Food allergies, school, and the real world

School desks | When Peanuts Attack

“Eventually you’re going to have to teach that kid to live in the real world, you know.”

In the context of conversations about the management of food allergies in school, I have heard this phrase more times than I can count, offered as an argument against making accommodations to keep children with food allergies safe and included in school environments. And over the many times I’ve heard it, I have come to realize that it is a very illogical argument. There are at least two major logical problems with it:

First, let’s address that word, “eventually.”

Eventually, three-year-olds will be twelve-year-olds, and will need to cross streets on their own, without holding anyone’s hand. Does that mean we should let three-year-olds cross busy intersections alone now, without help, unsupervised?

Eventually five-year-olds will be sixteen, and will need to know how to drive. Does that mean we should hand five-year-olds the keys to our cars, and let them start practicing today?

Eventually ten-year-olds will be twenty, and will (we hope), move out of their parents’ houses, and live on their own. Does that mean we should make ten-year-olds, now, regularly spend entire weekends home alone, cooking, cleaning and managing the whole household for themselves?

Eventually children will be adults. And it’s absolutely true that it is vitally important to prepare all children for adulthood by teaching children how to make responsible decisions and take good care of themselves, children are not adults now, and should not be expected to take on adult responsibilities before they are ready.

Children are still learning how to navigate the “real world” adults live in, and need education, guidance, and assistance from adults to do so safely. Whether we are talking about crossing the street, or reading a food label, driving a car, or self-administering an EpiPen during a severe allergic reaction, children should not be expected to take on responsibilities they are not mentally or physically ready to handle.

Here is a simple fact that seems to come as a genuine surprise to some adults who lack experience dealing with food allergic kids, but is incontrovertibly true: children with food allergies are not naturally wiser or more mature than other children. Developing a dairy allergy does not magically grant a two-year-old the ability to read food labels for the word “milk;” getting diagnosed with a peanut allergy does not instantly make a three-year-old more capable of self-control when faced with a tempting candy bar. Having to carry an EpiPen does not necessarily cure a four-year-old of a fear of needles. A five-year-old with a tree nut allergy who is forced to sit in the hallway during a kindergarten cupcake party feels just as left out as any child that age excluded from a party would.

The issue of schoolchildren with food allergies being children, with a maturity level similar to that of children, does not disappear at the middle or high school level, either. Studies show that tweens and teens are impulsive, and take risks, because their still-developing brains lack adult-level impulse control. Teens with food allergies have the same teenage brains as teens without food allergies. Teens with food allergies are, also, subject to the same forces of school stress and peer pressure that teens without food allergies deal with. And like, other teens, as teens with food allergies gain independence and spend more time away from their parents, they sometimes face tough decisions that their still-growing brains may not be fully equipped to handle well.

In fact, teens with food allergies face a higher risk of suffering a fatal allergic reaction than young children with food allergies do.

Kids with food allergies are just that– kids. Like other kids, they are still learning; like other kids, they can be impulsive, or forgetful; they don’t always listen to adults, and don’t always follow directions. Like other kids, they want to be included in a group, and feel hurt when they are left out.

So, even though it’s true that children with food allergies will eventually be adults, it is not appropriate or safe to treat children now as if they were already adults.

Here is a second major logical problem with this argument:

Schools for children are not at all like “the real world” adults live in.

The rules for adults in the real world and the rules for children in school are very different, and for good reason. In order to function, schools need to have conduct rules in place that keep children focused on their schoolwork, and safety rules that protect children from their own immaturity and lack of life experience. It is very common for schools to have rules such as: you must follow the same schedule as the rest of the classroom. You must ask a teacher for permission to speak. You may not leave the classroom without permission. You may not leave the building during the school day. Etc.

But, some of the very same restrictions and rules that help schools function as safe, orderly places for educating children can actually cause pretty serious day-to-day challenges for children with food allergies, of a sort that most adults with food allergies do not actually face on a daily basis in “the real world.”

Imagine you are an adult with a peanut allergy. Imagine that you work at an office with a cafeteria area, where employees can eat lunches that they have brought from home. Suppose you have a co-worker who is relentlessly fond of eating peanuts and peanut butter, who nearly always brings these foods at lunch time, and sometimes even heats peanutty foods in the office microwave, causing allergenic proteins to aerosolize and fill the cafeteria with fumes that could, at best, make you sneeze and cough, or, at worst, send you to the hospital.

As an adult, working in an office environment, you have many choices.

Perhaps the simplest choice you have is to avoid the workplace cafeteria altogether. You can eat lunch at your desk, or go out every day to an allergy-friendly restaurant that is safe for you.

Or, you can have a friendly conversation with your coworkers, explain how this problem affects you, and ask if they would be willing to keep the peanuts at home. As an adult, your explanation of your health issues is likely to be taken seriously. Because the coworkers you are talking to about your problem are also adults, they can control what they choose to bring in for lunch daily; they can most likely easily choose to accommodate you.

If your coworkers are not accommodating, you can choose to take the issue up with your manager, or with your workplace’s human resources department. You can choose to file an ADA complaint. You can choose to ask to be transferred to a different office, or to work remotely. You can even choose if necessary, to quit, and find another job.

Now imagine that you are an elementary-aged child with a peanut allergy who eats lunch in a school cafeteria where, every day, other children bring lunches containing peanuts and peanut butter to school. And imagine that your school has made no accommodations for your allergy.

Can you choose to eat at your desk? Probably not. Most schools require children to eat lunch in the lunchroom. If your school makes no accommodations for your allergy, you will have to eat in the cafeteria, right next to the kids eating your allergen at school.

Can you choose to leave school and have lunch elsewhere? Almost certainly not! Elementary school students aren’t allowed to leave school without permission. They cannot drive themselves home, or to safe restaurants, to eat in safety and peace. Most kids in school have busy, working parents who would not necessarily be able to pick them up for lunch every day even if it were allowed.

Can you try to have a friendly conversation with your fellow students? Sure. But remember: they are kids. Do they understand what food allergies are? Will they believe you when you say, “This food you love to eat could kill me”? If your school is making no accommodations, it’s unlikely that the school has held any special awareness assemblies about food allergies to educate your fellow students. And anyway, if you’re in elementary school, your fellow students are probably not packing their own lunches: their parents are.

So do you, a child, try to contact your friends’ parents and explain?

What about contacting HR? Nope, no such department for students. The management? Well, that would be your teachers and school administrators, who, as we mentioned have already decided against accommodating you. Can you switch schools? Sure, if your parents can afford and are willing to move to a new school district, or pay for you to go to a private school, or arrange to have you homeschooled.

But what if none of those possibilities will work for your family?

The “real world” children encounter in school is a far different one than the “real world” adults encounter in the workplace. Children with food allergies who are in school have far less control over their own environment, and less freedom to make choices to keep themselves safe. For that reason alone, it’s essential for the safety of children with food allergies that adults in charge in the school environment cooperate with the families of children with food allergies to make sure those children can attend school safely.

Eventually, kids with food allergies will be adults living in an adult world. To help them get there safely, though, they need understanding and assistance now from the adults who have been charged with helping to guide them through life.

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