I’ve been thinking.

Dangerous, I know.   But it seems to me that in this life, in order to change, in order to grow, in order to be constantly learning and evolving…you’ve got to be able to change your mind.

Oh, not in the flip-floppy way that’s so often maligned by politicians.  Not in an “I was against high-fructose corn syrup and then I was for it” kind of way.  More like an EVOLUTIONARY kind of mind-changing.  More like, “I was cool with a lot of things at first, and then I realized I wasn’t cool with some of those things anymore, and now I’m EVEN LESS cool with most of them.”

For example:  Food at school.

I hesitate to even enter this fray, knowing full well that many intelligent, articulate bloggers before me have practically had to get bodyguards after suggesting publicly that maybe our kids don’t need to bring cupcakes to school on their birthdays to feel special.  But here I am, boldly stepping across the line, ready to finally proclaim my true feelings on the subject.

Ahem.  Can we just stop feeding each other’s kids already???

I’ve never been a huge fan of the birthday cupcake barrages at school, especially since both of my boys appear to be in classrooms where large portions of the population were born IN THE SAME WEEK or thereabouts, leading to these weird clusters of sugar pandemonium that I never would have considered even possible before experiencing them.  Between the January/February birthday cluster in L.’s class – compounded, of course, by the fact that he’s now old enough to ALSO be invited to all of these kids’ out-of-school parties – and the March birth-fest in P.’s class (of which he’s a member), there are entire chunks of time that J. and I regard with sinking dread each year.  We spend those weeks constantly checking our children for evidence of cupcake crumbs or icing smears, asking – perhaps too stridently – whether or not they’ve eaten any sweets at school, and trying to remember not to plan anything special for our family during that time that might inadvertently add to the dessert overload.  And our kids are only FIVE and THREE, for God’s sake.  I hereby declare it way too soon for this kind of cupcake paranoia.

However, despite my dislike of the annual icing escapades, I’ve never before felt a strong and urgent need to speak out against it.  Maybe I’m slow, or maybe (I prefer this viewpoint) I’ve been choosing my battles.  But this is where the change-of-mind thing comes in.  I’ve EVOLVED.  And in my evolutionary pride, I am here to say, in the famous words of my father: “Nothing’s a problem until it’s a problem.  And then there’s a problem.”

While you’re scratching your head over that one, allow me to illuminate:

P., we’ve discovered, is quite intolerant to artificial food dyes.  This is probably a turn of events that should not surprise me, given that this same child happens to be virulently allergic to most commercially available sunscreens.  But between the sunscreen and the food dyes, guess which has proven to be the bigger pain in the neck to manage?

OHMYGODTHESTUFFISINEVERYTHIIIIIIIIIING.  I knew that before, I swear I did.  Of course, being that our household is – and has been for a long time – pretty much free of all processed foods, I never had to actively think about it before.  But then some funny stuff started happening with P., and J. and I started doing some sleuthing, and, well…

The uncontrollable diarrhea after several classroom snacks at school?  Food dye.
The sudden, seemingly random fits of rage?  Food dye.
The weird, unexplained rashes around his mouth and on his hands and cheeks?  Food dye.
The night terrors?  Food dye.

We officially removed the stuff from his diet after a particularly harrowing experience at a birthday party, involving a red velvet cake covered in strawberry-red icing.  J. and I gulped as we let him eat it – but as horrible as it sounds, until that point in time, food dye was only our SUSPICION.  It killed us to do it, but we felt like we needed to make poor P. into a little science experiment with that red cake, just to see if we were right.  And boy, were we.

After all of the above symptoms manifested to one degree or another (despite the fact that P. had only eaten a small amount of the cake he was served), we decided it was time to stop guessing and firmly declare that he should have no more artificial dyes.  We’re happy with the decision – delighted, in fact – particularly given the fact that P.’s moods have evened out considerably since we got his school on board with our plan, and a diet free of dyes has helped our sweet, considerate, happy boy to be more like himself ALL the time.  No more reports from his teachers about an endless tantrum after the ice cream party, no more watching talkative, expressive P. go totally non-verbal after eating gummy bears.

But this week was the birthday cluster in his classroom.  Want to know what happened?

Day One.  Family brings in store-bought cupcakes covered in artificially dyed decorations.  Somebody must have forgotten the new dye-free diet for P.  He eats one.  We suffer later.
Day Two. Family brings in all-natural, vegan cupcakes.  Their dairy-free daughter can eat them.  P. can eat them.  Many of the other children can eat them.  The gluten-free child in the class cannot eat them.
Day Three.  I get special permission to bring in a homemade snack for P. and the other kids.  (One reason I always try for this arrangement is that the other parents have to sign a form, so I know they’re aware of what their kids will be eating.)  When I show up with chocolate cookie bowls and fresh fruit (the compromise P. and I chose to avoid adding too much junk into the week), the teachers have to ask me lots of questions about the ingredients because other families need to know about milk, gluten, eggs, etc.  P. and most of his friends end up eating the cookie bowls and the fruit.  At least one child can’t eat the snack because her family isn’t comfortable with the ingredients.
Day Four.  Family brings in store-bought cupcakes laden with dyes.  P.’s teachers give him a bowl of popcorn (his favorite snack) instead.  P. is surprisingly agreeable to this arrangement.   He does not eat the cupcakes.  The dairy-free child does not eat the cupcakes.  The gluten-free child does not eat the cupcakes.
Day Five.  I receive an email from the school’s director asking me if they can make P. something else for snack (they don’t have any more of the popcorn from our home, but they have some things in the staff room that might work for him).  Today’s birthday family has brought in cupcakes.  The teachers don’t have enough information about the ingredients, for whatever reason, to feel comfortable feeding them to P.  P. does not eat the cupcakes.  The dairy-free child does not eat the cupcakes.  The gluten-free child does not eat the cupcakes.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

If it were just my kid – FINE.  I’ve said many times that my kids are not special snowflakes around whom I want the world to revolve; if it were just that P. had some weirdo allergy and couldn’t eat the snacks, I MIGHT let it all pass.  I’d have to buy stock in popcorn, apparently…but maybe I’d let it pass.

But it’s not just my kid.  This isn’t a “special snowflake” situation.  This is a situation in which at least THREE little ones – fully one-quarter of the population —  in one classroom are being excluded at any given time because, quite frankly, there is almost no good solution to a food-based birthday snack that will please everyone, cater to everyone’s individual dietary needs, and not cause the parent providing said snack to lose his or her everloving mind.  (And don’t tell me “fruit.”  Yes, that would please MOST children, but remember I also parent a child with a sensory issue, and fruit is his nemesis.  He also has a friend who’s highly allergic to some fruits.  Not to mention the fact that while fruit is delicious, it’s hardly what most little children have in mind when they think of a special birthday treat to share with friends.)

In the past two weeks, I’ve baked a dye-free snack so P. wouldn’t be totally left out of the heinous sugar-splosion that is mid-March in his school; spent hours searching the internet so I could purchase a case of naturally dyed froot loop substitutes for a project in his classroom; been in near-constant contact with the staff at the school to monitor the dye situation; and now, I’m trying to figure out how to provide a naturally dyed green Jell-O alternative for another project that’s happening next week.  I’d like to say I don’t mind, but the truth is, I felt crappy about the fact that some of the kids couldn’t eat the snack I baked because of their food allergies; I felt like $20 and a whole bunch of effort was a little too much to have spent on making sure the froot loop necklaces didn’t derail my kid; I love the school staff, but I’d rather talk to them about OTHER things related to my child’s education once in a while; and the green Jell-O thing may just push me totally over the edge.  And I bet the dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free families feel the same way sometimes.

You know what would be a lot less difficult for pretty much everyone involved?  Don’t let anybody feed anybody else’s kids.

That means no more birthday snacks from parents, no more food-based craft activities…heck, I’d even be happy to see the school make the decision to stop offering snacks, full stop.  They could use the money I’m sure they’re taking from our tuition checks to buy snacks, and use it to bring in more of the awesome special events the kids love.  Or to buy more art supplies.  Or to give bonuses to the amazing teachers.  I wouldn’t care.  And then I, and all the other parents, could take an extra 5 or 10 minutes each morning to pack up two snacks to send off to school with my kid, and I’d never have to worry about what somebody else was potentially going to feed him when I wasn’t around.

I’m telling you.  This is an evolution for me.  I never cared about the stupid froot loop necklaces before – not so much that they were even on my radar of battles to fight.  But now I’ve had a chance to walk in the shoes of the “allergy parents” for a change, and let me tell you, these boots were apparently made for walking up and down EVERY SINGLE FREAKING AISLE to find the “safe” replacements for the stuff the other kids are eating.  Dear Zappos: I want my money back.

The intolerance P. has to food dyes will probably not kill him, so in that respect, J. and I are the lucky ones; we hate seeing him suffer when he goes totally off the rails after a food dye incident, and we certainly hate having to PARENT through all that rage and discomfort, but we don’t have to worry that it’s going to do any lasting harm to him if he accidentally eats some M and Ms.  It shouldn’t matter, though.  Whether a child’s allergy is life-threatening, or merely inconvenient; whether a parent doesn’t want his or her child to eat the “special” snack because of a documented health concern, or simply because it’s junk; no one of those concerns is any less legitimate than any other.  As parents, we should have the ultimate right to feed our kids.  When someone else does that without our presence and knowledge, it’s just not okay.  Not in today’s world, which is so vastly removed from the misty Betty Crocker nostalgia days posts like these often evoke in readers who cherish the memories of birthday cupcakes in schools.

I’m out of steam.  But I can take it – tell me what you think about all of this sharing food at school business.  Am I just being extra-cranky because my kid’s suddenly part of the “dietary concerns” group?  Or does it really seem to be increasingly necessary to leave the feeding of children in the hands of their parents, and save the shared treats for out-of-school celebrations where the parents and kids have more flexibility about how, and whether, to participate?