“Ohh…that is so sad that she can’t eat anything fun.”
“He can never play with doggies? Poor kid!”
“You must be so scared. I wouldn’t be able to deal with it.”
I’ve never been sure how to respond when people say things like that to me, especially in front of my kid. But from talking to other parents the past few years, I think I’ve come up with some ideas on and how we can move a conversation beyond pity.
1. Remember that pity is not compassion
I hate to sound harsh, but start by taking these statements for what they are: unhelpful. The person is simply running your experience through their own life rather than showing a genuine desire for knowledge…so think about how much energy you want to invest in explaining all about your life with food allergies to them. There is a good chance they won’t really be listening.
If your child is the right age, consider deflecting the comment to your child, so they can respond with how they feel. Kids are great at being honest and showing their strengths–and it’s always good when you can give the power back to them. Deflecting also subtly reminds the other person that when they make comments like that, the children are indeed listening.
Position your child and your family as they truly are: strong and fulfilled, with food allergies being just one facet of your lives. When someone said it was “sad” that our son “couldn’t play with doggies”, I answered back “It’s fine. Humans make great companions too.” (because really!) Mention that we live in a diverse society that accommodates, and that people have all kinds of challenges, physical and otherwise, but that (of course) happiness is not tied into being exactly the same as everyone else, is it?
4. Leverage the opportunity to educate
Not so much about food allergies, but more about the rules of conversation. Tell the person in your own way that comments like that don’t help your kid. You don’t have to have the perfect smooth segue and everyone doesn’t have to feel warm and fuzzy in the end. Get it out there. The next mom or dad will thank you.
5. Or don’t
Maybe you have your hands full educating friends and family already. We become so good at it, and we feel responsible for raising awareness that we can lose sight of self-care. But self-care is the most important part of your family’s life, and walking away from an unwanted conversation comes with benefits of its own.
6. Talk to your kid
This is a great opportunity for discussion of your family’s values and the role of compassion in friendship and social life. Was it funny or weird what that lady said? Did it hurt your feelings? Where does pity (or accepting others’ pity) really take us in life? When have we experienced compassion–and how did that feel different?
If you have a child with food allergies, you probably have seen that their own level of compassion, and their understanding of disability and difference is quite nuanced. If you think about it, our kids are amazing at maintaining social graces in sometimes high-pressure or awkward situations! By deflecting, confronting and refusing the model of pity, we as parents model a more positive way to our kids, while keeping them aware that we understand how they feel. Because above all, our kids need to know that WE get it.
Republished with permission from Anne King’s blog, May Contain.