The other day we were discussing the possibility of adopting a dog (maaaaaybe!) and my five-year-old son stopped suddenly.
“Mom, I thought you were allergic to dogs?”
“Well, I am … sort of … a little.”
“So a dog won’t make you very, very, very sick in the hospital?! Like the kids who can’t have peanuts at school?!”
When you’re trying to explain food allergies to little kids, it can be hard to explain the risks without scaring them, while also explaining that pollen is not going to send Mommy to the hospital.
I launched into a (hopefully helpful) discussion about the difference between “serious allergies” and “slight allergies.” The fact that Mommy gets sneezy around certain dogs sometimes? Not a serious allergy! The reason you can’t take a PBJ to school? Because a lot of kids have VERY SERIOUS ALLERGIES.
Our daughter (now three) had an egg allergy when she was a year old, but the kids have no memory of that. Many kids have no real knowledge of food allergies if they don’t have a friend or family member with food allergies — other than maybe “Peanuts = bad! No peanuts at school! Nooooo!”
So how do you teach non-allergic kids about food allergies?
Here are the “take-home messages” we have been reinforcing to our three-year-old and five-year-old from the verrrrry beginning:
- “Sometimes kids are very, very allergic to certain foods.”
- “Eating those foods — or even touching them — could make them VERY sick and put them in the hospital.”
- “We never, ever share food with a friend unless their mom or dad says it’s OK.”
- “A lot of kids are allergic to peanut butter. That’s why we never bring peanut butter to school or to the park, and we don’t eat it for breakfast on school days.”
Of course, many kids have very serious allergies to foods other than peanuts: eggs, dairy, soy, wheat, tree nuts, sesame, mustard, you name it. But when school-aged kids are concerned, peanut butter seems to be the biggie because it was a lunch staple. (Pssst: Not anymore! We’ve got lots of allergy-friendly lunch ideas.)
Our five-year-old is a huge PBJ kid, but he knows those are only for weekends. During the week, we make his sandwiches with a peanut butter alternative and he’s perfectly happy. We never tried to sneak in the substitute or trick him into thinking it was regular peanut butter. I wanted him to know exactly why he wasn’t getting regular peanut butter: the safety of other children in his school.
Kids need to know that allergies are serious, but they’re also not weird or unusual. One in three kids with food allergies are bullied, and it’s our responsibility as parents to teach our children to respect the severity of food allergies while also not treating their classmates any differently.
We can model good behavior before a playdate by always checking with their parents first to see if their child has any food allergies. If they do, we need to be checking with them to see if the snack we’re serving will be safe for them (there are SO many great allergen-free snack options) and asking about what to do in case of an emergency.
When our kids help us set out fresh fruit and allergen-free cookies instead of cheese strings and peanut-butter brownies, they’re seeing the importance of respecting their friends and making sure they will be safe. Isn’t that something every child should be learning?