivities and allergies.  We owe them our support.  At a very bare minimum, we owe them our silence.  They don’t need to hear us complain.  Just be quiet, follow the food rules, and don’t be a jerk.

I’m very thankful that my family members do not have food allergies.  However, my gratitude for their health and safety is meaningless without compassion for those that do.

I don’t know as much as I could or should know about today’s food environment and food allergies.  I’m going to continue to learn more about how I can support my friends with allergies, and I hope that you will, too.

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