Prepare yourself. Starts with L. Makes your head itch. … Lice. The mere word sends tingles up the scalps of parents across the country. It should. Because in the battle of exhausted parents versus lice, it feels as if the lice are winning.
Treating lice is an unpleasant, time-consuming job. Sadly, it’s a job many parents are forced to add to their already busy schedules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 6 to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years of age.
We can give one another a fighting chance at defeating (or better yet, avoiding) the enemy if we not only treat lice, but destigmatize them. Unfortunately, in addition to their own excellent hiding and reproductive skills, lice are frequently accompanied by a cloud of shame and secrecy. And while that’s good for lice, it’s not good for us. We have to talk about lice, a whole lot more than we currently do.
I’ll start. My name is Kristin, and I’m a lice survivor. Our first time we went nuts — donned our hazmat suits, washed every sheet daily for two weeks and kept quiet. I was embarrassed. That’s all I knew to do, until one mom shared her family’s lice story on the school Listserv. She not only built awareness about lice in our school, but she also showed us that information was power. Because the more we talked about lice, the fewer cases there seemed to be.
I’ve been yapping about lice ever since. My suggestions for communities battling lice:
1) To the parent whose child has lice:
We feel your pain. Now, please do the following: Treat it, and talk about it. Tell your kids that anyone can get lice; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Let friends’ parents know so they check their children. And please, talk to teachers and school nurses, so they can be aware that a lice infestation is present in the school.
Schools with strict “no nits” policies unintentionally discourage this: Parents who fear missing work or their kids missing school treat as best as they can and hope no school official’s eyes are sharper than theirs. But here’s the problem: If you indeed missed some lice/nits, you put an entire classroom at risk of getting lice. And then your kid might cycle back through in a few months. Report the lice, please. It’s in the interest of all kids, including yours.
2) To the schools that have at least one case of lice:
Tell us. Please. Some parents say their schools won’t notify parents of lice infestations until a certain threshold of multiple lice cases is reached. Schools that share detailed information on how to both prevent and treat lice — beginning with the first known case — may prevent many future cases. Educate us; don’t wait. And please, be proactive in helping repeat cases find the extra help they need to get rid of lice.
3) To the parents who get the lice note from school or the call from a friend’s parent:
Say thank you, then get to work. Yes, it’s natural to want to groan. But remember, you’ve been given useful information. Knowing about lice leads to both prevention (have girls wear long hair pulled back; don’t share hats) and early intervention. Immediate and thorough comb-outs can mean catching the one and only louse. That’s far preferable to meeting her entire extended family a week later.
I think we can all agree that no one is pro-lice, though school and health organizations disagree on school lice policies. Strict “no nits” policies are opposed by the C.D.C. and the National Association of School Nurses and supported by the National Pediculosis Association and some school districts, including mine (for the record, we still have plenty of lice). But whichever school policy you support, the fact that our country has up to 12 million cases a year says we need to do more in our battle against lice.
Here’s what doesn’t work: advocating secrecy and treating lice infestations as though they’re shameful. If we want to prevent the spread of lice, we need open and frequent communication from parents and schools. Because the less we talk about lice, the less likely we are to rid ourselves of a really annoying bug.