The transition from summer to back-to-school is paradoxical. On one hand, summer means sleeping in, adventuresome vacations, evenings free of homework and obligatory assignments, and a chance for parents to take pleasure in their kids carefree, relaxed summer schedule (or lack thereof). On the other hand, mantras like, Im bored, Are we there yet? Theres nothing to do here, and the non-stop sibling bickering that seems to escalate when one child dares to breathe the same air as another has some parents singing, Its the most wonderful time of the year a good four months before Christmas.
But its not always the most wonderful time of the year. For parents whose children cant eat gluten, sending kids to school can create an entirely new dimension of anxiety that extend far beyond the typical back-to-school blues: What will he eat for lunch? What if there are birthday parties and my child cant participate? Will kids make fun of him? Will the teacher take time to understand his condition? What if he eats the Play Doh? How can I make this easier for him?
This is harder on you than it is on your child
If your child is newly diagnosed with celiac disease, or is new to the gluten-free diet, I know youre thinking, Oh, no its not! She just doesnt understand how hard this is. When I speak at conferences and tell parents this is harder on them than it is on their kids, I inevitably have one or two - always the parents of newly diagnosed celiac kids - who respectfully (and usually temperamentally) disagree. They tell me I dont understand.
Believe me, I do understand. But also believe me that this is harder on you than it is your child. Its harder, because of the very nature of being a parent. We love our kids so intensely that every pain they experience hurts us ten times more. Nothing breaks our hearts more than to know that our children may experience heartache. But remember, one of our most important jobs as parents is to teach our children how to deal with unpleasant experiences and emotions. As Anne Bronte said, If you would have your son to walk honorably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them.
Tips to make it easier
Give your child control of his diet.
Yep, even if hes just two years old. Anyone who has heard me speak or has read either of my books knows that Im an absolute nag about telling you to give your child control of his diet, because if he doesnt control his diet, his diet will control him.
Educate your teachers and principal.
Set a meeting with your childs teacher(s) and principal to explain your childs condition and diet. The best time to do this is a day or two before school starts for the year. The teachers are usually at school setting up their classrooms, but theyre not yet distracted with new students, parents, and classroom responsibilities. Provide the teachers, principal, and the school nurse, if you have one, with clear, concise written materials explaining celiac disease and your childs diet. Some people find it helpful to give the book Kids with Celiac Disease to the school, so that the nurse, teachers, and principal can more thoroughly understand the condition and diet. Make sure they understand the severity of accidental gluten ingestion. Remind them that they should contact you if there are any questions, rather than taking a chance.
Lunches: use good judgment.
Most of the time, the people in charge of preparing food for children in a preschool or school setting are already used to dealing with lactose intolerance, peanut allergies, and other dietary restrictions. Talk to the dietitian or person in charge of food preparation. Go over the menu plans, discuss the foods your child can and cant have, and talk about the importance of using clean utensils to avoid cross-contamination. If you feel comfortable with the persons understanding and acceptance of the diet, give them the opportunity to accommodate your childs special diet. You always have the option of sending in your own meals if you think its not working out. If you are interested in your childs legal rights to reduced-cost school lunches, see Kids with Celiac Disease under Section 504.
Talk to the adult lunchtime supervisors.
Kids will swap food. Its an age-old tradition, and its not likely to stop with your child. Aside from the likelihood of getting gluten, your child may end up hungry. Sometimes your childs goodies are better than the other childs, and it makes your child so proud that shell gladly give them all away, to be left with nothing. So the best you can do is explain to your child why she cant trade food with her buddies, and make sure the lunch area monitors are keeping an eye out for swappers.
Out of snack and lunch ideas? See Kids with Celiac Disease.
Its loaded with snack and menu ideas, many of which travel well in lunch boxes and bags.
Give the teacher a stash of gluten-free treats.
A large bag of Halloween-sized individually wrapped candies works well, and because theyre individually wrapped, the teacher can keep them in a cupboard without the threat of ant invasions. Let the teacher know that these treats are to be used any time there is a special event during which treats will be served. Make sure the treats are your childs favorite; you dont want him feeling like hes being short-changed.
Get a schedule of classmates birthdays and scheduled holiday parties.
Teachers are glad to provide you with a listing of everyones birthdays. This way you know in advance when there will be parties. You can coordinate with the other childs parent, or send your child in with her own cupcake or treat. If theres a surprise event, your child always has the stash of candy youve given the teacher.
On your childs birthday, bring a popular gluten-free treat for the entire class.
Its best not to risk celebrating your childs birthday with gluten-free cupcakes. Its possible that everyone in your childs class might like your homemade gluten-free cupcakes. On the other hand, there may be one kid who, for whatever reason, takes one bite and spits it across the classroom, declaring, What IS this stuff? You can bet your child wont forget that incident for a very long time. Its best not to risk it. Instead, bring in ice cream bars or ice cream sundaes. Or, if you cant do frozen foods, bring cutely decorated candy bars or goodie bags filled with candy (brands that everyone knows). It will bring your child immense pleasure to share treats with the class that she can eat too (and kids like that stuff better than cupcakes anyway!). Of course, you will want to be sensitive to any of your childs classmates who might have peanut or other allergies, and choose treats that everyone in the class can enjoy.
Ask for liberal restroom privileges.
Many teachers restrict the number of times children are allowed to go to the restroom, or they ask children to wait until a more appropriate, less disruptive time. Let the teacher know that your childs condition may require a hasty trip to the restroom, and that he should under no circumstances be restricted from going. You may even want to establish a little code between your child and her teacher, so that he can inconspicuously dismiss himself. Its a little less embarrassing than having to ask.
Consider talking to the parents at the parents-only back-to-school night.
Most schools have a back-to-school night for parents only. This is a great time to talk to the other parents about your childs condition and diet. Not only will you be helping them to understand and accommodate your childs diet, but you will be educating dozens more people about celiac disease - something we should all be doing on a regular basis.
Dont be mad when people dont accommodate your childs diet.
Its going to happen. Someone will have surprise treats for the class that your child cant eat, and the teachers secret stash will be empty. Or someone will decide its baking day, and your child will be the only one not sampling the goods. Dont be annoyed, offended, or angry. These people arent intentionally trying to leave your child out, nor are they being insensitive. They simply forget sometimes!
Most importantly, remember that your child is learning from your reactions. He will be in situations like this for the rest of his life - teach him to be gracious, politely declining the treats offered to him, and to accept the fact that this is just one of those little stones in his path of life that hell need to learn to step over...with a smile and the knowledge that people generally mean well.