Nick is 8 years old. This past December, his classroom won a popcorn party for their good behavior during library. It was a big deal, as surprise third-grade popcorn parties tend to be.
Except Nick didn’t get to participate. Even though the popcorn bag said “nut free,” the librarian didn’t feel comfortable giving it to him, just in case. So she handed him a candy cane and an apology.
He sat to the side, a safe distance from his classmates, and watched them celebrate something that he helped earn.
Some kids might put up a stink — stomp their feet and raise some hell, hollering about the injustice of it all through whines and tears. Not Nick, though. He’s a shy, polite, sensitive third-grader. He stuffed his hurt feelings into the pit of his stomach and got on with the day.
His feelings found a way to surface, of course. They bubbled out in tears before school for the next two weeks. Heaving sobs, he begged not to go back. His mom received calls from the school nurse, saying Nick’s belly hurt and he had to be picked up. A different illness every day, he created another excuse to stay home from school. (It’s hard to want to go somewhere, like school, when you feel like you don’t fit in there.)
And that candy cane from the librarian? It could be much more dangerous than the popcorn.
Food allergies are sometimes talked about like any hot-button parenting issue: with labels, warnings, finger pointing, and eye-rolling.
But have you thought about what it’s really like to grow up with a severe food allergy?
Some people see food allergies as an inconvenience, or an exaggeration. Maybe you’ve groaned to your friends about the unfairness of it all: we can’t even pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich anymore! Maybe you know a kid with an allergy; you most likely do. Food allergies — specifically to peanuts, one of the top 8 food allergens — have become much more common than in past generations. According to a recent report in The New York Times:
“About 2 percent of American children are allergic to peanuts, a figure that has more than quadrupled since 1997 for reasons that are not entirely clear. There have also been big increases in other Western countries. For some people, even traces of peanuts can be life-threatening.”
Nick is one of those people. He could be seriously hurt, even die, from traces of peanuts. The same goes for his two younger siblings.
But unlike his sister and brother, Nick is a little more aware, and he is a heck of a lot more sensitive about his peanut allergy. In fact, when you look through his perspective, it’s easier to understand what it’s really like to be an ordinary school-aged kid with a severe peanut allergy:
For Nick, having a peanut allergy means being sectioned off at the lunch table, singled out, with lunch aides on high alert. A few weeks ago, a little girl ran over to him in the cafeteria and gave him a hug. When the lunch aide realized the girl had eaten a peanut butter sandwich, reinforcements were called in. Nick was swiftly sent to the nurse’s office to wash and change, and then he — and the rest of the class — overheard the girl being loudly reprimanded in the hall, ultimately punished for her “irresponsible actions.” Nick, of course, was mortified.
For Nick, having peanut allergies often means feeling red-in-the-face embarrassed; it’s being labeled “that kid.” It’s feeling supremely uncomfortable in his body, as if everyone can see the allergy on him. As if he looks as different as he feels.
For Nick, having peanut allergies means bringing special cupcakes to birthday parties and never being alone at a new friend’s house, just in case.
Nick always has to check on the ingredients in his food, worrying, and questioning before eating, or even touching it. You can tell that he worries about his allergy, no matter how well his mom hides her own fears. He’s a smart kid; he understands the consequences of a cookie contaminated with peanuts.
Even words that are intended to be empathetic can affect his day. Things like, “It must be so hard to have three kids with peanut allergies, I feel bad for you,” directed at his mom within earshot of him can take the smile off of his face.
Having food allergies can feel like an obstacle, not only on your own life, but also on the people around you: teachers and principals, friends, friends’ parents, lunch aides, girls who get punished for hugging you. Your parents, especially.
It can feel like a defining part of your identity, especially at 8 years old. For all of Nick’s life, it has been. But one day he will realize that it doesn’t define him; he’ll go on to navigate a peanut-filled world with a little more self-awareness, ease, and a plan to know what to do. It might even make him a more empathetic person, as adversity tends to do. He’ll continue to be the happy, loving, sensitive boy he’s always been, and his peanut allergy might seem like less of a big deal.