Open Letter to the Mom Who Said Parents Should Relax About Kids' Food Allergies

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If you were on Facebook or Twitter or online at all last week you no doubt had the pleasure of reading the Mean Girls-style sorority rant that was making the rounds. What you might have missed, however, was the food allergy-fueled mommy version.

Allergy necklaces
Image: Courtesy of Kid Cultivation

Freelance writer and mother Renee Moilanen published a piece on DailyBreeze.com entitled: Parents Should Relax a Bit About Kids' Food Allergies.

I'll let you take a moment to peruse the article but if you'd rather spare yourself, here's the gist. Ms. Moilanen is dismayed that her non-allergic son had to celebrate his 3rd birthday (in the preschool classroom) with soy ice cream bars due to the allergies of his fellow students. Despite her heroic attempt to bring in a safe treat, one child still ate graham crackers rather than soy ice cream bars, causing her, that is, Moilanen, not the child, immense irritation. Moilanen's personal experience being that she "chose" not to accept her own son's food allergy (he got a rash around his mouth after eating eggs as a baby and now it turns out he can eat them), she feels certain that the vast majority of parents of food allergic children are exaggerating or flat-out making up their kids' allergies.

OK. Got that? Good.

Understandably Ms. Moilanen is catching a lot of flak in the comments section of her article and elsewhere around the web. I can't say I disagree with much of the commentary, but this woman is, after all, a mother, and I can only assume that the best interest of her child is at the heart of the rhetoric. I've always taken a middle-of-the-road stance when it comes to trying to manage food allergies in schools, but this really got to me. In hopes that it is ignorance rather than malice behind the piece, my open letter to Renee Moilanen follows.

Dear Ms. Moilanen,

Let me begin with an apology. I am sorry that you find food allergies to be inconvenient. Believe me, I can relate. Allergies are no fun.

As a room parent responsible for organizing parties and social events for multiple allergy-infested preschool and elementary classrooms, I understand what an inconvenience food allergies can be. As the mother of children both with and without food allergies and as a compassionate human being, I found your recent piece to be poorly researched, mean-spirited and dangerous.

You wonder, could 20 percent of the children in your son's preschool classroom possibly have true food allergies? My apologies again, but yes, most definitely. Based on your figures 1 to 2 percent of children have true food allergies (though other studies put the number closer to 8 percent). I can't help but wonder, are there a lot of white kids in his class? Do you live in an affluent neighborhood? Race and income have both been shown to impact the prevalence of food allergies. Are the preschoolers in his class generally preschool-aged? Yeah, well, that ups the ante too. With a sample size of 15 students, I fear your trusty percentages are going to be hard to enforce.

Caucasians have more allergies than any other race. Of course, my son is half Indian (perhaps you'll hold that against him too, but again, it is yet another physical characteristic over which he has no control) and he still ended up with multiple food allergies despite Asians having the lowest incidence of allergies overall. Maybe this allergy thing doesn't always play by the rules.

Your assertion that parents somehow overreact or worry their children into an allergic state is misinformed and insulting. I will cede the point that death by food allergy is, thankfully, rare. I cannot agree though, that a few days of crippling stomach cramps, bloody stools, skin welts and vomiting are inconsequential medical events to those involved.

Just imagine dropping your child off each and every day for a mandatory playdate (aka school) in a building where you knew there was an unsecured loaded gun hidden away on a high closet shelf. What are the chances that your kid is going to stumble upon the gun? Not great. Even if he does find the gun, what are the chances he'll shoot himself with it? Pretty low, I'd say. How about one of his playdate buddies? Again, the chances are probably not all that high. Maybe you'll get lucky and he'll just shoot himself in the foot. In a few days he'll be out of the hospital ready for his next playdate, right? Wait...not right?

So, would you go so far as to ask the teacher or other parents to secure the weapon even if all the other kiddos liked guns and had undergone appropriate weapons training? Would you skip the play date all together? Or maybe you'd just send your kid in anyway so as not to cause a scene or inconvenience anyone? You tell me because that's the choice I and thousands of other parents make every day when it comes to food allergies, school and our kids.

Yes, the gun analogy is clichéd and extreme but so are many food allergies. Severe does not need to be synonymous with death. The unfortunate truth is that food allergies are unpredictable. Will my child die if he eats an egg-laced cookie? Nope, probably not. But then again, you never know. Every allergic reaction is an individual event. The best predictor is a previous reaction, but again, there are no guarantees.

I guess what I'm asking for here is a little compassion or at least open-mindedness when it comes to allergies, because it is hard. It is so gut-wrenchingly hard to give a quick kiss and walk away from your child not knowing if today is the day the dreaded phone call is going to come. In my experience, kids are inherently understanding and supportive when it comes to allergies in the classroom. It's only when the parents get involved that things start to get ugly. Knowing that other parents are not only unsympathetic but actively annoyed that my son might bring along his own safe snack is especially excruciating. Talk about setting the scene for bullying.

I don't have all the answers regarding the handling of food allergies in schools, but neither do you. Once you've attended the allergy appointments, held a squirming toddler for countless prick tests and patch tests, and cleared your schedule for daylong administration of flu shots; once you have refilled dozens of prescriptions for EpiPens and spent weekends huddled around the toilet rubbing your son's back as he shivers and retches in pain caused by a piece of "egg-free" cornbread that turned out not to be, then I'll be ready to listen to your advice on handling my kid's allergies.  

Until then, there is absolutely no good that can come from judging the parenting strategies of allergic families any more than can come from my judgement that you're raising your son in an uncompassionate junk food-riddled environment. How about I allow that you're competent enough to feed your child and you admit that you might not know everything there is to know about feeding mine.

After all, we're the parents.

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