My daughter came home from school one day last year, threw her lunchbox on the counter, and went off to play with her brother and sister. This was part of our familiar after-school routine — she ran off while I cleaned her lunchbox and readied it for the next time she went off into the world.
I typically opened her lunchbox to find her open containers all over the place, an empty yogurt wrapper, and probably the carrots I sent with her in the morning, untouched. But this time I found something else.
No big deal, right? Except for my gluten-free daughter, it was a big deal.
I didn’t send her to school with them in her lunchbox but somehow the small crackers had infiltrated our strict gluten-free house – and my daughter’s stomach.
Before she started school, we sat her down and discussed her strict diet — why she’s on it, what happens when she eats gluten, and the importance of only eating what was in her lunchbox. We had meetings with her teachers, the school, and put in place precautions to ensure that she was as safe as she could be during her lunch hour. So, how could this happen?
After I disposed of the cracker, disinfected the lunchbox, and tried to rid the house of even the most microscopic crumbs, I called my daughter back into the room to talk to her. I wanted to find out the why and how that cracker entered our gluten-free space — and if she had eaten any.
Her answer broke my mother’s heart: Peer pressure.
No child likes to feel different or isolated, but unfortunately, for my daughter — that’s exactly how she had started to feel, as the only kid in her class with food restrictions. She had to sit out while her friends played with the Play-Doh, she wasn’t allowed to partake in the surprise cupcake treats the other children’s parents randomly brought to class, and while we had alternatives available when that happened, she was always singled out.
When we think of our kids dealing with peer pressure, we probably think of the big-ticket items: the pressure to try drugs, smoking, cheating at school, ditching class, or dressing a certain way. But younger kids face a different brand of peer press – one that’s much less apparent but with all the same emotional components – a strong desire to fit in coupled with being easily influenced by their friends.
This is what happened to my daughter. She recounted how her friends who sat at the same lunch table told her to eat a cracker. They said she would be fine to try “just one” and convinced her that she was missing out because the food they were eating “was so good.”
I don’t think her classmates were trying to peer-pressure her and they likely didn’t realize they were doing harm. But even still, my daughter, who we had talked at length to about the importance of only eating her lunch, felt pressured to fit in — at only 5 years old.
It opened my eyes about an important conversation we DIDN’T have with our daughter. Even though we had talked to her ad nauseam, and continued to have the conversation open about the importance of her diet and eating only her own lunch, we didn’t talk to her about how to say, “No.”
What we should have done, and what we’ll certainly do now, is help her practice the skills and develop the strength to stand up for herself … even when she’s the odd one out.