Do You "Bubble Wrap" Your Child?
How can we best prepare our children for the harsh realities of the allergen-filled world after they leave our protective nests? If we surround them with a sheltered bubble now, will it help them build enough self-esteem to carry them through life? Or will it give them a disillusioned sense of what the real world is like and ill-prepare them to face the fact that they will always be different?
As parents, it’s our natural instinct to want to protect our kids from getting hurt. For parents of kids with food allergies and sensitivities, it’s a little more complicated.
Kids want to fit in. They don’t want to sit at the “peanut-free table” at school. Yet in order to avoid getting physically hurt by an allergen, they risk getting emotionally wounded by feeling ostracized. It’s our job as parents to protect them from that. Or is it?
After my daughter’s celiac diagnosis, I began putting a protective bubble around her. Every food-related outing was carefully planned and packed. I memorized the hot lunch menu at school so she always ate the same thing as her friends. She had “emergency snacks” in the school refrigerator in case of impromptu celebrations. And I carried a cooler around with me wherever I went. (My husband joked that our car was like a supermarket.)
Yet I found that no matter how much I pre-planned, there was always some kind of unexpected surprise waiting around the corner that would just crush her and ruin all of my best, creative efforts.
Like the time I picked her up from a birthday party and found her crying in the corner all by herself with an empty plastic bag in her hands while all the other kids were chomping down on candy from the piñata. I honestly wanted to swear off going to birthday parties at that point. Too extreme? Maybe. But how much did that hour at a birthday party really cost? One hour of sobbing, two heart-to-heart conversations and three meltdowns.
Was it really worth it?
I ask myself whether or not I’m doing what’s best for her. My biggest fan who happens to also be my greatest critic, my mom, ever so kindly offered me the advice that maybe I wasn’t preparing her at home for what the outside world was really like. That when she did go out on her own, she wouldn’t know how to cope. That my gluten-free bubble was misleading her into thinking that no matter where she was, there would always be a perfect gluten-free substitute just waiting for her.
My reaction to my mother’s comments? Initially, I became incredibly defensive. It’s not fair that my little girl constantly feels left out simply because she can’t have gluten! I justified that at birthday parties and at school she has to face enough of the frustration of constantly being embarrassed that she’s not having the same princess cake. At least at home she has her safe corner in the world where she doesn’t have to stress over food. She deserves to always be a part of whatever we’re cooking or eating as a family. And her 2-year-old sister can do just fine without Cheerios!
But since then, I’ve been thinking about it. Have I been deluding myself into thinking that I can expand my protective bubble and follow her to college? Prepare her matching meals in the back kitchen of the cafeteria? Bribe her new roommates with homemade chocolate chip cookies in order to get them to not eat any wheat in front of her?
Maybe what I really need to do is to toughen her up somehow, desensitize her to it. But how can I knowingly contribute to her pain? Allow her sister to eat things in front of her that I know she craves so badly?
“I don’t like this gluten-free diet anymore, Mommy! I want to eat wheat like everyone else!” I have to leave the room for a moment every time she says this to me. To witness how much it hurts her, kills me.
Can you actually stifle someone’s emotional maturity by protecting them from pain? Or can you love someone enough to allow them be hurt because you know that it’s good for them in the long run?
What do you think?