It takes a village
to protect children with food allergies—a big, empathic and attentive village. The kind of village that puts kids before
technology (as in, they watch carefully when food allergy kids are around instead of staring at a phone
screen). The kind of village that asks
questions to get information, not to judge.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone wants to live in such a
village and not everyone understands the need for vigilance when it comes to food
I am a mother of
two children with food allergies. Some
of those allergies cause hives, upset stomach and itchy skin. Some of them are potentially fatal. All of them have the potential to either
improve or worsen over time, and the only way to know where we stand is to see
the allergist for more testing (with needles and others things that kids don't
launch into a comment about the latest and greatest "research" (make that very
small study) stating that exposing infants to peanuts will help reduce
allergies, know this: Some of us already
My kids are not allergic to
peanuts, but they are highly allergic to all tree nuts. I ate tree nuts throughout my pregnancy. I ate tree nuts while I nursed my
babies. And the minute they had enough
teeth to chew? They were given tree
nuts. They were also given things like
rice (both allergic), blueberries and bananas (both allergic), and soy (one
That's only a partial
While I am a big
fan of ongoing research to help prevent and treat food allergies, not every
study applies to every family. And food
allergies are very scary. While I would
never demand a tree-nut-free campus (although I came really close after my
daughter went to the nurse three times in one week due to wheezing triggered by
a classmate's lunch), I do expect the village to pitch in and help look out for
my kids. Every single day of our lives
is a leap of faith.
Every. Single. Day.
How can you
support a mom friend who has kids with food allergies? Start here:
1. Ask for details
Very few people
ask me about safe vs. unsafe foods when my kids attend a birthday
party. This, for the record, is why we
don't do drop-offs. You can call me a
helicopter, I can take it, but that's not the issue. A 6-year-old, even one who reads on a first-grade level, can't make sense of food labels. So few people ask, in fact, that I almost cried when the mom of my
daughter's best friend texted me early in their friendship to get a list to
post on her fridge. We didn't know each
other well at all, but she wanted a detailed list just to be safe.
Ask for your
friend for information. Ask how to read
labels to ensure that cross-allergens are not a problem. If you don't understand the seemingly endless
list of soy ingredients that pop up in processed food, ask about them. Ask your friend what signs and symptoms to
look for. My son's lips will swell if he
eats something he shouldn't, but my daughter usually wheezes first. No two reactions are exactly the same. Information helps.
2. Don't judge
If it seems like
food allergy moms plan their lives around food, it's because, to some extent,
they have to. Do we go above and beyond
sometimes? Probably. Do we ask endless questions and pack safe
snacks when we do agree to drop-off parties? Yes. This is what we have to do
to protect our kids. The one time I
forgot to have the "please don't feed my kid" chat, she was given a bowl of
Pirate's Booty (rice, therefore, hives everywhere). My bad.
My kids are
really good about saying no to unfamiliar to food, but they do trust close
friends, teachers and relatives. Mistakes happen. If hovering just
a little bit reduces food allergy mistakes, then I'm willing to hover. Please don't judge me.
3. Let us leave early (or arrive late)
I know how much
work planning a party entails, and I totally appreciate all of it. My kids love birthday parties, and they always
appreciate being included. Although I am
always 100 percent honest about how I handle
allergies and parties, I know that some people don't understand: If the party involves a meal, we will either
arrive late, because we ate first, or leave early if my child is hungry. I've tried dropping off special foods and
homemade cupcakes for the cake portion of the party. I'm willing to do the work. But my kids? They confided in me that the meals and cakes are the hardest part for
them, and I have to respect their feelings in all of this.
Being late isn't
always a sign of rudeness. Leaving early
doesn't always mean someone doesn't appreciate the party. Sometimes protective factors are necessary. Understanding that means the world to us food allergy moms.
4. Be gentle with the kids
As much as I
tell my kids that different is good, it can be really hard to feel
different. It's hard to explain food
allergies over and over again. It's hard
to be the one kid at the school party who can't eat the chocolate.
Be kind with
your words. Try not to make food jokes
to lighten the mood—food-allergy kids tend to take those personally. Avoid questioning them about their eating
habits. They've learned to eat what they know is safe (and, yes, sometimes that
means sticking to a few safe foods). Food-allergy kids are just that: kids. They like to run, play, jump from high places and be silly, just like
every other kid. They just need a little
extra help when it comes to eating safe and healthy foods.
It takes a
village to protect a child with food allergies. Food allergy kids don't need protection every minute of every day, but a
little empathy and understanding, and a watchful eye at the table, goes a long way toward
helping that child feel safe.