Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Daughter’s allergies causing tension at school: My family moved to a new city this summer and enrolled our daughters in a small, wonderful private school. Our daughter “Rachel,” 7, has several severe food allergies. The administration at her school has dealt with food allergies in the past by prohibiting these foods at school. It sent home a letter asking parents not to include these foods in their kids’ lunches or classroom snacks. Several parents have been vocally frustrated by this policy. Before realizing Rachel was my child, another mom complained to me about how the school cared more about one student than the rest of the students. I know from a friend whose child is in Rachel’s class that other parents doubt the severity of her allergies or wonder why, if the food allergies are so severe, Rachel isn’t home-schooled or kept in isolation. The breaking point was last week, when the class mom brought in snacks and said to Rachel, “Normally I bring in [delicious cookies that contain peanuts], but I had to find something different because you can’t have that.” Kids being kids, they later made fun of Rachel for being an other and for costing them “better” snacks.
I can sympathize with parents who were initially thrown off by this new policy: Now, making your kids’ lunches is a bit more challenging. But it makes me see red that other parents are such jerks over something as serious as deadly allergies. It kills me that Rachel, who has always been serious because of how aware she must be about the severity of her allergies and still remains sweet and sensitive, cries because she feels so bad about the policy. Are my husband and I in the wrong for sending Rachel to school? How should we contend with resentful parents? Your guidance is so appreciated.
A: I’m so sorry that the other parents have been so petulant and whingey about the prospect of occasionally making cookies without peanuts or finding a different kind of nut butter (legumes? seeds?) for PB&J sandwiches, but they’re hardly struggling as a result of your child’s health needs. And the idea that a little girl should have to forgo socialization and going to school with her peers just because of her allergy is excessively harsh and punitive. Part of the point of going to school and learning to get along with other people has to do with looking out for one another and making sure everyone can be included, that everyone’s health is prioritized, and that having a need or an allergy doesn’t make you weak or a burden on others. That’s sort of the point of society! It’s why we don’t throw the old or the sick or the very young to the wolves, because we’re stronger collectively than we are if we all just fend for ourselves. At the risk of letting my public school bias show, I do think some of what you’re seeing from these other parents is in line with a private school mindset: my kids before anyone else’s. Depending on what state you live in, you may find that public schools have a better track record of compliance and enforcement when it comes to protecting students with life-threatening allergies. It’s worth considering!
OK, I’m off my soapbox about schools, I promise. No, you’re not wrong for wanting Rachel to go to school, and it’s not reasonable to keep her locked in your house over something that can be managed, avoided, and planned around like a peanut allergy. I think it’s worth pushing back with other parents in the moment and asking the administrators to step in if nothing changes—it’s totally inappropriate for these parents to be putting pressure on a little girl for having an allergy. The school ought to be framing this as an easy adjustment that it’d make for any of their students, not something worth rolling your eyes and dragging your feet over.