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Raising Gluten-Free Kids

Parenting. I don't think most of us realize exactly how much becoming a parent will change every aspect of our lives. Few of us manage to have children, then gently glide back into everything without a ripple. Raising children rearranges our daily schedules, restructures priorities, adjusts how we view the world, and redefines the meaning of responsibility. What once used to be beer and pizza for dinner has morphed into wholesome meals for the family. Like most of you, when I became a parent I decided I needed to lead by example, including eating habits. Raising a child who is gluten-free though? What I thought was already a bubble of safety for my son needed even more structure. Adding another element of complexity, my son Andrew has autism. Communication barriers and poor impulse control posed endless obstacles in keeping him gluten-free.

When Andrew was three I decided he needed to avoid gluten. At the time, I had no concept of how extensive the list of contraband would be (check out some of the forums on the hidden sources of gluten). After eight years though, I'm pretty confident I've gotten this gluten-free thing down. Is it a breeze? Not always. But like anything in life, it eventually becomes routine; it even becomes “normal”.

Children come with challenges built right in. Gluten-free kids, however, come with challenges I never imagined. The first of many introduced itself when Andrew began pre-school. Trusting another adult with your child is difficult enough, but trusting one with your child who cannot touch or eat anything that may contain gluten (including play dough, paper mache, certain glues or pastes)... downright nerve-wracking. I have been fortunate enough over the years to have some very compassionate and understanding teachers who assured me Andrew would be safe in their classrooms, but I can't say he's never had a breach at school. Whether he stole a Teddy Graham from a classmate, or another gluten-free mom sent in a “safe” snack for the class that wasn't up to my standards, he has definitely had some bumps in the road. With that said though, he has also had breeches with me. Trying to make it easier for the teacher, I always provided gluten-free supplies for my child, and I always sent in gluten-free goodies for the whole class to enjoy (for parties and special events) so that Andrew wouldn't always feel singled out. To me, having a gluten-free kid means always sending in goodie bags and always signing up to make cookies and cupcakes. When you think about it though, it's really only a handful of times a year. Expressing my gratitude to the teachers, sending in gifts or surprises, didn't hurt either. Teachers have extremely demanding jobs. I should know- I taught for 7 years.

Now that my son attends private school, one that primarily services students with autism, the gluten-free diet is actually quite common. Because my child has to avoid other ingredients as well, I think it's safe to say his diet tends to be more strict than most of his gluten-free classmates. Fortunately I feel very confident knowing he's amongst peers who live with restrictions as well. In fact, many of the teachers and staff have children who are on the diet also. Since he's been attending for several years now, pretty much everyone knows the deal. If mommy doesn't send it in, Andrew is not allowed to have it. What began as a fear that someone would give my child a gluten-filled treat, or poison him as I have often called it, is now morphing into something completely unexpected. Andrew is at the perfect age (11) to have an inkling of defiance behind his innocent blue eyes. With age has come some maturity, but also rebellion and self-expression. Andrew takes every opportunity he can to sneak foods he knows he's not allowed to eat. The older he gets, the craftier he gets, but that's a whole different story!

Repeat after me... accidents happen. It's not the end of the world. It's easy for me to say now, but I'll admit I've had several near panic attacks when Andrew ate something he shouldn't have. When he was younger, the reactions tended to be worse. Hyperactivity, diarrhea, trouble sleeping, and mood swings were just a few of the indicators of a dietary mishap. Nowadays I try to carry digestive enzymes with me. If Andrew sneaks something, or if someone else gives him something without my consent (people do that), I can usually diminish most side effects before it's a major catastrophe.

This brings me to another hurdle though. People. They're everywhere! I realize they're trying to be courteous when they offer my son a cookie, so I try my best not to go all “momma bear” on them when they do so, but it's tricky. I have a “safe” group of people I can relax around regarding Andrew's diet. They've known us forever, and know we always have a cooler. They typically direct us to the fresh fruits and veggies when we arrive, and never make us feel awkward. I think since I've always had restrictions in my diet, I've become well-versed with explanations for the rest of the world. You will encounter the person who claims their dish is fine... it just has some breadcrumbs sprinkled on top. Or the ones who think, since it's organic, it's acceptable. Whether it's the sample lady at the grocery store or a great aunt, I instill great effort in minding my manners. Feeding people can be emotional business. Perhaps it's my Italian roots, but breaking bread with others can be a very personal thing. Being prepared for the person who might feel insulted if you don't try their lasagne has helped me out of many sticky situations. Nowadays, it's commonplace for me to preface an RSVP with “don't worry about feeding us”. I find the more vague I am, the smoother the conversation. Usually I briefly mention “severe allergies” and leave it at that. I save the more in-depth explanations for the other gluten-free moms, as I know they can handle it.

Every good parent encourages their child to share, just as I have. Having a gluten-free kid, though, means not everything can be shared- especially food. There's nothing worse to me than crushing a little soul's good intentions, so I make sure to have a special talk with any of Andrew's friends before they play together or share a meal. I explain how special they are to him and how very sweet/thoughtful/polite they are, but ask them very nicely to not offer him anything without asking me first. Maybe it's the teacher in me, but kids tend to listen. I usually “assign” one of them the special duty of being Andrew's guard. It's serious business, and kids seem to love the responsibility. Do I actually trust a child to watch my son for infractions? Heck no! I watch him with all of my being (I even tag someone to be “it” when I have to use the restroom). Infractions only take a second to occur, then usually days to overcome. As a self-proclaimed control freak, I try my darnedest to avoid such hiccups.

I don't know if it actually bothers my son, but I tend to feel a tremendous amount of guilt regarding his limitations. Luckily, Andrew and I both love to cook. Overcompensation in the kitchen, to me, is a wonderful stress reliever. After I resigned from my teaching position, it also became essential in keeping me on a tighter budget. As a bonus, I've learned I can make some things better than the store-bought version I was trying to replicate! During my time in the classroom, I actually used cooking as a tool for teaching. Cooking covers basic, beginner skills (counting, bigger/smaller, measurement), as well as some more intricate thinking... temperature, science (liquids, solids, matter, nutrition). Hands down, cooking was one of the favored learning activities amongst my students and peers. Having a gluten-free son truly made me a better teacher... I've actually had a few gluten-free students. I've scored many gluten-free brownie points over time for providing safe and educational activities for students on any diet (and unlimited gluten-free mom experience, of course). Cooking, in my house, is a daily occurrence. There is almost nothing more satisfying to me than developing a new recipe in the kitchen (knowing me, it's an extremely healthy one), then seeing my son's enthusiasm in both preparing and devouring it.

So basically, to sum it all up, I'm super confident you're not the only parent with a child who's gluten-free. You'll have mishaps, but you'll overcome them. You'll encounter people who will definitely make your life more challenging, but they won't destroy you. Over the years, you'll gain a comfortable place- with yourself as a parent, your friends, family, and general interactions. Now that it's been 8 years of gluten-free living in my house it's a heck of a lot easier. And all that time in that kitchen? I highly recommend it. Not only does it save dollars, but it's helped us avoid countless potentially uncomfortable social events. If you're anything like me, you feel a prepared parent is a happy parent, and happy parents have happy kids. If you're even more like me, you'll pour yourself a nice glass of gluten-free wine, and rehearse in your head what you're packing in your kid's cooler for your trip to the beach tomorrow. Cheers!