“Parents, What Would Your Kid Do?” originally appeared on Asbury Park Press and was reprinted with permission.
I remember my grade school cafeteria like it was yesterday. I went to a private Catholic school, so the space where we ate lunch also doubled as the gym and the auditorium with a creaky stage.
The tables folded up for easy storage and there were no chairs — rather benches to sit on while we ate. In typical elementary school fashion, the girls sat together and the boys sat together — eating brown bag lunches or whatever the hot lunch was that day. My mom was a volunteer lunch lady.
Lunchtime was a social time more than anything. The room was filled with chatter and laughter and the crinkling of chip bags. In high school, girls and boys from different grades sat mixed together. It was a big deal if freshman were invited to sit with older kids.
Again, lunch period proved to be a time to socialize, catch up on homework, or study for a big test next period. I don’t remember ever sitting alone at lunch, unless it was senior year and I chose to drive home to eat (read: nap) or pick up something at the deli.
One of the first things I ask Jack when I retrieve him from school is if he ate his lunch and how his day was. Jack mostly comes out of school happy and talkative. He’s not the kid to say “good” when asked about his day or “I can’t remember.” Jack likes to paint a picture with words.
Often times I’m met with something like, “I got on blue today!”
Blue means he was a superstar student that day.
Or, “We played basketball in gym class and learned about Rosa Parks. She wanted to sit in the front of the bus with her friends but the police tried to make her move.”
He tells me everything — even sings me songs he learned in music class.
Last Friday, I was particularly proud of Jack when he reported about his day as we walked to the car. He told me one of the girls in his class — we’ll call her Ellie — was sitting all alone at a lunch table that was surrounded by other lunch tables filled with kids eating and talking. The image in my head of Ellie sitting alone made my stomach drop.
Jack usually sits with the boys and isn’t a fan of the cafeteria food.
“They give us fake pizza at our school, mom,” was one of his first complaints when he started at his new school. We’re pizza snobs. We eat real pizza.
On that day, pizza day, Jack did something that made me so, so, so proud. He saw Ellie sitting alone, grabbed his lunch sack and homemade sandwich, and joined her at the empty table.
He did this unprompted. I wasn’t there to tell him to sit with her, and often times if a group of kids are playing at the park and I notice a solo kid, I always tell Jack to invite the child to play.
In the summertime on the beach, everyone is friends and Jack often plays for hours with kids, without even catching their names. Sand toys are mixed up, and we often come home with a shovel or sifter that isn’t ours. It’s great!
Jack told me they talked about Minecraft and ate — just the two of them. I know this meant a lot to Ellie because her mom sent me a text that night as Jack and I were sitting down to some leftovers and salad.
“Tell Jack thank you for being so kind to Ellie,” the text read.
I showed Jack and he shrugged.
“What’s the big deal? She’s my friend and she was sitting alone,” he said. “Who wants to sit alone at lunch?”
It is a big deal, I explained to him — reminding him how he felt nervous his first day of school down the Shore, but how great it felt when a little boy named Jonathan said hello to him and asked if he wanted to be friends that day.
“Imagine if no one said hi that first day?”
His face got serious and I knew he got it.
“Imagine if everyone on your soccer team ignored you and never chose you as a practice partner?”
Here’s the deal: As parents, we can be on many ends of this story. We can have the kid that is excluded, the kid who is a bully, and the kid that does something about it.
I’m glad I know who my kid is — someone who sticks up for people — and I hope Ellie knows she’ll always have a friend in Jack.
Now my call to parents reading this: Share it with your children.
Tell them about this lunchtime scenario and encourage them to show compassion to someone who may be feeling left out. My heart crumbled to pieces thinking about Ellie sitting in that room all alone while EVERY OTHER KID had a lunch buddy.
It’s up to us to teach our children to do the right thing.
Recommended reading: The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig.
Brian is in second grade and is mostly ignored by his classmates. No one ever wants to partner with him, include him in recess games, or sit with him at lunch. Then a new student named Justin arrives. Justin is Asian and brings a dish called bulgogi (Korean beef) to lunch. He eats it with chopsticks. The kids make fun of his lunch and call his food “booger-gi.” But you know who doesn’t rag on him? Brian. They become fast friends and suddenly Brian isn’t invisible anymore.
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