Just Plain Nuts

For several weeks now, my daughter — along with several hundred other school-age campers and the entire staff of the highly regarded, private-school-affiliated day camp she’s attending — has been forbidden from bringing peanut or tree nut products for lunch because a few campers have severe allergies.

You’re likely thinking, “So? That’s how it should be. We have to protect our kids.” This sort of prohibition is now so common, in fact, that no one bats an eyelash. No one but me. My eyelids are positively droopy from lash batting. I see no legitimate reason to limit the menu for several hundred non-allergic people (many of whom are picky eaters with their own food restrictions) because two or three allergic campers might somehow, despite all reasonable safeguards that could easily be put in place, come in contact with someone else’s lunch.

My husband insists, and I’m afraid he’s at least partly correct, that the restrictions have little to do with the school administrators’ love of children and lots to do with their fear of lawsuits. But let’s say he’s entirely wrong. Let’s say it’s all about the kids, and go from there…

Unlike smoking, which is a known health risk across the board — indiscriminately causing lung disease, heart disease, and cancer — peanuts and tree nuts pose a threat only to a few, highly allergic individuals. And while cigarettes can kill you from afar, the same is not true for almonds. So, while a ban on smoking anywhere children congregate makes sense, the same isn’t necessarily true for peanuts and cashews. Sure, if every person present, or at least the majority, is undeniably allergic, such a ban would be reasonable. If you’re at a camp for nut-allergic kids, there probably shouldn’t be any Nutty Bars lying around.

And if you invite those allergic children to your home, I would suggest you not serve Thai chicken in peanut sauce. They are your guests. Chances are you don’t want to kill or sicken them. But if they’re attending a large school with a diverse enrollment, I think the onus for their safety is on them — meaning their parents. The parents, the child (if old enough to comprehend the sentence “If you eat this you will get sick and die.”), and any staff in contact with the child, should do whatever is needed to protect the child — right up to the point where it unnecessarily burdens everyone else.

Some simple protective measures might include having the child wear an “I’m allergic to nuts” sticker* while at camp, as well as making sure fellow campers, parents, and staff are aware of and conform to a “no food sharing” policy. Beyond that, it’s really not my or my child’s problem. Nor should it be made our problem.

Forbidding the nuts entirely (and then only when allergic children are present), subtly suggests three things: 1. The allergic child is too stupid and/or out of control to stop himself from stealing and eating someone else’s food, even when he knows that food might make him sick; 2. The staff is unable or unwilling to watch their campers closely enough to prevent food swapping or sharing; and 3. At least some of the non-allergic campers are idiotic, cruel, or both.

I do not wish allergies on anyone. Of course not. But really, it’s not my problem. Yes, I do care if your child is sick or injured. But isn’t it your job to worry about your kid, and my job to worry about mine? My kid is not giving her Almond Joy to your kid, and your kid should not be trying to take or consume my kid’s PB&J. It is not your concern, nor your right — despite your child’s allergy — to dictate what is in my child’s lunchbox. Mind your own business. And by all means, send in an Epi-Pen, just in case.

If I told my child “don’t share or trade your lunch because some kids are allergic and could get sick if they ate it” that is all I’d need to say. She’s 7-1/2. She can fully understand each and every one of those words. So there’s your first safety net. Next safety net is the staff. They already watch so carefully, they have time and energy to step away from their duties to call and scold if you forget and send peanut butter crackers. Could they not just as easily, and to everyone’s advantage, expend their energy watching the kids to be sure each child eats only his own lunch, rather than hunting for inadvertent contraband and scolding exhausted parents?

And when you slip up — when you’re preparing three lunches after midnight and mistakenly throw the PB&J in the Hello Kitty bag instead of the My Little Pony bag — what then? Are the allergic children sent, along with a friendly staffer, into a “safe” room to eat their lunches together (as should happen daily if the assumptions listed above are true)? Of course not. Instead, the poor kid whose mom screwed up is taken from the room and placed in isolation to eat the contraband in shame, while mom is called (triggering one of those mini heart-attacks we get when a phone rings mid-morning and someone says, “This is Mrs. So-and-So at the school…”) and chastised at length in a tone normally reserved for bad puppies who’ve soiled the rug.

Interestingly, my two other kids attend another school-affiliated camp that, for religious reasons, severely restricts the food allowed onto campus. It’s a royal pain in the neck. But I knew this going in. I was willing to learn and follow the numerous and complex rules so my children could attend an institution which is well worth the inconvenience. And every year, regardless of who is and isn’t enrolled, the entire school is subject to the same regulations.

Were the secular camp to adopt a schoolwide nut ban, it would surely be idiotic and unnecessary, but at least it would be up front, across-the-board, and give you the option of saying, “No, thanks. We’ll go elsewhere.” Most important, it wouldn’t be randomly and haphazardly instated, on a week-by-week basis, at the whim of the helicopter parents of individual, over-indulged children.

And if a parent is so fearful, if their child is so severely allergic that simply being in proximity to a substance poses a potentially deadly threat**, perhaps that child is not suited to a general enrollment setting? Perhaps they’d be better suited to a setting catering specifically to children with that same affliction? Surely, hundreds of people cannot be expected to conform to the perceived needs of one or two, beyond taking basic and reasonable precautions. But, wait, yes we are.

What about kids with celiac disease — another terrible disorder currently making headlines? If a child with sprue is attending camp, should everyone be forced to forgo wheat products? No peanut butter, and now, no bread, either. You’re left with a plastic spoon and one of those tiny tin tubs of jelly with the peel-off lid. Until the kid with diabetes enrolls…

A close friend is severely allergic to seafood. If her husband takes a bite of shrimp, then kisses her, she’ll have a reaction. Swollen lips and tongue. Serious stuff. If she eats fish, she could die. She has to be very careful. But when she and her husband attended my wedding, did we change the menu? No. But I did let the catering staff know it was imperative that the seared tuna be left off, not just removed from, her salad. And when they attended our first child’s naming at our home, I made sure the tuna and egg salad sandwiches were segregated at the deli, rather than combined on a single platter, as they’d normally be. But this was my guest, in my home. Should the same, and more, be expected of hundreds, even thousands, of total strangers? I don’t think so.

Many kids are allergic to bees. Do they stay indoors year round? Of course not. They simply carry an Epi-Pen in case of emergency, and get on with life. And no one else is expected to stop playing outside, or, say, avoid wearing yellow, to help “keep them safe” or make them feel “less different.” But I would not be at all surprised were a notice sent home stating that “This week all campers will be playing indoors because two of the children have severe bee-sting allergies.” And all the staff and parents (except me) would think it a splendid idea.

Chances are, most of these “child advocates” are the same folks who refuse to support politicians they see as being “controlled by the special interests.” They don’t recognize that “children allergic to peanuts and tree nuts” or “people allergic to bees” or “people who take up two airplane seats” all constitute special interest groups, or that requiring the majority to change their non-inherently dangerous habits to indulge those few is, in effect, “controlling.” Some might call it pandering. No, I don’t think anyone should be left out. I’m in favor of inclusion. But there is a difference between being included and being indulged. When you have ready access, that’s inclusion. When everyone else sacrifices to provide for your needs, that’s indulgence.

No, these insurance-anxious administrators and well-intentioned parents don’t make that connection, see the irony, or acknowledge the potential detriment to the kids they seek to “keep safe.” They’re happily raising an entire generation of special interest groups. Today’s coddled, over-indulged kids will grow into adults who feel perfectly entitled to make everyone around them change their habits and lifestyles to meet their particular special need, whatever it may be. Whether they “deserve” to take up their own airplane or theater seat plus half of yours, or they “need” you to refrain from eating peanut butter sandwiches — they have been trained from birth to understand that you, not they, are the ones who need to attend to, cater to, and change to meet their needs, demands, and desires. They are not responsible. They are entitled.

But what else could happen? How else could it play out? When a 7-year-old is taught that several hundred people can be made to change what they eat for lunch, just to accommodate him, how can he learn to think of himself as anything but entitled? He wasn’t taught to protect himself, that he has a particular challenge that he needs to learn to deal with to keep himself safe. No, the world will deal with it for him.

I just don’t see this sort of experience — and the many sure to follow — leading to a life of empathy or self-sacrifice.

I think maybe the whole “entitlement” problem arises from the popular notion that being different can no longer have a negative connotation (or negative repercussions, however minor***). In fact, being different can’t have any connotation at all. Even “gifted” programs — surely a positive thing for those selected to participate — are now called something entirely generic (it’s “Discovery” or something equally inane at our elementary school). Why? So as not to upset the average and stupid kids, of course. You can’t be set apart for being smart because that would set others apart for being not smart. You can’t make the allergic kids sit together and eat in safety because they might feel “singled out as different.” Just ignore the obvious fact that they ARE different — they’re allergic to nuts! Instead, make the hundreds of other kids change what they eat so no one “feels different.” Now there’s a sensible solution. Heaven forbid we compare ourselves with others and fall short or see any sort of difference at all — good or bad, positive or negative.

Nowadays, everyone’s exactly the same. Every single child can grow up to be a nuclear physicist if s/he just puts in the effort and “believes in himself.” Everyone is special. So everyone has special needs. Of course you can’t be retarded anymore. But you also can’t be learning disabled or developmentally delayed. No, now you’re “differently abled.” Spare me. Even retarded people see through this sort of bullsh*t. How would I know? Well, I drive retarded people around in my spare time. Yeah, really. Not every day, but often enough. These are people who cannot drive themselves where they need to go, often because they’re simply too stupid to drive. They hand me a paper voucher and I take them to work, or the doctor’s appointment, or wherever. And of course, we chat.

My 5-year-old god-daughter has Down syndrome. These kids are prone to a host of health problems, but she managed to dodge those bullets. Furthermore, her parents — both successful professionals with multiple advanced degrees — have advocated on her behalf from the moment of her birth. She’s been given every available intervention and opportunity to help her reach her potential, whatever that may be. Most recently, her father petitioned the school board to allow her to enroll in a regular kindergarten class. Her test scores, argued her father, were high enough to qualify her for enrollment in a regular classroom, despite her condition. He didn’t think she should be relegated to special ed. And neither do I. Not if she met the requirements. And she did.

That does not mean, however, that I or her parents expect the other students in her class to read simpler books, do easier math, or in any other way slow down the pace of their studies to accommodate my god-daughter. No matter how well she does, how far she goes — and her parents fully intend for her to attend college — odds are against her ever being a neurosurgeon or a CEO. Should the other kids be slowed down or given less-challenging material to prevent my god-daughter from feeling “bad about herself” or “different from the other kids”? Of course not. For one thing, she is different from the other kids. And it is the responsibility of her parents, teachers, and caregivers to make her feel loved and challenged. It’s not anyone else’s job.

We need to stop teaching kids that their every foible is something to celebrate, that their every want is a need, and that their every need will and should be met. Parents should, they must, give unconditional love. But that means consistent support and acceptance despite flaws, not because of them. Self-esteem isn’t something you can force the world to provide. It’s something that comes from that magical combination of loving parents and real accomplishment. The public doesn’t love your child, doesn’t have to, and probably won’t. It’s your job to make your child understand that and be OK with that — not to demand it from the world at large.     ______________________________________________

* Check out Allergators for adorable t-shirts, wrist bands, stickers, and other items designed to help identify and protect allergic kids. The company is run by a mom. If schools handed out the Allergator wristbands ($9 for 10) instead of banning nuts, it would work out great for everyone.

** The potentially deadly anaphylactic reaction the school fears (itchy mouth, swollen lips and tongue) is caused by direct contact with the trigger proteins in the nuts. That is, the kid has to eat it to have a reaction. Simply being near it, or even smelling someone’s PB&J, cannot cause the reaction, despite popular belief. The proteins are not carried in the air. Go ahead and ask a doctor — an MD, not an EdD.

*** You have nut allergies, but you shouldn’t have to experience the “repercussions” of wearing an identifying safety sticker or eating in a designated nut-free room so that you can attend summer camp. Or, maybe you’re extremely overweight, but you shouldn’t have to experience the “repercussions” of paying for an extra seat — it should be given to you because of your “disability.”

Or, you can just raise the armrest and spill over into the adjoining seat, effectively “taking” half of someone else’s seat, in order to fly on the plane or attend the show without paying for two seats. This happened to my husband on a recent flight. He was seated next to a very large woman. She raised the armrest between them, spreading into his seat and up against him. Their legs were pressed together from knee to hip. When he tried to put the armrest back down and regain his space, he couldn’t. The woman’s flesh prevented it. Rather than hurt her, of course, he gave up. He spent more than 4 hours glued to the woman’s thigh.

(originally posted July 28, 2010)


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