Monday, August 24, 2009

The Peanut Problem

When I was a child, my younger brother was diagnosed with a deadly peanut allergy. Ingesting peanuts, touching the oil, or breathing in the dust from peanut shells would send him into anaphylactic shock and probably kill him. Because of this, we had a strict set of rules to obey: making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich required two knives, one for each jar; everything had to be washed to keep peanut oil off of surfaces. My brother had to ask a friend if something contained peanuts before they traded or shared. He learned to read labels. We went through his Halloween candy and picked out anything with peanuts, which meant more Reese's for me.

And that was how it went. My brother never ran into trouble with the peanut allergy; his asthma and his animal allergies were more of a concern.

Now that I'm in a job that has me back in elementary schools, I've noticed a weird and slightly disturbing trend: the presence of the "nut-free zone." Classrooms are labeled "nut free." Certain isolated tables are labeled "peanut free." While I can appreciate a concern for an allergic child's well-being, why have peanut allergies been so blown out of logical proportion?

I recently had two epic peanut freakouts happen in the same day. The first went thusly:

It was the first day of an AAW where kids are encouraged to bring a snack. The first arrival has a trail mix snack that includes peanuts. Mother says that she knows peanut allergies are a problem and asks if we have an allergic child. Our rosters normally display any of this allergy information. Seeing that we had 22 healthy kids, we allowed the child to have his peanut snack.

Unfortunately, we had incomplete rosters. The second child to come in had a parent bearing an epi-pen and explaining very slowly that her angel has a peanut allergy and if she comes near peanuts she will surely die, and you'd better be trained in administering an epi-pen. We explained that this other child had a peanut snack but, knowing about nut-free tables, we said that we would sit her on the other side of the room and make sure the area was washed. The mother started to hyperventilate and tears filled her eyes. "That's just not acceptable," she said.

Not acceptable? My brother grew up with the same allergy and if I had a peanut butter sandwich, he could sit at the same table as me. He just knew he wasn't allowed to touch my damn sandwich. We were telling this mother that the child would be sitting at a separate table, which is exactly what's done in cafeterias these days. No more, no less.

We then conceded that we would split the room in half and have half the group go into another room to eat snack, while the peanut-contaminated child sat with the other half to eat. Even this wasn't good enough, but we finally got the mom to agree to this. She still looked ready to sob her eyes out, and asked us to make sure everyone washed their hands and the tables were cleaned.

Needless to say, nobody died that day.

I'd think this is just an isolated incident of parental paranoia but that evening I had a similar issue:

I was working the box office for a children's theatre performance when a young mother of a five-year-old girl came up to me. She had the same symptoms of the mother earlier in the day: glassy, watery eyes, shortness of breath, a panicked expression. She came to me to complain about the number of peanut candies that were offered at our concessions stand, and said there were more than last year, and if we're going to sell candy at a children's theatre, how dare we sell peanut candies! Because, she reasoned, if a strange child she doesn't know sits next to her peanut-allergic angel, and that strange child has a Reese's, her child will breathe in Peanut Fumes or the strange child will wipe his sticky Peanut Hands all over her and she will die. She was requesting a peanut-free section of the theater or for us to stop offering peanuts altogether.

Are you fucking serious? Would you go to the Cineplex and tell them to stop offering peanut items because children might be allergic? If your child has a chocolate allergy, do you do the same thing? Where the hell do you get the gall?

I understand that a peanut allergy is a serious one. It can kill your child. It can kill my little brother. I grew up in that environment. Has the peanut allergy gotten so much worse in the last 20 years?

Honestly, I don't think it has. In fact, I'd be willing to bet it hasn't. I'm going to blame the media on this one. Yes, a peanut allergy is deadly. So are a lot of other things. There have been so many horror stories about peanut allergies in recent years that it's sending new, frightened parents into a frenzy. If we were publicizing a deadly horse allergy or a deadly pickle allergy, we'd have a similar problem. Parents of young children are the worst kind of crazy and the media feeds on it. You can't turn on the news anymore without a story of a child dying because of this, that, or the other thing. Parents are scared. Unfortunately, we're also growing up in a time where lawsuits and making the Establishment solve your problems take precedence over personal responsibility. When I was a kid, it was all about teaching a child to read labels and how to handle themselves in a peanut-filled world. Nowadays, it's all about vilifying peanuts and all peanut products. It's about ostracizing kids who are allergic and making them sit at separate tables. It's about making kids who like peanut butter feel like bad people because they might kill their best friend. It's about laying the responsibility on everyone else instead of yourself and your child. Blame the schools, blame the food manufacturers, blame other kids and other parents. You force them to step up but don't take any steps yourself to make your child self-reliant.

It's necessary to tell school employees, camp counselors, and anyone who will be dealing with your child about any allergies your child may have, particularly if they're severe. On the other hand, it is not our responsibility to change the rules for your kid and change things for everyone else unless things are so bad that your kid will die otherwise. And if that really is the case, you might want to consider locking up your kid and never letting her go outside of her sterile, perfect environment.


  1. You know, I've got to say this - allergies do seem like they're blown way out of proportion. At the same time, though, the list of allergies (and I'm talking serious allergies, not like like, "Little Timmy is allergic to oranges but not really he just doesn't like them") was HUGE in the various classrooms I worked in. I was absolutely astounded by how many kids had gluten allergies and wheat allergies and peanut and dairy. I was expecting another crop of kids to show up being allergic to, you know, breathing.

    I think the allergy problem has ballooned over the past twenty years. Some of it is hypersensitivity on the parents' part. Some of it is legitimate. And doesn't it just speak wonders of our environment, our food sources, our drinking water, and everything else we're exposed to that each subsequent generation of children is less tolerant to foods and every day items?

    But that's a whole other rant.

  2. I completely agree with you. Part of the problem is the quality (or lack thereof) of our food sources, and we're not exactly raising kids to be really resilient these days. In particular, he gluten allergy has exploded all over the place. I had a gluten-free child who also had a real b*tch of a mother ... I asked her if she wanted me to bring him some gluten-free options in place of the pretzels I bring for snack, and she goes off on me on how DARE I attempt to give her child food because how could I know what he can have. I get that if he has more than a gluten allergy but I was just trying to be nice. She was very unpleasant to me for another reason but I will leave that for an actual post.

    So I think a huge part of it is paranoid parents, but the allergies HAVE gotten worse. At the same time it isn't everyone else's responsibility to bend over backwards. It's yours, it's your child's. Yes, we take responsibility to care for your kid but there has to be a limit somewhere.