October 3, 2011

Protecting our kids: a continuous balancing act

At some point, I will have to let go of his eczemish little hand.
Boy, it's been a busy month.  Among all that is going on, three thought-provoking situations have arisen for my family and other food-allergic families through which I found a common thread.

We have had to deal with a teasing issue at Ryken's new school.  One boy was calling Ryken "cutie" and "cutie pie" which my precocious six-year-old-going-on-16 did not appreciate.  Like most parents, I want my kids to learn how to solve their own conflicts so I stayed on the sidelines as a coach.  Ryken listed a lot of strategies for stopping the bullying (ignore the teasing in the hopes that the boys get bored and stop, walk away, tell the boy to stop, get help from a teacher).  I made sure to casually ask Ryken about recess daily, being careful not to make it the focal point of our conversations, but I definitely wanted to stay informed about how the situation progressed.  The teasing escalated -- more teasing, more kids involved, one boy attempting to "hug" Ryken -- until finally Ryken decided that his coping strategies weren't stopping the problem.  Ryken didn't feel comfortable talking to a teacher so I stepped in. 

After a few days things were still getting worse as it was hard for yard teachers to figure out who was involved and Ryken did not know the kids' names or grade level.  Then a golden opportunity came when we stayed after school on the playground and Ryken saw one of his tormenters.  I couldn't help it.  I confronted the boy about the teasing (which he shamefully admitted to), got his name, the other kids' and his teacher's names), and lectured him on the impact of his teasing and the right of every kid in school to feel safe.  I felt conflicted stepping in.  On the one hand, I'm glad I was able to seize the moment and talk to this boy (who Ryken now considers a friend!).  On the other hand, I'm not crazy about fighting (figuratively, of course!) Ryken's battles.
They'll learn how to better protect themselves as they get older.

In an entirely different situation I recently met a food allergy mom thanks to Callan's eye-catching allergy wristbands.  (It's crazy but wonderful how quickly it is for me to bond with other parents who manage food allergies.  It's as if we have entered a special exclusive club! I wonder, is this the kind of trust soldiers feel when they first join a platoon?)  We quickly traded food allergy information, something to the effect of, "He's allergic to milk, almonds, and kiwi.  How about you guys?" "I'm allergic to milk and tree nuts.  My son's allergic to eggs and peanuts."  "I have a friend with the same allergies as your son!  And my eldest son is allergic to peanuts as well as milk."

As our sons were becoming equally fast friends over toy cars, my new friend immediately leaned in to softly speak out of ear shot of her son.  She confided in me that, though her son is only in preschooler, she couldn't help worrying about the day when he would be a teenager and wants to kiss a girl.  How will she protect him from the possibility of fatal contact?  Will he be denied this experience? 
A kiss is complicated enough without the threat of an allergic reaction.
 To some, worrying about an occasion a decade away like the first kiss might seem like overreacting.  But this and other seemingly minor experiences are not lost on parents of food-allergic kids.  For a child with severe food allergies and the family that loves him, these are the kinds of real situations that worry and sadden.  We want to preserve our kids' safety as well as their right to enjoy these pivotal life moments.

My third story comes from my friend, who shared about a recent Facebook exchange that deeply troubled her.  My friend was witness to a discussion in which people passionately complained that individual families -- not communities -- should be solely responsible for the safety of children with life-threatening food allergies.  This all seemed to start after one person alluded that banning peanuts from school campuses went against an idea of "survival of the fittest".  Various people chimed in suggesting that nut-free environments at school were overly restrictive and that makers of "Peanut-Free Zone" posters were making huge profits.  One commenter, who was subsequently praised by others, declared that if she had a child with severe food allergies, she would simply homeschool her kids to ensure their safety and avoid subjecting other families to hassles for the good of one child. 

As a mom with a child with a life-threatening peanut allergy who did try homeschooling and actively educates her kids and adults on managing safe nut-free environments, my friend was completely taken aback by the obvious resentment that people felt towards accommodating environments to safeguard against nut allergies.  I have to admit, after she showed me the thread, I was a bit stunned, too.  At least these folks weren't shy about being honest.

These stories are very different but, at the same time, very similar.  At the very foundation of each is a parent's duty to protect his/her children.  Whether it is a bully, a seemingly innocent peck, or a lunchroom full of dangerous food products (or a lunchroom that bans a food that your picky kid loves) our parental instincts guide us to prepare for any potentially harmful situations.  We cannot be there all the time, it's true. 

It's true that relentless teasing and bullying has led to an increased rate of suicides among teenagers.  We as parents can be grateful that anti-bullying programs, self-esteem programs like "It Gets Better", and peer support groups are gaining ground so that kids can share the burden of their torment and develop mechanisms for coping and stopping their tormenters.

And I understand how tough it is to pack lunch for a picky eater who only seems to eat one thing.  Peanut butter and jelly is practically a food group on its own among growing kids.

But for families whose kids have life-threatening allergies, the stakes are always high.  One mislabeled food item, accidentally skipping a line in an ingredient label, or a single lapse of judgment can be fatal.  These are the small and big things that food-allergic families think about everyday multiple times a day. 

It is a tough thing to safeguard our food-allergic children from any potential, food-related harm without looking like we're going overboard.  And believe me, we struggle with how much to protect our kids among the greater community, too.  Parents of food-allergic kids want to raise happy, healthy kids who will be ready for the challenges of being independent adults someday --- goals that every parent strives for.  We would gladly trade in our gluten-free cookbooks, our vegan cheeses, our rice milks, and sun butters for the "real stuff".  But we can't. 

So we are going to soldier on and continue to do whatever it takes to maximize the safety of our kids.  We do not need to apologize for this.  But it does help to have open conversations about our kids' food allergies with other families, families who do not see the logic in our ways because they haven't walked in our shoes or intimately know others who have.  The best protection against allergic reactions is to educate our food-allergic kids and those around us.


  1. Such relevant issues! I just had the kissing conversation with tristan yesterday. He asked me what would happen if two kids kissed on the lips. Let's just say the allergy topic was not only educational, but a great way for me to steer the conversation away from other topics.:)

  2. Re: The Facebook exchange: That's a horrible attitude for others to have. I hope this is not the norm. Facebook seems to encourage some ridiculous comments at times.

    I sell posters & stickers for Food Allergy via Zazzle, I can honestly tell you it is no big profit maker. In my case I'm a disabled artist just doing it as I have two colleagues with youngsters suffering severe allergies.

    I sell a few stickers a week and I can honestly say it's a good feeling to help. Obviously some may be motivated by greed but I'd hope such a topic doesn't attract the sharks?

  3. Hi Robbie,

    I agree that Facebook can be quite a lightning rod for extreme comments. I have to say I really appreciated hearing about this from my friend. It's good to know what true sentiments (I should say "resent-iments") are out there with regards to food allergies. It reminds me of how important it is to share my experiences as a parent of food-allergic kids.
    Best of luck with your allergy poster and sticker business. It's great to have more allergy-friendly resources out there!