Let Them Eat Cake! Just Don't Give It to My KidHeather Neal
There are quite a few things in the parenting community that seem to cause an uproar. They tend to come in surges, quietly stepping aside then roaring up again out of nowhere, so we can start rehashing the arguments all over again. Breastfeeding in public. Crying it out. Attachment parenting. Working moms. And a newer one to add to the list: food allergies.
Given the dramatic increase in food allergies and food intolerances in kids over the past several decades, it’s no surprise to see this one surface on the ever-growing list of parenting wars. This time, it’s about whether schools should allow parents to bring in treats for the kids, for celebrations like birthdays, holidays, and random holiday xyz. If they are allowed to bring a snack or treat in, should there be stipulations, like requiring it be purchased from a store instead of homemade or that it’d be free of the top eight allergens?
There are a million ways to argue the situation, but the most obvious two answers are going to be polar opposites depending on which side of the camp you’re on. If you have a kid with food allergies or any kind of special dietary need, you probably want to fight for rules and regulations. On the other side, if you have a kid that doesn’t have any restrictions, you probably want the reins to be lifted and the rules to be dropped.
It may surprise you, then, that as a mom of a kid with food allergies, I’d vote right alongside the moms of the non-allergy kids. Sometimes the list of foods my son can’t have seems longer than the list of things that are OK. That doesn’t mean I think the mom of every kid in his preschool class should be familiar with that list. Heck, I don’t even think they need to know the list exists at all. It doesn’t affect them or their child, so they don’t need to be burdened with that information. Of course, if my son’s allergy were a life-threatening, airborne allergy, I’d think otherwise.
Many schools, airlines, and companies have banned the use of peanuts or peanut products. That’s understandable. Many people with peanut allergies can have a reaction simply from being exposed to air that’s been contaminated with peanuts. The reaction is often severe, immediate, and life-endangering. In those cases, I think it is the responsibility of the school, class, or other parents to be aware and to respect the need for a peanut-free space. Inconvenient? Yes. Helpful? Absolutely. Can you imagine being a mom who’s terrified to leave her kid at school because Sally Jo may have brought a chocolate-covered peanut butter egg in her lunchbox? Parents of allergy kids get little break and little relief from the constant worry of accidental exposure. The least we can do as a parenting community is respect that and try to ease that burden in the smallest way possible.
But for the non-life-threatening allergies, my son included, we all just need to chill. Would it make my life easier if my son could eat all of the same things his classmates were eating? That he didn’t have to have a separate bag of snacks in the classroom for the days everyone else is having a snack he can’t have? To not constantly hover over him, swatting his hand way from his buddy’s Goldfish crackers? To hope that his teachers are vigilantly doing the same? Of course it would. But never, ever would I expect anyone but myself (and my family) to cater to his dietary needs.
I feel confident that his teachers understand what foods he can and cannot have. They may not be able to list his allergies, but they know exactly which snacks are safe and which aren’t. They know to pull something out of his lunch if I’ve forgotten to bring in an extra bag of allergy-friendly snacks that week. And best of all, they know to let me know if anybody’s mentioned bringing in a birthday treat for their kid. I don’t expect the parents to bring something special for my son just because they’re bringing something for everyone else. When I have a heads-up about a celebration, I can choose whether I want to send in something special for my son — a “safe” cookie or cupcake, so he doesn’t feel left out. But honestly, most of the time I forget, and I only felt bad about it once. My son doesn’t feel like he’s missing anything. Yes, he’s curious about what everybody else is eating, but it doesn’t matter if that’s a cookie, or a carrot, or a Lego. All kids want what’s in another kid’s hand at any given moment. That doesn’t mean I need to specially cater to that and make sure he has the same thing as everybody else.
He’s lucky, actually. He has zero emotional ties to food. He doesn’t associate creamy vanilla icing or a cold scoop of ice cream with his birthday. He doesn’t get the warm and fuzzies when he sees candy hearts lining the shelves for Valentine’s Day. He isn’t programmed to crave dessert after cleaning his plate at dinner. The feelings and emotions associated with food are something we put on our kids. He’s not going to have low self-esteem because he’s eating a peanut butter sandwich instead of a slice of pizza at a birthday party. I’m sure there will be tough times, but it’s my job as a mom to get him through those. To teach him that it’s OK to be a little different and how to handle it. His dad fears he’ll be bullied and picked on as he gets older, crossing his fingers every day that he grows out of his intolerances. But sharing the same intolerances as my son, I know he’ll be just fine, even if a slice of cake never touches his lips.
We’re fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family that take the time to look out for our son. They know he can’t eat the same things as everyone else at a playdate or birthday party, and they often ask how they accommodate (or just go ahead and do so). When they ask, I always tell them no. I’m so thankful that they understand and want to help out, but I know it’s not their burden to bear. I don’t think it’s our friends’ responsibilities, and I don’t think it’s a school’s responsibility. And I’m absolutely positive that someone else will argue the exact opposite. All I can ask as a parent is that you respect the choices I make for what I put in my son’s mouth, allergies or not, and that you don’t pity him and allow him to think that he’s missing out on something irreplaceable. Those are our hang-ups, not our kids’.