I am JJ: My parents worked hard to make me feel "normal"
For a recent Food Allergy Talk Podcast, my parents and I discussed the importance of balancing safety with normalcy. Balancing safety with normalcy is a phrase I see on many blogs throughout the food allergy community. It's sage parenting advice, indeed. But as my parents revealed during the podcast, parenting advice that sounds simple in theory is often difficult to implement in practice.
Of course, I always knew my parents had to work hard to make me feel safe. But I never realized how hard they had to work to make me feel normal.
I thought my parents letting me run free at a friend's party or at the park with my cousins or on a field trip with my classmates was just that... my parents letting me run free. I never realized how much work behind the scenes they did. I never realized that when I would attend a bowling party on a Saturday, my dad would visit that same spot the Saturday before just checking out what "normal" birthday parties looked like at that venue. Then they could plan accordingly. By the time I arrived, they could say, "Have fun!" and watch me run off like all the kids.
"Some venues look drastically different empty than they do with 100s of people," my mom said. "We wanted to be proactive."
Parents who want their children to do what the others are doing have to be proactive.
If we were going to try out a new restaurant with extended family, whether at home or on vacation, one of my parents would always try to talk to a manager before hand, and in person, if possible. Of course, they'd talk to them during a time when the restaurant was not busy.
"When you talk to the restaurant staff when it's not the dinner rush, it's amazing how they respond," my dad explained. "Most people who work at restaurants take incredible pride in their food. Sometimes, our tone matters, too. If I'd say to a manager, 'I'm here because I heard great things about your restaurant, and I just want to ensure my son can have a normal, awesome experience,' they'd respond positively every time. Then when we'd return with the whole group later that night, it's like we'd be old friends. Some of your best meals in restaurants didn't just happen by luck, JJ. We didn't just order and cross our fingers. By giving restaurants the professional courtesy of a head's up, they could treat you like you were just another guest, even though they knew you weren't."
And if that restaurant couldn't accommodate me or if that staff had an unhealthy arrogance, it would be easy for my parents to suggest an alternate place without causing a scene or any embarrassment.
"It's one thing to change restaurants before anyone knows about it," my Dad says. "It's another scene when you are standing with 20 hungry relatives in a crowded lobby on a busy Friday night trying to talk to a frazzled manager."
My mom and dad stressed that parents must be resourceful to make a child feel normal.
I remember one time we were traveling and staying overnight with a youth group. The hotel served breakfast — it was more like cereal and muffins. The hotel did not have soymilk, and my parents knew this because they had checked beforehand. What my dad also knew was that there was a Starbucks across the street. He had called the manager of that Starbucks just to be certain that they carry soy milk and that he could buy a cup for his son.
I sat at the table and ate cereal with everyone else that morning. If my parents had assumed that the hotel carried soymilk, I wouldn't have been able to sit with all the other boys and eat what they were eating. I was 6 and trying to fit in. That breakfast mattered.
As I got older, my parents started shifting the responsibility to me, which is why I am comfortable being proactive myself.
At college, if I know friends are going somewhere special, I'll call ahead in advance. When I participated in a recent leadership retreat in another country, I called ahead and talked to the coordinator. I could tell she appreciated me being proactive. When I arrived it was perfect. I was able to enjoy myself and balance my safety with normalcy.
There is a fine line, of course. And honestly, there were times where the situation simply wasn't safe for me to participate "normally."
My parents never tried to shoehorn me in to make me appear normal. They never made unreasonable demands.
"Normal parenting is parenting what's best for each child," my mon explained.
Added my dad: "In all things, safety trumps normalcy every time, but there is a healthy balance.... and a healthy philosophy. Everyone has something they deal with — that's what being normal means. So, yes, there were times when we said to you, 'That really looks cool and it would be awesome if you could do it, JJ, but you can't. And you won't. And that's actually normal.' "
Normal is being like every other kid... and every other kid has things he can and can't do.
When I would get upset that I couldn't do what others were doing, my dad would often say, "Some people are tall and win NBA championships. Some people are shorter and win Kentucky Derby's. Wilt Chamberlain would have looked silly riding Seabiscuit."
JJ Vulopas is a junior at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. An advocate for young people, JJ has lived with food allergies his entire life. He is the author of the children's book, Land of Not. You can read his daily blog at www.thelandofcan.com and follow him @thelandofcan on Twitter and Instagram.