Everyone's Got Something... Your Something Happens To Be Food Allergies
This weekend, I had one of those parenting moments that caught me by surprise. My younger food allergic son, Luke, went to a birthday party for one of his favorite little buddies, and as always, I sent him with a lunchbox full of safe food, including his dairy-free pizza and a homemade chocolate cupcake. My husband Brian was staying at the party, and they were armed with epis, wipes and a perfect replica of what the other kids were eating; as far as I was concerned, Luke would be more than comfortable and able to have fun. But, when they returned from the party, so did the lunchbox - complete with 100% of the food I'd sent with him.
When I pressed Luke a little bit, he gave me the same answer he gave his daddy at the party, "Mommy, I just wasn't hungry." Not hungry... for pizza and cake? Luke has been to his share of birthday parties, and he's never "not been hungry" when it's time to eat. Nor, has he come home with a lunchbox full of food. I had a feeling that there was more to the story, but it wasn't until about 24 hours later that this little boy of mine - who always needs a little bit of time to sort out and then articulate his feelings - pulled me aside. "Mommy," he said, "I didn't eat at the birthday party because I hate being different."
With that admission, he went on to tell me that he feels like everyone is staring at him when he eats his special food, and for a seven year-old little boy who innately despises being the center of attention, this scenario is his worst nightmare. Of course, I quickly responded with the fact that there was not a single boy at that party who could care less what he was eating. But, as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I realized they were pointless. You see, there really isn't anything that I can - or should - say to try and talk him out of his feelings, which are completely legit and his little reality. So, that's when I decided to turn our conversation into another direction.
Everyone's got something.
Yes, everyone's got something. There's not a child in this world who wants to be different from his friends; that's why peer pressure has been in existence since the beginning of time. But, the truth is, most kids at some point DO feel different. There are a variety of reasons why... For some, it may be as simple as feeling too tall or too short, wearing glasses or braces, or not having "cool enough" clothes. It may be shyness or an insecurity about not being good at sports or at school. Or, it may be a physical or learning disability, a difficult family dynamic, or something so deep and internal that no one is able to see it from the outside. For my boys, their food allergies are just their thing.
So, what to do with this? As adults we have the benefit of wisdom and time. We can look back and see how, in many ways, our most challenging road bumps in life have made us better humans. But, our kids can't think in retrospect, so it's our job to teach them. We must teach them that challenges actually have the ability to make them strong, if they let them. We must point out to our children all the good that has already developed in them because of their allergies: they are more responsible, self-reliant, healthy and empathetic than the average kid. And, these qualities are gifts - not just to them, but us, our spouses, our children who do not have food allergies, and to all those around them.
And we must remind them that, even though they will feel it at times, they really aren't alone. Luke is the only kid in his class with food allergies this year, but he's not the only kid with food allergies at his school, or even in his house. And, he's not the only kid who wants to crawl in a hole and take the spotlight off of himself every now and then. That feeling of wanting to blend in may not look the same for everyone, but you and I know that it's universal. If we can encourage our kids to see that, they will all of a sudden feel a whole lot more... normal.
That brings me back to empathy. What does it really look like when our kids see the world from this perspective? They love others better - period.
I'm not going to pretend that it's easy watching our kids struggle through this. Nor, am I going to say that any of these words are going to magically make Luke eat his "safe" food with pride at birthday parties. But, it's a conversation that I'm determined to keep having.