Practicing Empathy

My heart hurts.

I used to cringe when people said that. I thought it was a little cheesy & overdramatic. But I am saying it now because I understand and can relate to the feeling. My heart hurts.

Over the past few weeks I have seen references to an article written by a parent whose children do not have food allergies who feels her child’s rights to a “proper” birthday celebration are being smothered (“proper” meaning she can’t bake cupcakes from scratch or pick up any treat she wants to send to school to celebrate the occasion). Usually it was a link on Facebook and just from reading the title, I knew I wasn’t prepared to read the article. So I didn’t. For a while. Earlier this week, I caved. I read it. I was furious. I was sickened. And then something changed in my head. I felt sorry for this mom. She lacks quite a bit of critical information regarding food allergies that might help her be more empathetic towards children and families living with food allergies.  At first, I didn’t want to share the article because I didn’t want it to get any more hits than it already has but I really want you all to read this and get your feedback too. Please see for yourself…

Why Do Your Kid’s Allergies Mean My Kid Can’t Have a Birthday?

Here, you’ll find a rebuttal of sorts, with references and helpful information that would benefit us all in the long run. I hope you will share it in any way you can. Please help me get the word out. Please.

First, let me begin by addressing her misconception that when you have a food allergy (or multiple food allergies) you know exactly what your or your child’s physical reaction will be when exposed to that allergen. This is absolutely false. Previous reactions DO NOT predict future reactions. What was previously a mild skin reaction to exposure to an allergen (localized hives, eczema, etc) absolutely has the potential to escalate to anaphylaxis on the next exposure. There is no way to know what your or your child’s reaction to an allergen will be upon each exposure. For those who have previously experienced anaphylaxis, it is likely that this will occur upon future exposures but there are no guarantees. There are many theories surrounding this but the fact is that there is no way to be certain. Please read more over at FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) to learn more. If this parent is truly understanding (as she claims to be) and believes that “we have a communal responsibility to keep (a child with life threatening food allergies) safe” then this fact alone negates the entire rest of her article. In my opinion, all food allergies should be treated as anaphylactic food allergies. It’s just not worth the risk.

However, there is quite a bit more to be addressed. So stick with me a bit longer.

Another argument she makes is that the school only allows store-bought treats that are preservative-laden and unhealthy. (I must have missed the health lesson that states “real” cakes made from “real” ingredients are healthy but I do see where she’s going with this.) She goes on to state that someone she knows was only able to bring in gummy bears and juice boxes. Believe me when I say I know what it feels like to think “what in the world am I supposed to feed my child?!” The day we received Buddy’s diagnosis I fed him rice krispies, steamed broccoli, and shredded cheddar cheese for dinner because I was at a total loss and completely unprepared for such a blow to the system. Two weeks ago it took me 2 days to fully process the thought of changing his diet to be free of all of the top 8 allergens (wheat, dairy, egg, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish, and shellfish.) It was hard. It IS hard. It is difficult to figure out what is safe and what isn’t and to find “treats” for your child. Please please believe me when I say I KNOW! Guess how I figured it out…sure I read A LOT of labels…but I also talked to other moms of kids with food allergies for ideas and support. I wonder if it ever occurred to this mother to talk to the parents of the kids with food allergies in her child’s class. My son’s school even provides email addresses for all of the parents in the buzzbook so if she wasn’t comfortable talking to another parent face to face about it for some reason, maybe an email would work just as well. Perhaps they would have been able to give her some ideas…like one of these…

Cybele’s Free to Eat

Enjoy Life Foods

Glutino

Ener-G

Yes, they are a little more expensive than your typical store brands but many cover all of the top 8 allergens (and then some) so they would be an easy choice for a classroom with multiple food allergies. I happen to have many of their products in my own home currently as Buddy is still top 8 allergen free for the next month or so.

Top 8 Safe Foods

We WANT to be helpful. We are always happy to talk about what we know about food allergies; whether you want to know what foods are safe, what foods are not safe, how to read a food label, or just general information. Please ask us.

Here is the point at which I get a little confused with her argument…I’m gonna copy and paste in what she said so I don’t mess it up–

“I understand the problem with allergies because I have allergies; I’m allergic to egg whites. The difference is I don’t demand egg-free items when I go to parties or to work events. I don’t always get to eat what people are serving, but I certainly don’t demand that my friend make me a separate cake for me on her birthday.  It makes sense to ban certain items when children are too young to ask and avoid foods that they might have sensitivities toward. But once we cross a threshold, personal responsibility and parental education need to come into play. I agree that a teacher should let all parents know about any life-threatening allergies in a classroom. However, my kid shouldn’t have to forgo his birthday cake because yours can’t eat it.”

First of all, she is so right. Parental education NEEDS to come into play. That’s why I’m taking the time to write this.

The general argument behind this article has so far been regarding bringing birthday treats to school. Here we take a sudden turn to adults, work environments, and birthday parties. I hope this mother understands that we don’t expect her child to “forgo his birthday cake” all together. By all means, please make your child a birthday cake for your celebration at home. I hope you will throw a party for your child and include all of their favorite treats. Few things bring me as much joy as throwing my son’s birthday party with all of his favorite foods and goodies, even though I have to be a little more creative about it these days. In an instance such as this, it’s the responsibility of the parent of the child with the food allergy to decide whether or not to attend and how to handle food at such an event. But let’s stick to the original argument. At school, in the classroom, in an environment in which my child needs to attend to receive his education, and needs to be safe from possible exposure to food allergens to live his life safely, your child does not need to have a birthday cake. If you must send a treat, please do so consciously.

As I said earlier, I hope you will share this and help me spread the word. I’m always here to answer questions and suggestions. I’m not a doctor, I don’t know everything there is to know about food allergies, but I know that my child’s safety, and every child’s safety, is at the very very top of my priority list at all times.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the topic. And, as always, I welcome any questions you may have.

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26 thoughts on “Practicing Empathy

  1. Lauren, I am always humbled by your words on this subject. I know it is hard to write about topics that hit so close to home, but I applaud you for sharing your perspective and experiences so that people like the mother who wrote this article can hopefully find some compassion and understanding for families with allergies (because you are ALL affected, not just the child). I also feel pity for a mother who is more worried about a cake than a child. Stay strong and keep writing!

    • Thank you Mandy. We have been blessed to be surrounded by friends & family who are open-minded and compassionate. It’s unfortunate that some are not able to enjoy that same support. I really do believe (and hope!) that I can provide a safer environment for Buddy & other children & individuals with food allergies through education. That’s the ultimate goal.

  2. Lauren, thanks for posting this. I hope it gets wide readership. You said it best here: “At school, in the classroom, in an environment in which my child needs to attend to receive his education, and needs to be safe from possible exposure to food allergens to live his life safely, your child does not need to have a birthday cake. If you must send a treat, please do so consciously.”

  3. Thanks for taking this topic and elevating the conversation with facts and valuable resources. You are such a strong momma! I actually couldn’t bring myself to read the original piece…maybe one day. Not quite in a mood to have to manage my blood pressure 😉
    I experienced this directly with parents lamenting their inability to send candy with Valentine’s. I totally called them out and the backed down quickly….keep on keepin’on!

  4. What an awesome response! I feel like you took all the thoughts in my head and put them into an intelligent response. And if we don’t teach our children empathy, who will?

    • Thank you so much Christi! I could not agree more. It is truly up to us…ALL of us…to teach our children to be empathetic. Our children learn so much from our actions…even more than they do from our words.

  5. Whoo hoo! Thank you. Very eloquent reply. I was not so kind 🙂 I am fortunate that the parents in my daughter’s class have been amazing and wholly understanding. I have a hard time being empathetic toward ignorance though. If you’re going to write for a national news outlet, you should get your facts straight before you go on a selfish rant like Ms. Carina Hoskisson has done.

    • Thank you Carolyn! I will admit it took me a little time to cool down after initially reading her post. And you are right about needing to have facts straight. I don’t claim to know it all, and I’m no doctor, but I know enough to know that there’s plenty of knowledge to be had from asking questions. And I ask A LOT of questions. In a world where we walk around with instant access to information at our fingertips whenever we want it, I refuse to accept ignorance as an excuse.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  6. I just don’t understand why we can’t just banish birthday parties at school. Every kid has a birthday party OUT of school and the parents can serve whatever the hell they want to. Why should my kid feel EXCLUDED from the birthday party because he has to eat a special snack I provide? Why have birthday parties with cake in school? Why can’t parties be food free? I would never want to send my son to a playdate at the author of that original article because I would FEAR FOR MY SON’S life. It’s parents like that that make me scared for my son to grow up and go to other people’s homes that may not be as cautious as I am.

    • You make a good point about play dates, Lis. My son isn’t really at an age that I wouldn’t be with him for a play date at this point but the thought brings up a hint of anxiety in me. But that’s why it’s so important for us to spread the word!

  7. as a mom with a daughter with a life threatening allergy to all tree nuts, I have never demanded that she have any special foods for her, we have learned to just work around it. what does peeve me is when vegetarians say they have a right to eat their trail mix right next to my daughter in a public place, typically we leave but one time I snapped I said “your choice of food is a life style choice, my daughter’s is not… didn’t ask for this”.. Or in school once a parent was complaining very loudly in my general direction that ” her child is being persecuted for her food choices” to which i replied she can eat the trail mix or peanut butter but just outside or at least 50 feet away in a well ventilated area,because you see your child’s ” need” for peanut butter almond butter every day is what did she say ” nutritionally necessary” puts my daughter at risk of oh I don’t know death??? ( if you have ever had to give your 3 year old an epi pen and call 911, then I think the whining would stop.) While I do not expect the restaurants or schools or her friends to accommodate her allergies, I do empower her to ask and to know the difference in labels of may contain and processed on equipment that has exposure to nuts. In short years my daughter will be an adult and the responsibility will be her’s to own and manage. That being said expecting parents at their homes to provide an allergy free zone or at the school for parties, IMHO shows the child with the allergy to garner a special sense of entitlement…. The thing to remember if you are a mom with food allergic kiddo, the allergy and all its trappings belong to the child, they need to learn signs of exposure what happens before during and after an exposure and how to ask and take care of their own environment. (long post but we all have lived with the food allergy for 13 years..)

    • Meadow you’re right. I had to administer the epi pen on my son when he was just 21-22 months old. Anyone who has had to go through that experience or has witnessed that experience, would surely understand. Fortunately, many have not. Unfortunately, that leaves those of us who have to be the advocates for our young children. Even my 2 1/2 year old knows now when I tell him he can’t have something to ask me what ingredient is in it that he is allergic to. I tell him everything I can & explain it in a pretty frank way. My hope is that he will be a very early advocate for himself!

  8. Two thoughts – first, if she is worried about highly processed food, then send something like fresh fruit kabobs dipped in melted enjoy life chocolate chips. Second, given the high incidence of food allergies and obesity epidemic, the healthier option is to forgo the cake altogether. Why not send a special birthday craft instead?

    Thanks for this response to her blog post!

    • Breffney, thanks for your comment! Fresh fruit would seem to be a very safe choice but even that is problematic for some. For example, my son is allergic to bananas, kiwi, peaches, & plums as well as suffering from oral allergy syndrome which does not allow him to eat fresh apples, strawberries, pears, or grapes, in addition to several other food allergies. IMO food should be left out of the classroom equation as much as possible. However, I think the birthday craft would be an EXCELLENT option!! What a terrific suggestion!

  9. My heart hurts! When my son was younger, I used those words myself many times when speaking to parents who couldn’t wrap their heads around not bringing in foods to school. My son is 14 now, and know when my heart “hurts” it’s from the joy I get when his friends and their parents say “hey, can you eat here, or do we need to go somewhere else? Can I eat this around you, or do you want me to throw it away?” It wasn’t easy getting here, and I still take great pride in knowing that both his nursery school and elementary school went peanut free because of my advocacy, but it wasn’t easy. So many parents equate love with food and see school birthday parties as showing “love” for their kids. If more people understood that we aren’t trying to make anyone’s life harder, we don’t want to stop people from “showing love” but we want ALL the kids, and yes especially our kid, to be safe, because something as “simple as a cupcake” could kill them, maybe they’d take a breath and see we’re all on the same side.

  10. It’s just lack of understanding. I have a friend with a lot of allergies and at gatherings she either never came for the food or didn’t eat,I thought it was weird. THEN I had to go gluten free and limit dairy. suddenly I got it all and felt so bad for her. You can’t just go to some potluck and ask the ingredients of everything and expect to not get sick but I didn’t know that until I had to of through it! Our elementary schools have a healthy snack policy which helps a lot! No cupcakes anyway!

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