It’s never too early to start discussing food allergies with children. For many families, these discussions have taken place daily since their children were babies and experienced their first allergic reaction.
Food allergy parents do this to keep our kids healthy and safe. But that isn’t enough. I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to food allergies, it takes a village to keep our children safe. We need your help. We need you to teach your children about food allergies as well.
Food allergies affect 1 in 13 kids, which means if you have a toddler in daycare of preschool, they will encounter someone with one. And even though you might not know which child it is, your child likely does if the facility is big on food-centric celebrations.
It might not seem like a big deal to you if a child is excluded because they cannot eat the food brought in for parties or if they have a different, safe treat to eat instead. But it is a big deal to the child watching their classmates enjoy something they can’t have. Even when that child is a toddler.
It gets noticed by other kids too — even as young as two or three.
This week, a mom in the preschool line said her daughter came home one day saying L got a special treat from a box when someone brought in homemade cupcakes for their birthday. The little girl had no idea that was because L couldn’t eat the cupcakes; she just saw that he was eating something different.
Her mom was a teacher and knew from that experience that sometimes kids would have a special snack kept in the classroom if an outside treat was brought in that wasn’t safe for them to eat. She seized the opportunity to talk to her daughter about food allergies and wanted to make sure that when it was their turn to bring in a birthday treat, it would be one L can eat too.
“It’s something kids need to learn about, even as young as this,” she told me.
A-FUCKING-MEN! I wanted to cry out. But I didn’t. Because our preschool is in a church. But I did cry as I was driving home. The conversation prompted a bigger one among ourselves and another parent. They reminded me that there are people willing to be part of the village the food allergy community needs.
But what if you’re not familiar with food allergies beyond the (inaccurately portrayed) things you’ve seen on TV or the movies? How do you talk to your toddler about food allergies and teach them food allergy awareness?
Some of this might mean educating yourself. You probably know that sending peanut butter into a nut-free school is a huge NO-NO, but do you know that the vanilla cupcakes you send in for birthdays might not be safe either?
Mostly, it’s teaching our kids empathy. It means teaching your child to take a moment and put themselves in the shoes of the food allergy child.
Since G doesn’t have a food allergy, my focus has been teaching him how we keep his peanut-allergic brother and nut-allergic classmates safe and included. These are some things I have said to him since he was three (he’s almost 6 now):
* If someone eats a food they are allergic to, they might end up with itchy spots. Or it might be hard for them to breathe.
* Sometimes they might need special medicine and will have to spend some time in the hospital. It can be scary.
* Just because you can’t see the food someone is allergic to doesn’t mean it isn’t there. This is why we must always read the ingredients and allergy warnings. If it is listed in either of those places, we put it back. (I cannot reiterate this one enough.)
* We always want to make sure the food we take to school for parties is safe for everyone. I know that you can have the cupcakes with the cool frosting, but they are not safe for everyone in your class. We want to make sure everyone in your class is included in the fun and can have the same thing.
And I don’t stop there. Here are other ways I’ve been teaching my boys about food allergies, inclusion, and keeping others safe:
* Read books! You can check out the list of ones the boys and I have read and Library Mom’s Ultimate List of Food Allergy Books. Some of these books have talking points and games that help facilitate conversations.
* Watch the Daniel Tiger episode on food allergies together (Season 7, Episode 4).
* Encourage your child to wash their hands with soap and water after they eat, especially if they are going to a play date, school, or activity soon after. Washing hands after you eat is a great way to prevent unsafe foods from getting on shared surfaces or objects. (Remember, toddlers are still putting things in their mouths. If there is an allergen on a toy, it gets on their fingers, and those fingers go into their mouth, which can trigger a reaction.)
* Teach your child not to share food or drinks with classmates. What is safe for them may not be safe for their friends.
* Toddlers learn symbols before they know how to read. Ask your kids to help you find the peanut free label on cupcakes and candy. It will look similar to this:
* Ask your child what non-food treats they could bring in for Halloween, Valentine’s Day or their birthday instead of food.
* Sign up for FARE’s Protect A Life™ (PAL) program which helps kids learn how to be a good friend to those with food allergies.
* Remind your children to always treat people with respect and kindness. If they see someone making fun of a child with food allergies, they should tell a teacher. (If they tell you instead, take it seriously. Tell the teacher and/or the principal. This is especially important as our kids get older and bullying becomes more of an issue. Kids who are “different” tend to be the kids who are picked on or bullied and kids with food allergies can be easy to single out at lunch or class parties.)
Preschoolers are learning their colors and letters, but it’s the opportune time to teach them empathy as well. By teaching our kids to be mindful of other’s feelings and helping them figure out ways to make sure everyone is included when it comes to food, you’ll be helping them learn how to make the world a happier — and safer — place for everyone.
Have you started discussing food allergies with your toddler? What are you teaching them about being a good friend and classmate to those with food alleriges?