Parents Must Carry the Weight of Allergy Awareness

I have wheat, egg, and nut allergies. As a child, I didn’t know anyone else with a food allergy; I was a rarity. In 1982, Boston’s Children’s Hospital handed my mother Xeroxed sheets detailing foods that would make her toddler sick, and then sent her home to figure out the rest. No internet. No support groups. Not even clear food labeling.

Since my first child’s birth, I’ve gained tremendous understanding of my mother, but recently her behavior surrounding my food allergies has been increasingly clear.

Today, my children and I visited the park for a group play date. We stayed late, and the two remaining families decided to break out their picnic lunches.

 Peanut butter sandwiches. Both families brought peanut butter sandwiches. Oh how I wish it wasn’t an American convention to pack peanut butter sandwiches!

 Now, peanut butter in adult hands barely creates a blip on my radar, but children wielding peanut butter is an entirely different story.

 Suddenly, four children ranging from 5 years to 18 months surrounded me. Children are unpredictable. Children touch everything. Children are messy eaters. As I watch, I feel the area of infected surfaces closing in on me. And my children are there. What if the other children touch my children or my children decide to impulsively try a sandwich? Is it still safe to touch my own children?

These thoughts are uncomfortable and slightly alarming, but I am in control. I am an adult. I have a lifetime of dealing with this issue and the authority to change my environment. That is not so for a child. As a child, I didn’t worry about peanut residue on the swings or the lunch table, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. A young child cannot be expected to anticipate all the ways a life threatening food reaction could occur. And if a child could understand the danger all around, how would she deal with the stress when so often children have no control?

 Sitting at the park, I had a moment of understanding and empathizing for my mother. How did she handle sending me to school and play dates with other children and their peanut butter sandwiches? She told everyone about my allergies, with subtle force and necessary detail, every time we went anywhere involving food. I’ll admit as a preteen, I was embarrassed, but sitting at the park today, her need to share this information was crystal clear.

 A child can not be expected to share all the information necessary to reduce the risk of a life threatening allergic reaction. The adults in a child’s life need to foster awareness and understanding of allergies. (And not just to peanuts. While peanuts receive lots of media attention, they aren’t the only dangerous food allergy. Imagine sending your child with a serious milk allergy to school with all those milk cartons or a birthday party with the ice cream. Yikes!)

 Furthermore, children eating peanut butter sandwiches need the adults in their lives to teach them responsibility just as my siblings, and thousands of other family members in America, learned to protect the children with allergies in their families.

 Making these changes can be hard for people who don’t have the necessity. The goal is for parents to understand that their actions could be directly endangering other innocent children.

Ways to Foster Allergy Awareness and Understanding:

  • READ: As an English teacher on hiatus, reading is usually my first answer! Find picture books about food allergies in your library system. Read them. And then share them by reading them at play dates, or requesting them to be shared at school and public library story times. Not many choices at your library? Bring the gap in the library collection to the director’s attention and he might buy a bunch of titles. If not, find some yourself and donate them to your public library and school library. Amazon pulls up almost 500 titles under children’s books with the search “food allergies,“ so there are plenty of choices!
  • EXPLAIN: Small details are important for food safety, and explaining this is critical. Reading labels carefully is crucial, but many people without food allergies in their families never read ingredients lists. Such individuals need to learn that one can never assume an allergen is not present. Labels must be read on everything. Period. But, its more than that. Those unfamiliar with food allergies also must have cross contamination explained to them. My husband had to learn to not get bread crumbs in the butter or jam.
  • ADVOCATE: Advocate that peanut products should not be eaten in places designed for children: schools, play grounds, in door play centers, etc. Peanuts are the easiest of the top allergens to avoid, yet peanut butter sandwiches are synonymous with childhood. Work to have peanut products banned in areas where peanut butter on hands will easily make its way to other children. Want to take it to the next level? Get your neighborhood to not give out peanut containing candy at Halloween!
  • SUBSTITUTE: Unlike in the 80’s, alternative products for people with food allergies are abundant. They are more expensive, more difficult to locate, and usually more hassle to prepare, but they exist! My favorite examples are Sunbutter and baking mixes by Cherry Brook Kitchen.
  • WASH: Teach all children to wash their hands and face after eating, even at the park and school.
  • SHARE: Maybe you demonstrate how to administer an Epipen to the moms in your play group. Or you might sponsor a table at a community function and give out pamphlets (maybe with some of those yummy substitution goods). Share what you know because there are many who don’t know.
  • SIMULATE: Have a few participants (adults or children) put glitter on their hands and then perform some activities. Maybe the participants shake hands or use the playground equipment or share blocks or markers. Observe the glitter. It creates a strong visual showing how food residue on hands can spread even if we can’t see it.
  • TALK: Do like my mother: Advocate for your child and /or yourself. While you might offend some people if you inform them that those peanut butter sandwiches are dangerous, when a child’s life is endangered, you must do so.