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Is “Nut-Free” Not Fair?

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So, I just read this rant from a parent who believes – among other uber-agro convictions -- that most children’s food allergies are figments of their overprotective parents’ imaginations, and that nut-free rules in classrooms oppress the children who would otherwise embody rugged individualism and success through survival of the fittest, were it not for the commies (and their little commie kids). So, wow.

Clearly, this person has a serious anger problem (her opening sentence is, “Before I had children I thought I knew the kind of folks I despised”…), but as the mother of a child who has food allergies (including nut allergies) which are in fact real, and life-threatening, this caught my attention. It also scared me a little.

Food allergies are indeed far more common now than they used to be, but this isn’t because parents fancy their children more fragile, as the article’s author believes. I can tell you first-hand that I would love nothing more than for nuts, wheat, eggs, and other common foods to pose no threat at all to my child. The ease with which a two-year-old can gain access to, say, a peanut is pretty stunning. And yes, a peanut would render my (robust, healthy, strong) child fragile, indeed. Handing him one for him to put into his mouth (which, unfortunately, happened recently, as an adult we know absentmindedly did at a party; I caught sight of it and intercepted it just before it reached Kaspar’s lips) is about the equivalent of handing him a dangerous weapon, and I doubt any parent – Libertarian or not – would advocate dispensing weaponry to toddlers.

Many schools go nut-free as a way to minimize the risks available to the children they care for each day (not to mention liabilities). Kaspar’s classroom is now nut-free, as well. I asked for this, actually, although I waited several months before doing so, wondering whether I should. I didn’t want to make lunch-prep any more vexing than it already is for other parents. No one had a problem with it, though. For me, asking was worth it; it’s meant I can breathe that much easier while Kaspar’s in childcare, and I can be less the protective parent, and more the productive one, during those hours.

In fact, beyond the health challenges that food allergies bring to parenting, there are also, well, parenting challenges . I think a lot about how I can help Kaspar to feel bold, strong and safe in the world, while also imparting to him how serious his allergies are (for now, anyway), so that he’ll learn to self-advocate, and keep himself out of harm’s way. I don’t want him to think himself fragile at all, or to be afraid of lurking dangers; I want him to participate fully in life. I also struggle, as a parent, to keep him safe without constantly patrolling. I like to mingle as much as the next girl, but it’s also imperative that I communicate to others how crucial it is that Kaspar not eat their food (no, not even a taste), and then steer the conversation elsewhere so that our social engagements aren’t dominated by questions and conversation around emergencies we’ve experienced, Kaspar’s health history or endless discussions on what he can and can’t eat, all of which he’s more attuned to than people generally give him credit for. We try to keep it casual – I tell Kaspar, “Everyone has something, bud” – and we move on. With precautions taken, food allergies do not rule our lives. They’re something we manage, yes, but they don’t define Kaspar, and I don’t intend for them to do so. (In fact, they’re improving , and my deep-down hope is for Kaspar to not need to manage them in the long-term; we’re working to get them gone for good).

I can’t really imagine encountering a grown adult who’s forgotten that everyone does have something – we’re all different, we all have needs – and who’d proclaim me overprotective or overdemanding for asking that others help me to keep my child safe, and happy, too. I’ve read that kids with food allergies frequently suffer from feelings of isolation, fear and depression – something I hope to help Kaspar avoid as he grows (may he always be as lighthearted as he is now); the last thing classrooms need are echoes of self-righteous parents back home saying “How DARE you limit my lunch options?”

Yet I know food choices are, for some, staunchly defended territory. Food just strikes a highly personal chord with people. I was a vegan for about five years, just before and during college, and I well remember being implored to explain my food choices (and then required to listen to everyone else defend theirs) during every big family holiday dinner, year after year. Even if I brought tasty dishes to share with everyone, and made no mention of my own preferences, the topic would invariably come up (whilst my cooking was invariably enjoyed). I do eat meat these days (Kaspar eats a lot of it), and I’m passionate about food culture and politics. I just love food – cooking it, eating it, sharing it. Yet still, questions around what kinds of foods I enjoy eating and cooking (local, organic ones, mostly) often spark long explanations from inquirers as to their own love of, and loyalty to, ‘junk’ foods of all kinds. People hold fast to their own eating habits and tend to feel judged or offended by the choices of others. This is something that I bear in mind as I help Kaspar navigate around his necessary (key word) restrictions. I’m trying to find the ways that work best to communicate around them so that I can model this for him, and hand him the tools. I know he’ll come up against resistance from people who misunderstand food allergies, and he’s just going to have to put safety first in those situations, whether someone’s offended or not. As far as school lunches are concerned, however, let me attest: it’s really not that difficult to leave the nut butters out. Really. I do it every day. And I’d do it for your kid in a heartbeat.

But then, I’m the kind of parent the article’s author ‘despises’, even though I don’t fit the extreme profile she’s cooked up, not at all. People aren’t so easily pigeon-holed. Sure, I parent naturally, I co-sleep, and I believe ALL children are truly unique and talented individuals (who should be recognized as such). I also believe kids should get dirty , and that life is – and should be – fun. I’m raising my son to thrive in the real world, as a kind person as well as a happy one. I respect other parents’ choices, knowing how challenging making parenting choices can be, and I expect others to respect mine. And when I read rants by other moms who spend their time pointing fingers, referring to ‘killjoys’ and ‘commies’, and suggesting coalitions form in protest of nut-free schools? Well, suffice to say there doesn’t seem to be a lot of joy, or fun, in that corner. I’m not sure what ‘kind’ of parent that is, but I’m glad I’m not one of them. (*Shudder*).

What do you think? Are nut-free schools or classrooms a problem or hassle for parents whose kids aren’t allergic? (If you say ‘yes’ on this I promise not to assume you’re a total hater!). Have you ever encountered another parent as angry as the one who wrote the article in question? (If so, how did you handle that?) Do you feel like your natural parenting choices ever get judged or misconstrued? If you have a food-allergic kid, have you ever been called overprotective in your efforts to keep your child safe?

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