Birthday Treats at School: A Mom’s Plea

Picture this for a second…

You’re picking your child up from school or daycare, and you hear that the class celebrated a birthday that day. The birthday girl’s mom brought cupcakes, and everyone had one after lunch.

Well—everyone except your child.

Your child sat at the table with everyone else. He sang Happy Birthday with everyone else. But when the cupcakes arrived, he got pointedly skipped.

The teacher gave him the option to go entertain himself in the room, while the other kids had their treat. But he chose to stay with the class.

And so, he just…waited.

Imagine what it would be like to hear that story. Imagine what you would tell your child.

Can you picture it?

If you can’t, I totally understand. I probably wouldn’t be able to, either, if I didn’t experience it all the time.

You’d never know it by looking at my son—he looks and acts as healthy as the next 3-year-old—but he has serious food allergies. Dairy, wheat, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. His sensitivity measurements (found through blood testing) came back literally off the charts for all five.

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Despite the seriousness of this, my husband and I try to act casual about it. If our son wants something he can’t have, we just shrug and say, “that’ll make you kinda sick. How about this instead?”

And we absolutely hate—hate—to inconvenience anyone with his allergies.

We hate having to drop him off in the church nursery with an alternative snack, burdening the caregivers with the extra responsibility of remembering that he can’t have the wheat crackers they serve. (Which we didn’t even know they served until after a very scary Epi-pen shot and a trip to the ER.)

We hate having to send replacement meals to school, so the cook has to worry about microwaving our son’s gluten-free/egg-free/dairy-free chicken nuggets on top of preparing meals for dozens of other kids.

We hate when we’re at friends’ houses and we have to ask if we can see the box for the fruit snacks they’re handing out. (I even catch myself pretending to just be interested in the brand—“oh, where’d you get these?”—while quickly and discreetly reading the ingredients label.)

And we hate that this is only going to get harder as he gets older. That, eventually, he’s going to have to know more than “some foods make me sick,” and we’re going to have to trust him to take care of himself.

For now, his world is pretty contained, and his run-ins with allergens are mostly predictable.

Except for the birthday treats.

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Here’s the thing: I am more than happy to send an alternative treat to school for him on birthday party days (nothing new for us there). The problem is that I rarely ever know when birthday treats are going to happen.

So what’s the solution?

Do I have to send an annoying email to all the parents in my son’s class, begging them to let me know if they plan to send in a birthday treat for the class? The hate-to-inconvenience-people side of me cringes at the thought, picturing them rolling their eyes as they read it. “Great, we have an allergy kid in class this year.”

Do I run to the store after drop-off, upon finding out that it’s a birthday day, and hustle back to school with my son’s treat before party time?

Definitely—when I get lucky enough to find out. (Often, teachers don’t get advance warning either.)

I completely understand that most parents don’t think of this when they send treats to school. They are blessed with a freedom I desperately crave—the freedom to not think about food allergies on a daily basis. To see people with food allergies as separate, distant, unusual entities that have nothing to do with them.

It’s a freedom I always enjoyed, too, until three years ago.

So I get it.

What I don’t get is the resistance. Parents openly disregarding kids they know have food allergies. Parents feeling offended when school rules restrict them from sending treats, or require them to only send store-bought treats or peanut-free treats. (Yes, it’s frustrating, but what choice do school officials have?)

For some kids, this really is a life and death thing. At the very, very least, it’s an exclusion thing. (You wouldn’t rent a bounce house for the whole class if one student was in a wheelchair, right?)

So why the aggression against food allergies?

I know the treats-at-school thing is something a lot of us enjoyed as kids. We have a fuzzy, nostalgic place for it in our hearts.

But like it or not, our kids’ world is different than ours was (in more ways than one). These days, allergies are rampant, and we have no idea why.

Our job as parents is to teach our kids to thrive in the world they live in. This means being respectful of the people they share that world with, and recognizing the way their choices impact those around them.

To be fair, my son doesn’t really care about cupcakes. If he’s excluded from a birthday treat, he’s mostly just confused, not hurt or disappointed or scarred for life.

This is more for me, as his mom.

We moms hate to see our kids get excluded from things for reasons completely out of their control. We just can’t help it.

Birthdays are still special, and they can definitely still be celebrated in the classroom. All I’m asking for, as a food allergy mom, is consideration.

You might not know of any food allergy kids in your child’s class, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any (like I said, we try to keep it casual).

Bottom line: it would be very thoughtful if parents did the following before sending treats to school:

  • Give your child’s teacher a heads up when you plan to send in a treat, and let them know what it will be. They will likely pass the message along to any food allergy families. (If you want to be even more awesome: ask your child’s teacher if there are any kids with allergies in class, and if there are, volunteer to contact the parents directly to let them know about the treats.)
  • Be respectful of kids with food allergies (and their parents, who likely struggle even more), especially when talking about them in front of your own kids. I’m baffled by parents who openly express how much someone else’s allergies inconvenience their life.

Believe me when I say that no one—NO ONE—hates dealing with food allergies more than food allergy parents.

We are so grateful for any opportunity to help our kids feel more “normal,” and so grateful for parents who raise their kids to see and respect the people they share their world with.

Here’s to happy (& safe) birthdays this year!

Kim
Kim grew up in Minnesota, but moved to Madison to attend the UW and fell in love with the city’s spirit and culture. She's married with three sweet kiddos - Mason, Joshua, and Leah. When she’s not racing monster trucks across furniture or pretending to be interested in video games, she’s working on freelance writing projects or teaching strength training classes through her small fitness business, Lioness Fitness. Kim's a food allergy mom, which means she can read a food label like nobody’s business. She's also a sucker for good wine, good sushi, a good book, and ANY beach.

33 COMMENTS

  1. I lived this when our son was little. He had a peanut allergy so he had to be skipped when cupcakes were handed out. It broke my heart that he didn’t understand why. He’s since tested out and is really allergic to birch. Long story. But I appreciate your story because I lived this and I realized that I haven’t been asking the school before I bring in birthday treats. Thank you for the reminder. I would hate to be the cause of a little one feeling excluded and not understand.

  2. My kids do not have any allergies, but I always try to give bubbles, fun bandaids, or art stuff instead of treats knowing that so many kids do have allergies. Our daycare also does a wonderful job of encouraging this. My heart goes out to you, as I feel terrible for those kiddos who are always left out.

  3. I have taught preschool for the last 15 years and we are very aware of allergies. To the point that we refuse to serve any treat that even says processed in a plant with peanuts/treenuts.
    In fact one of our toddler rooms is gluten, peanut, and egg free for one specific child. This is to keep them safe but also the children don’t notice they are receiving gluten free pancakes or bread. The next classroom this child goes in will be the same! Our chef prepares usually three different meals for lunch on a given day.
    We do this because it is important! So that no child feels bad about their allergy. Which they have no control over! Let’s remember that the next time someone complains about bringing in an allergy aware treat. The child did not pick this so who are we to complain about it!

  4. I agree with Megan’s approach to try to get food out of the birthday equation. My daughter certainly still feels very left out with an alternative treat. It’s been torture for us. For a short time she was able to attend a school where they carefully made sure every food at the school served met the needs of every child’s food sensitivities (not just major immediate life threatening allergies – any sensitivity). To finally be included in every school snack and every birthday party at school made my daughter instantly happier and easier to parent. unfortunately they were over-enrolled for this fall and we are back to awful situation again. I had a mom say to me “I don’t care about your kid on my kid’s birthday” (after she brought toxic cool whip for the kids as a birthday treat with no notice.

  5. I just ran across this today and wanted to say THANK YOU! Sometimes it just helps to feel not so alone :(. My daughter (pre-K) has a peanut allergy, as well as intolerances to dairy and gluten. The parochial school she goes to has each child bring treats on their birthday and they often give them out for special occasions. Today I picked her up and she seemed a little cranky. When we got home, she burst into tears. She told me that everyone had a cupcake today to celebrate the dress rehearsal of their end of the year performance and she just got her GF pretzels. I usually have bags of enjoy life brand cookies for her, but she must have been out (and they never told me). My heart just hurts for her for being put in that position – I would have happily ran to our local GF/DF bakery and gotten her a cupcake to enjoy with her friends had I known. That being said, in today’s world of allergies, intolerances and obesity (Imagine being an overweight kiddo who was trying to eat healthy and having to deal with all those treats too?! ) I would love to see a push towards healthier birthday celebrations (i.e. birthday kiddo gets to be helper for the day or everyone gets an extra recess to celebrate a birthday).

  6. You write, “Our job as parents is to teach our kids to thrive in the world they live in. This means being respectful of the people they share that world with, and recognizing the way their choices impact those around them.”, as part of a blog statement that advocates the changing of the world we live in to accommodate your child, disrespecting others’ traditions because of your child, and failing to recognize that your choices are impacting everyone else around you. Waaaa that you are so uncomfortable inconveniencing others (an assumption you are making by the way) concerning your child, but that is your job. As a parent blessedly gifted with children none of whom have any allergies, I can tell you that I would love nothing more than being able to send a quick email, “Hey, I’m bringing in cupcakes for my kid on xx date…”, but of course, school lists aren’t even allowed anymore, heaven forbid (gasp, I said “heaven”) contact information for parents. In your quest to teach your child to survive in the world, rather than expecting the world to change to his needs; in your quest to recognize how your behavior impacts all the other parents and students around you, how much effort have you expended in researching the history of the tradition of bringing in cupcakes to celebrate birthdays? Why did it start? Why is (was) it done, why was 🙁 it such a long-lasting, time-honored tradition? I know, it’s all a mute point now, as the minority rules and the last vestige of American tradition in the schools has been taken away. But I’ll give you a hint: It was never about the food. But congratulations on killing yet another (the last) tradition, and on the lessons you’ve taught your child in doing so.

    • I came across this when I googled non-food items to bring in for a class birthday. My child’s school has banned food. I completely agree with you. My daughter’s teacher keeps alternate treats for those who have allergies. How is that for a simple solution? However, if your kid has an allergy, get used to it. The real world will not bend over backwards to accommodate him and neither should we.

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