This post may spark criticism on all fronts but I've had some thoughts stewing for the past couple of weeks and, for better or worse, I'm ready to share them. These are my opinions on what is always a heated topic, so if you don't agree, that's your prerogative but be respectful about it.
I got a phone call the week before Valentine's Day from the health aide at my kids' school. My son's teacher had asked her to call me because a parent of one of his classmates wanted to bring in a prepackaged treat for Valentine's Day that contained nuts, and the teacher wanted to know if that would be okay with me or if it would pose a danger to my son. She said the treats would be passed out in class but that the kids would not be allowed to eat them in the classroom.
I was without words. Honestly, I just didn't know how to react at all. Would it be dangerous for him to have prepackaged, nut-containing treats passed out in his classroom? No. His allergy is not so extreme that he can't be in the presence of something prepackaged that contains nuts. Would it be okay with me? I don't even know what to say to that.
My son is 10 years old and was diagnosed about a month before his 4th birthday. I ate peanuts and peanut products during my pregnancy and the entire 13 months that I breastfed him, as I have done with our other 4 kids (even Raya, just not for as long as the others). He started eating peanut butter at the same age as his sisters that are not allergic to any foods. He used to eat peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for lunch every day and waffles with peanut butter on them for breakfast a few times a week. Somewhere between 18 months and 2 years, we noticed that he vomited after eating crunchy peanut butter but not creamy. We had no experience whatsoever with food allergies, as neither my husband or I have any and none of our parents or siblings do either. We assumed it was a toddler thing and that he just had a texture issue with the crunchy peanut butter. Even our pediatrician didn't think it sounded like an allergy and that it was probably a texture issue. Since she didn't think it was an allergy, we didn't pursue allergy testing until about a year later when he had a clear and obvious allergic reaction to cashews.
About 6 weeks after his cashew reaction, we got in for allergy testing and confirmed that he was allergic to peanuts, all of the tree nuts, oats (which he had also been eating since before his first birthday) and a couple of environmental allergens. We eliminated peanuts and tree nuts from his diet the day he reacted to cashew butter and have not looked back. However, on the advice of his allergist, we have not completely removed peanut and tree nut products from our home. His allergies are not so severe that he is triggered by airborne particles or trace residue. We have kept him safe but have also been conscious of not creating a bubble for him. As he has gotten older and more able to comprehend his allergies, we have worked to empower him in taking responsibility for his own safety as much as possible. As soon as he was diagnosed, we taught him to never accept food from anyone but his parents without asking if it had nuts in it first. We taught him the names of the tree nuts and showed him how to look at the ingredient list on food packaging to see if the item contained nuts. We taught him how to use an EpiPen and taught him to be aware of what his allergic reaction symptoms felt like so he would know when to take Benadryl and when to use an EpiPen.
We also taught our other kids to help keep him safe. We have rules in our house about where in the kitchen peanut butter can be used. We have a rule that if they're making a PB & J sandwich, they have to get the jam first, and they can't dip a knife into the jam jar after it has touched peanut butter. He is not allowed to touch any dirty dishes with peanut butter on them, nor is he allowed to make anyone else's PB & J sandwich for them. If peanut butter gets on anything, they have to clean it up immediately. We have had family night lessons about when and how to use EpiPens so that everyone in our family understands how to keep the children with allergies safe and what to do if there is ever an emergency. What we do in our house works for us and has kept him (and Raya) from having any allergic reactions since they were first diagnosed. Sending him to school is another story.
I cannot control what happens at school. I have never asked his school to become nut-free, nor would I push for a nut-free school. I have kids without food allergies who like PB & J sandwiches for lunch too. I have one child who struggles with bouts of low appetite and picky eating, and since weight gain (or lack thereof) has always been a struggle, she eats what she feels like eating and getting her to eat a decent lunch would be hard for us if the school banned peanut butter. I was more nervous when he was younger, and less able to recognize that a food could contain his allergens. Having his classroom be a peanut-free and tree nut-free classroom helped me be comfortable with sending him to school because I knew that nobody would be sending in something that, could potentially kill my child. We have always packed lunches from home for the kids because it costs less and they get food that I know they will eat. Since he takes lunch from home, I have not stressed about him accidentally getting something from the cafeteria that contained nuts. His school offers a nut-free table and allows kids to have friends sit with them at that table as long as they have a nut-free lunch, but we have opted not to do that because at home, we all eat at the same table.
With all of that in my head, it was hard to even know what to say to the question of whether it would be dangerous to him to have prepackaged treats with nuts in them handed out in his classroom and whether it was okay with me. The answers to those questions conflicted each other. No, it would not be dangerous to him unless he ate them, but no, I am not okay with it. It really rubbed me the wrong way that someone wanted to bring in treats with nuts to a classroom that they know is nut-free.
Why am I not okay with it? I don't know. I had quite the internal dialogue with myself over it before I could formulate a good response for the school health aide. We eat treats with nut products in them at home, so why is it different in the classroom? Because when we do at home, we provide him an alternative that he likes just as much as the rest of us like the nut-containing treats. We don't leave him out. Yeah but there will be other treats in his classroom on Valentine's Day so it's not like he won't get anything at all. True. And life isn't fair. Sometimes one kid gets something that the rest don't, and vice-versa. But this still felt different to me.
What it finally came down to was this, which was my response to the health aide:
As long as he doesn't eat the treats, they won't make him sick, so I guess technically it's okay if the parent sends them into the classroom, but I would rather they didn't. Let his teacher know that she can ask the parent if it is so important to them to bring in that particular treat that it is worth intentionally singling out and excluding the only child in the class that could potentially die from eating it. If the answer is yes, then they can go ahead and send them.
Was that a dramatic answer? Perhaps, but it was also a completely accurate statement. I don't know if that message was relayed to the other parents, but no nut-containing treats were brought into the class for the Valentine's Day party.
Food allergies are such a hot button topic these days. From the perspective of someone who parented for 5 years with no food allergies to worry about before being faced with life-threatening food allergies, I can say that it is very difficult to fully comprehend what life with food allergies is like until you have experienced it. As such, it is difficult to understand why parents of children with food allergies get upset about things like this situation we encountered. It is also very difficult to explain it.
What's the harm in bringing in something prepackaged that won't make the kid sick as long as he doesn't eat it? Instead of thinking about it in terms of food, think about it in these terms:
- excluding a child based on something that is not his fault and is completely beyond his control
- singling the child out and highlighting in front of all of his classmates that he has something different about him
- showing a classroom full of children that it's okay to exclude someone whose medical condition makes them different when it inconveniences you (if you want to call this situation an inconvenience)
- showing the excluded child that his safety and health is of less value than his classmates' ability to eat something that could kill him
- teaching the other children that their wants are more important than their classmate's safety
- giving other kids something to make fun of him about (food allergy bullying is becoming more common, and it is terrifying)
One of the common arguments by parents whose children do not have food allergies is that their children have the right to bring treats to class to celebrate their birthdays. To those parents, I ask this question. Does your child want to celebrate his or her birthday in a way that makes his or her friends with food allergies sad because they can't have the treats they brought? Would your child want any of his or her friends to get sick because of the treats they brought? Is that really how your child wants to celebrate, or would he or she rather bring something in that ALL of his or her classmates can enjoy?
The day I got the phone call from the health aide, I had a talk with my son about it after school. I explained the situation to him and I asked him, "If someone brings in a treat that everyone in your class except you can have, would that bother you or would you not care? Remember that there will be other treats that you can have." Honestly, I expected him to say that he wouldn't care. He thought about it for a minute and then surprised me by responding that in his classroom, that WOULD bother him because he would feel left out.
The issue does not have to be so all-or-nothing. As a parent of children with food allergies, I do not expect the entire world to conform to their needs, but the classroom is one place where they deserve to be safe, and they deserve to be included in everything that happens to the fullest extent possible. If that means that modifications have to be made for things like birthday celebrations and class parties, then so be it. Excluding nuts from those celebrations is a small price to pay in order to make that happen. As frustrating as it may be to be given restrictions on what can be brought into the classroom, it is an opportunity to teach your children compassion and consideration for the needs of others. In the case of potentially fatal food allergies, this need DOES come at a higher priority than any possible reason for bringing those restricted foods into the classroom.