Friday, December 17, 2010

Choking Hazards and Standing Up for What You Believe In

Q: My daughter is three. Her preschool class is having a popcorn party. Is she old enough to eat popcorn? What should I do?

A: Experts say kids should be AT LEAST four, if not five years old before they can eat popcorn. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains that "children three to four years old are still learning to chew effectively. Children at this age also may be easily distracted when they need to pay full attention to the task of eating."

A lot of parents think "what's the harm?" "she's a mature three," "she's a good chewer," "I'll be watching her the whole time" or "it won't happen to me." But over 80% of the 17,000 annual choking-related ER visits in the United States occur in children ages four and younger. (This is different than "under four.") Close to 100 children in America die every year from choking on hazardous foods like nuts, grapes, raisins, hot dogs and popcorn.

Here in Israel, a lot of these foods have a big warning label on them: "Choking hazard for children under age 5!" In America this is not yet standard procedure. But looking at the statistics and hearing the horror stories from parents who have lost children to something as simple as a grape, I've learned a lesson: It's just not worth the risk.

I'm not an outgoing person. I prefer to write an email rather than make a phone call any day. I hate confrontations. I don't like to rock the boat. But when it comes to my children's health and safety, I am compelled to overcome my natural tendencies and take a stand.

I would bring the teacher a printout stating the facts. It's much harder for a teacher to negate hard facts than to brush off a "neurotic mother." If I felt the need, I might even start calling parents to get them on my side. A lot of people just aren't aware of what foods constitute choking hazards and up until what age they pose a threat.

Are you worried that these parents (and even the teacher) might be offended, as if you're calling them bad, or even ignorant, parents? I probably would. But you know what? If I didn't know something essential to my child's health and safety, yes, I might be a little embarrassed if you corrected me, but I'd be more grateful than ashamed. Because my children's health and safety comes way before my pride.

If the teacher's not interested and the parents are apathetic (it happens), you can go to the school board or even as far as the Health Ministry. (The Education Ministry might or might not want to get involved; even though it's school-related, it's more of a health issue.)

But what I find is even more effective than complaining (even if your complaint is completely justified) is coming up with an alternative solution. Preferably a better one than the original idea. A teacher doesn't want to be told "You can't have a popcorn party." The first thing she's going to think is "Now what am I going to do with the kids for an hour? And I promised them a party!" You've got to beat her to the punch and suggest a solution that's going to appeal to her and keep her from grasping at straws. After all, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. (Boy, I'm just a wealth of idioms today, aren't I?)

Suggest a different kind of party. Marshmallows came to mind briefly, but I don't think young children are supposed to eat those either! What about building little "gingerbread houses" out of graham crackers and marshmallow fluff or frosting? It's the perfect time of year, and it's not just a snack but an activity as well. Of course, volunteer to provide all the supplies and lend a hand with the party itself. See if you can bring in one or two other parents to help out as well.

What teacher is going to say no to parents who want to be involved, volunteer to do the shopping, help the kids with the messy project, and stay to clean up afterwards? Hopefully stepping in about the popcorn issue won't upset your daughter's teacher. With any luck (and the right moves from you), she could very well end up thanking you for it.

I know I would.

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