This op-ed was originally published in The Windsor Star on October 27, 2011
Peanut butter has been getting a lot of ink lately. There have been media stories about schools that have forbidden both peanut butter and “safe” peanut butter substitutes – while food banks want donations of peanut butter.
Working toward building a tolerant and critically thinking society, my colleagues and I have been using peanut butter for years.
It turns out to be a great tool for teaching even young children about democratic rights and responsibilities.
While we don’t bring it into class, we found it opens the door to discussions about conflicting rights. For those who believe that democracy means “majority rules,” the schools that forbid peanut butter help show that, while the majority may like it, we may also need to protect a very small number of people. Whose rights weigh more?
A very angry man once telephoned the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. He had sent his young child to school with her favourite lunch. She was a picky eater and only ate one thing. At lunch time, the child had been discovered in possession of that contraband item – the peanut butter sandwich.
She had been whisked down to the school office where she had to eat her lunch alone, and then she was told never to bring her favourite lunch to school. The father was outraged. He said that the school was interfering with his right to feed his child the best way he could.
He pointed out that peanut butter was an excellent food that was preferred by the majority of children. And, food bank peanut butter, he pointed out, may be the only lunch available to some.
The person who answered the phone that day tried to mollify him. “If your child had a life-threatening allergy, surely you would understand the school’s position on peanut butter,” she suggested.
The man responded, “If my child had a life-threatening allergy, I would never send her to school. After all, who would know when a guy like me might send his kid to school with a peanut butter sandwich!”
He is right. There is no rule about what children eat for breakfast. And we have all seen children arrive at school “wearing” breakfast. Imagine the child who has peanut butter on his face and hands playing on the playground equipment before the bell rings. Who will be the second child on that equipment? The child with the peanut allergy? The father said, “The school rule doesn’t keep the kids with allergies really safe.”
His suggestion: Take the children with allergies out of the school. Open a school where they can be really safe – everyone will wear one-piece coveralls, the air will be filtered, and all food will be controlled by the school. Then they will be really safe – and everyone else can go to school with peanut butter sandwiches.
While his suggestion may look absurd or even discriminatory, it raises some serious questions. What is the purpose of the peanut butter rule? Does it actually work? What are the side effects of the rule? These are the questions that all citizens, rule-makers, and legislators, not to mention judges, need to consider in order to determine whether any laws and rules are fair and just.
We want our children to think critically and to consider the needs and rights of people who may differ from them. Children who learn more than just a rule will understand they have a responsibility to others. Thinking about peanut butter can help them practise the habits of democracy.
Danielle McLaughlin is director of education at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Education Trust. ccla.org/education
REACTION TO WINDSOR STAR OP-ED ON THE PEANUT PROBLEM
First and foremost, I think that the gentlemen’s response in which he indicates that there is no way to keep every child safe (from peanut butter or otherwise), is unfortunately correct. However, as a society we must ask ourselves if we truly believe that we can create conditions (as much as we may wish we could), in which everyone we love is safe from all threats to their safety.
I would suggest that realistically, we know that we can’t, but what we can do in our democratic society, is offer a collective effort to do so to the best of our abilities. Therefore, in the discussion of what is fair and equitable in our society, we need to critically consider special measures in terms of different treatment. And so, in addition to asking the three questions you present about rules in society, 1) what is its purpose? 2) does it work? and 3) what else happens (side effects)?, may I offer a fourth – does this rule protect and promote fairness and equity?
I ask this because equitable treatment does not mean equal treatment, nor does it mean that people be treated the same in some circumstances. When we discuss rules with people, especially children, and consider our responsibility to others, I believe that it is imperative to address equity and fairness, and to ensure that as citizens we are appreciative of the fact, and openly acknowledge, that different treatment may be necessary to be equitable. In this regard, perhaps the place to begin is to critically interrogate that old adage,”that’s not fair”!
Karen Roland, PhD
Experiential Learning Specialist
Faculty of Education, University of Windsor