Lunch time at middle and high school can be one of the most gut-wrenching times of day for teenagers all over our country. When I say gut-wrenching, I mean that on two levels: Many of these youngsters feel emotional pain thinking about where they are going to sit while simultaneously experiencing gnawing stomach pain that often accompanies anxiety. It's a wonder that more teens don't suffer from gastrointestinal problems.
And here is what happens during that time of day when our kids are supposed to be taking a break and getting re-energized. A sub-group of teens, mostly girls, are being told that they cannot sit at the table that they approach. Usually, no specific reason is given. They are simply told with some variant of the word scram to do just that. Or, it might go like this: They sit down at the table and conversation stops. The message here is also quite clear: Get lost -- we were having an important and private conversation before you and your sorry self joined us. How about this common scenario? The teenager sits down at the table and is not asked to leave but is clearly ignored. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being made to feel invisible. Those vibes may make your stomach acid churn and wash shame all over your youthful teenage body.
While your teen may not be experiencing this today, there is always tomorrow. Friendship patterns shift frequently during the teen years. A best friend today can throw you under the lunch table tomorrow. None of our kids are immune. There is neither a vaccine nor a magic pill that will prevent your teen from being the next target of exclusion in that noisy and confusing place where they are supposed to be getting nourished.
What's a parent to do? What's a parent NOT to do may be the better question. Results of a 2011 study in the journal Child Development found that kids who were less focused on popularity tended to be more resilient and better able to cope with tricky social situations. I suggest that we focus on teaching our kids to make some good friends rather than chasing after "the populars." It is the populars who are more likely to turn them away from an empty seat. You see, popular hinges on exclusion and if kids are not screened carefully the populars might lose their status. I suggest that all parents try to recognize that by trying to push teens toward the populars they may,in fact, be doing them a disservice.
Let's think about this while we are in the middle of a national conversation about bullying and its cousin-exclusion.