I was standing at a park with a group of parents I did not know.
It was at a meet and greet of a friend's new project and I had brought the kids to play while I supported her. The parents were just standing around talking when one of the kids came running up and said to her mom:
"Mom, Sally is here! I am going to play with her and don't forget she has a peanut allergy when she comes to my birthday next week. Sorry, I forgot to tell you."
Susy ran off excitedly to play with Sally. Seemed like an innocent enough comment.
Suzy's mom turned to the rest of us and said in a frustrated tone "OMG...these kids and their million food allergies. I already have one coming with a milk allergy. I mean her mom told me not to worry she would pack her stuff, but my gosh, it's like we can't have anything to eat without it causing a problem. Now a peanut allergy! I hope that kid's parents don't expect me to change all of our food plans last minute."
Now, she did not know that she was standing in a group with a mom of a severely allergic peanut kiddo, but based on the number of parents she was moaning to, she probably should have done some probability because 1:13 kids have one and based on her audience one of us was bound to have a kid on that playground with some form of food allergy. Based on the numbers, if she invited her child's class to the birthday party, two kids out of the class would most likely have a food allergy of some kind.
Now, this is the part of the story where she should probably be thanking her lucky stars that I meditate and practice taking deep breaths because a comment like that goes straight to my heart thinking about someone saying that to a group of parents about my kid. Because it takes all my fingers and toes to count the number of times someone has made a comment like this about food allergies being a drag or a nuisance on their good time in front of me. This was not my first time at the rodeo. And I have tried many different ways to respond. I have tried the angry response (how dare you), the bewildered response (did you just say that?), the embarrassing response (actually my kid has a food allergy) to which her face would have turned in immediate red and the backtracking would have begun. But I have developed a response that works for me and I hope it does for you too:
That kid's food allergy could actually make your kid's brain smarter.
This will stop a food allergy complainer dead in her tracks. And it did. In fact, the entire group turned to look at me and although outside, I had used a completely calm, inside voice for my delivery.
That kid's food allergy could boost your kid's brain!
Of course they all wanted to know what I meant by that and started asking a bunch of questions. Well, here is how I answered them:
First of all, we need to look at food allergies as an opportunity to learn more about someone.
A lot of people's first instinct is to react out of fear (at this point I may have shot the complainer a glance) however reacting out of fear shuts us off from learning and connecting with others and your awareness in socially and emotionally connecting with other's in the greatest determiner of success later in life.
So, if you teach your kid that a kid with food allergies is a nuisance or burden or weird, you are basically extending your fears of food allergies down to your child which is limiting his/her ability to form a connection and extend life learning. The problem teaching your child this model is that he/she may begin to apply it to more than just food allergy kiddos. The weird, different kid with _______________(kids have a lot of wonderfully weird stuff, so go ahead and insert just about anything) becomes someone else your child may disconnect from. If continued repeatedly, your child has just cut off vital social and emotional learning connections that wire the brain for success in life.
All that wonderfully different, weird stuff is the connective glue that teaches us about each other and how to navigate the world despite our differences.
In not placing fear or negativity or an emotional state on someone else's health status, we can look at it objectively Teaching kids to look at things from an objective standpoint instead of emotional reaction standpoint helps them learn to self-regulate. The more kids take a beat and objectively look at information instead of immediately making an emotional judgment call, the clearer they are able to process what facts of a situation are and how they would like to respond. They key is they decided instead of letting an emotional reaction decide for them. Can you EVEN imagine if your kid weighed options before jumping to an emotional reaction right away? It would make your job as a parent easier and the amount brain connection to rational thinking skills your kid just used would boost up brain smarts up in the prefrontal cortex...where rational thought and decision making live.
But that's just the first brain boost. Instead of throwing your hands in the air and saying "I hope that kid's parents don't expect me to change anything or making an exasperated eye roll" (oh and PS-95% of us do not ever expect you to change or modify things unless your actions could directly kill our kid. Most parents though would agree that putting a loaded gun on a birthday table would be inadvisable, so all we are asking is that if you have a peanut allergic kid, don't have peanuts on the table since that is a loaded gun to our kid). Try modeling some problem solving and fact-finding behaviors for your child. Look at the issue of not knowing how to treat the food allergy situation as a detective and set up a plan to figure it out. This is huge in helping your own child develop growth mindset skills.
A growth mindset is looking at everything as a problem to be solved instead of a problem that stops us. Employing a growth mindset has HUGE brain boost benefits. When parents teach their kids that they have the ability to figure out life's everyday issues as then they become opportunities to problem solve.
Instead of the situation HAPPENING to them, kids with developed growth mindsets come at life's issues as an opportunity (yes, you read that right) to figure out a solution. You can probably imagine how your child's life drastically improves if you have helped them to train their brain to think this way. Kids who have trained their brains to be growth-mindset oriented also don't need their parents to solve every life problem for them, which I think we could all agree as parents would be lovely and save a lot of yelling "they are wherever you left them last..."
But that's not all! When we come at a food allergy situation from a place of love, compassion and empathy, we show our kids the same and a kid that has developed the muscle of empathy has some MAJOR brain boosts.
Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling even though it didn't directly happen to you. Showing empathy and kindness to another person is a brain and body changer. Showing kindness to another actually helps your brain. It helps stimulate activity in your prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) and helps calm stress lower cortisol levels in the body. Higher cortisol levels are dangerous in the body and lead to a myriad of health issues. People who actively practice kindness and empathy on a consistent basis have longer life spans, lower levels of depression, create more meaningful connections with others, have greater health outcomes. They are less likely to have stress-related diseases, sleep better and generally are happier with their lives. So by extending kindness and empathy, instead of exasperated, feelings toward that food allergic kiddo, you could be doing you could be giving your brain and body a boost instead of increasing the stress hormones that are associated with disease, weight gain, sleeplessness, and depression.
So, the next time you are tempted to roll your eyes at the food allergic kid or food allergic parent, take a moment and think about how your reaction will have a ripple effect through your brain and body and your kid's brain and body. You can use a food allergy situation as brain booster instead of a brain breaker and in the process make everyone's lives a little sunnier, brighter and better.
Note: If you'd like to see the science, I have included just a sites, but feel free to google away...