empowering people with life threatening food allergies

Boys will be Boys

Peanut allergy has hit the mainstream press. The New York Times just last week posted an article titled “Mean Grown-Ups.” The actual text is also below.

The article talks about adults taunting other parents (and effectively their kids) with verbal threats of peanut exposure. While most of these comments are said or felt in anger or frustration, I imagine these adults would be vehemently on the other side trying to do all that they could to keep peanut out of schools if their child had the allergy.

In high school some of the boys would somtimes tease me when I would move away when one of them was eating a peanut butter sandwich; sometimes they would pretend to wave it in my face although never threateningly. To this day, I still receive friendly taunts even from friends. In fact, last week, a man who meant no harm pulled out a bag of peanuts and asked me to hold them, completely forgetting I was severely allergic until I reminded him. I suppose no matter how many rules and regulations are in place, people will always be people, and boys will be boys. As awareness increases, then hopefully the taunting, even in jest, will go away. –Neelu

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Mean Grown-Ups

The stories are downright chilling: One parent joked on a message board about having his daughter dress as “the Death Peanut” on Halloween. A North Carolina father at a parent-teacher organization meeting said he’d continue to send his child to school with peanut butter sandwiches and “tell his child to ‘smear’ the peanut butter along the hallway walls.” Another father sent his child to school with a “disguised” sandwich that had peanut butter hidden in the middle of the bread.

There are many ways to read this behavior. On the one hand, it reflects widespread ignorance about the scope and severity of some food allergies, and it also reveals plain old laziness. Some parents and educators sense that peanut worries have come to verge on paranoia. And then there’s a sense that some parents are going nuts about food generally.

I sympathize with that feeling – up to a point. There was a time a few years ago when I, too, conflated the anxiety of the merely food-averse with the fears of those whose kids were threatened by potentially fatal allergies. A teacher once told me about a preschool mom who took to following her daughter room to room, and screamed at staff members if they didn’t walk the halls with EpiPens strapped to their bodies. The teacher felt that this mother was ridiculous, and I did, too. It’s easy to turn a quasi-mocking eye on someone who behaves in this way.

That is, it was easy for me until another mother described to me the experience of watching her son nearly die in her arms after an accidental peanut ingestion. Getting into her skin – feeling the fear and vulnerability that drove her to, she admitted, sometimes maddening behavior – changed everything for me. I’d like it if all parents could at some point force themselves to do this kind of mental exercise. Empathy can be painful – but a little goes a long way.

And empathy appears to me now, in much of what I read, to be in particularly short supply, not only among different groups of parents (all those “wars,” Mommy and otherwise) but in the increasingly punitive attitudes of school systems and legislators toward parents and, by extension, their kids. Frequently, I find, there seems to be a kind of studied harshness in the air, an in-your-face obtuseness that tries to pass itself off as some sort of virtue or push for justice. I’m thinking particularly now of the “war on obesity,” which in some school districts is being waged through letters home to parents or in report cards bearing the bad news about students’ body mass indexes. The ostensible goal is to make parents aware that their children’s health is at risk, but the real effect has often been, as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have reported, to scold parents and humiliate their children.

(“Do you think I’m fat?” a fifth grader asked her embarrassed gym teacher after a letter came home showing a low fitness score. “She had never thought that she was heavy,” the teacher told the Journal.)

Another example: a Texas state legislator earlier this year introduced a bill that proposed bringing criminal charges and up to $500 in fines against parents who failed to show up for scheduled parent-teacher conferences. Once again, the goal was undoubtedly laudable: to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s education. Yet the heart was missing, the compassion and understanding and willingness to concede that most parents who do not attend school conferences don’t because they can’t – because bosses, work demands, transportation or other limitations make it impossible. Such considerations make no difference to the would-be sheriffs in our midst, eager to correct the behavior of those deemed too lax or permissive or self-indulgent.

In every case where there are breakdowns of empathy, children are the ones who really suffer. Whether it’s the peanut-allergic kids Child Magazine found ostracized in classrooms and cafeterias, or those whose newly-revealed B.M.I. scores crash-landed them into the world of the “fat,” or those whose parents are additionally alienated from school districts that consider them near-criminals – it’s the kids who fall victim in the crossfire of adult self-righteousness and officiousness. The worst examples of all came from columnist Bob Herbert earlier this month, when he shared stories of six- and seven-year-olds hauled off in handcuffs for “crimes” like throwing a tantrum at school and riding a dirt bike on the sidewalk.

Racism was the ingredient that pushed these incidents to the level of outright horror. Yet, most of the meanness I sense in the zeitgeist right now seems to me to be attributable to a kind of financial and emotional avarice. It is cheaper and easier to send home letters about a child’s B.M.I. than it is to bring more and better physical education into the school day or spend more money on better-quality school food. It is hard to show generosity of spirit when you fear that your own family is constantly getting shortchanged.

I think of the woman quoted in the Journal article whose children’s school had overhauled its cafeteria offerings in favor of healthier and less-caloric foods and who complained that her kids – athletes not big on fruits and veggies – were “getting the short end of the stick because of the obese kids.” I think, too, of the mother I interviewed recently who has two sons in public school — one who gets special education services because he has Asperger’s syndrome, and one who’s in a “gifted and talented” program — and who must endure repeated digs by other parents over her family’s suspect ability to “work the system.”

“There’s a lot of unrest, let’s just say,” she told me of her little corner of hell on the schoolyard.

The kinds of parents who willfully and insultingly resist complying with peanut-free rules may simply be people who, in this cutthroat time, respond with a kind of visceral fear and loathing to any child (or parent) whom they perceive to be getting preferential treatment. These parents may be motivated by all kinds of resentments and fears that they cannot name or properly articulate.

Or they simply may be creeps.

One Response to “Boys will be Boys”

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