There’s a blog post that went around the Internet yesterday containing one woman’s reasons why schools should not go peanut free. Though it was meant to stir up controversy, it was nothing more than a poorly written piece of link bait. However, its presence started a great discussion in a Facebook group I’m in that got me thinking about the topic.
Since my son no longer has severe food allergies, I debated whether or not it was my place to write about this. Then again, being on both sides of the issue is precisely why it can be my place to voice this opinion.
It should come as no surprise that the allergy parents felt strongly about the advantage of having their children in a peanut-free school. What a relief it is for parents of peanut allergic children to not be in fear of the phone ringing for eight hours a day, five days a week, ten months per year. Yet in some cases there is another side to the story, and there are parents who do not view a measure this extreme as a necessary precaution at all.
Our Facebook conversation expanded beyond peanut free schools, to how parents and educators treat children with food allergies. Fellow blogger Erica Voll of No Sleep Til College wrote a fantastic response to the original post on her blog. For me, it brought up a reminder that all food allergy parents could take the following into consideration when speaking with other parents, educators and caregivers:
Present the severity of their child’s food allergy very clearly. There are children who have food intolerances, children who have a less severe allergy (such as hives), children who have a severe allergy (anaphylaxis) that is not airborne, and children who will go into anaphylaxis if there is peanut dust anywhere nearby. Oftentimes, these are all lumped together under the food allergy umbrella, and the most severe cases may not be taken as seriously as needed. (In severe cases, just one one-thousandth of a peanut can be enough to take the life of a child.) So be specific about your child’s allergy, what you need to happen in order to keep your child safe, and why that is the best course of action.
Educate the masses. There are multiple websites for parents and educational resources with descriptions of food allergies, the top eight food allergens, what to look for when a child is exposed to an allergen, and what it feels like to have a food allergy. When you encounter someone who feels that you may be exaggerating the issue, present the facts from a third party source. You could even donate books to the school library so other children can become familiar with the needs of their food allergic classmates and friends.
Explain that not only does the severity of the child’s food allergy matter, so does the age of the child. Younger children might not yet understand the implications of eating or coming in contact with the wrong food, even if you have educated them as much as possible on the subject. They are still children, after all. It is up to us food allergy parents to remind others why making a classroom, lunchroom or entire school peanut free is what may be needed to keep a child (or multiple children) safe from harm.
Stay alert. Plan ahead for special school events, birthdays, class trips, and other days when your participation may be required. Don’t leave it up to the class parents, the teacher or someone else.
Use kindness in your approach. Remember that not everyone is as educated about food allergies as you. Fortunately, most parents and children I have come across have been kind and empathetic. They are willing to forego a PB&J sandwich or peanut butter crackers to make sure that another child stays safe. However, walking in to a situation with a set of demands and a chip on your shoulder has never done anyone any favors. Stay calm, and present your child’s situation clearly.
Remember that people don’t like to be inconvenienced. Typically, the primary objective is that of inconvenience for the parents of non food-allergic children. So make it easier for them. Provide a list of safe snacks. Offer to bring in the snacks (or non-food treats) on your own for the entire class to enjoy. Become the class parent, or visit the classroom on special event days. When other parents see your willingness to participate, they may be more likely to meet you halfway.
Make it clear that in addition to the safety concern, there is also a developmental concern. School, particularly elementary school, may be the years when children longs to have a feeling of the normalcy. No child wants to feel left out. These children know that their food allergy makes them different. They get it. As food allergy parents, we get it. But other parents may understand how it feels. Singling out a child does substantially more harm than good. The good news is that food allergic children will learn in time that true friends (and their parents) will not feel any burden in helping to keep them safe.
When you do encounter someone who displays dangerous ignorance or arrogance, get the authorities involved. Your child’s wellbeing is the first priority. It may take a 504 plan, a chat with the superintendent or even hiring a lawyer, but those options should be used as a last resort.
For seven or eight hours every day, you will need the support of those who also care for your child. That means educators and parents of children in the classroom and beyond. Approaching the matter with kindness, class and clarity is your best bet for getting the results that will keep your child safe.