A few years back, the news media reported the results of a study that found that many nut-allergic children were unable to recognize common nuts. The article prompted mixed reviews from parents of food allergic children. Some were offended by the suggestion that parents, in trying to shield their children from danger, had not taught them to recognize their allergens. Others, however, felt that the researchers’ comments had merit: children must be able to recognize allergenic foods in order to avoid them.
I was reminded of the time when my son Julian (then 6) unwittingly played with peanuts. We were at the Cottage Life Show and had stopped by an exhibit with birdhouses and feeders. Waiting patiently for me to pick a birdhouse, Julian amused himself by picking up handfuls of feed, letting it sift through his hands, like sand. He did this for a while before I noticed something light-colored amongst the seeds.
Grabbing his hand, I snapped, “Do you know what you’re touching?” As I whisked him off to wash his hands, explaining what I thought to be quite obvious – there were peanuts in the feed – he reminded me that he had never seen “peanuts like that” before.
Not having any small pets, we had never bought animal feed. The peanuts that he recognized were not in pieces, but whole, darker (roasted), in the shell or in peanut butter. I apologized for my outburst, explaining that I had reacted spontaneously, yelling, not out of anger, but out of fear for his safety.
This episode (and several others) taught me that while it is important to teach children how to avoid danger by recognizing their allergens, it is equally important to teach them how to respond calmly when allergens are present in their environment, and how to gently remind others of potential risks. Over the years, I’ve learned to contain my anxiety and bite my tongue when I’ve been tempted to say to my child and others, “But you don’t get it, this could cause an allergic reaction.”
The holiday season presents a challenge for those faced with food allergy. Danger seems to be ever present with an abundance of food: shrimp rings, trays of nuts, dairy-containing veggie dips and sauces, and baked goods and sweets full of many allergens.
While social outings can be anxiety-provoking, try to use food-related events to teach children to navigate safely, to be on guard for both obvious and not-so-obvious risks. Through our behavior and attitude, parents can show children how to inform others graciously about their food allergies. These lessons will carry them through life.
Next page: Laurie’s Holiday Checklist