As a mom, I frequently scroll the latest parenting articles, and every once in a while I come across when that stops me in my tracks and makes me exclaim, “What in the hell?” to no one in particular. Today’s entry is an article in The Atlantic, titled, “The Controversy Over Parents Who Eat Lunch With Their Children At School.” The subhead goes on to say, “Schools claim it’s disruptive for parents to eat in the cafeteria. But parents crave the quality time, and some say it’s a good thing for them to be involved with their kids’ place of learning.” Part of that statement is true, and part of it seems absolutely bananas to me.
The article reports on the growing trend of parents coming to school cafeterias to eat with their kids: “At some schools, swarms of parents wait in line to be escorted into the lunchrooms and sit with their children, some as old as 10, for a meal.” A school in Darien, Connecticut became so overwhelmed by these invasive parents that it then outright banned parents’ lunch visits, which one mother referred to as “a punch in the gut.” Rogers Middle School in Texas, on the opposite end, offers “parents and children the opportunity to dine at a ‘bistro’ with fancy-looking chairs to avoid lunchroom disruption.”
As a non-educator, non-childcare professional, I can think of lots of reasons why parents coming to school to have lunch with their child is a terrible idea. For example:
1) Lunch is a time for your kid to socialize.
Lunch is one of the only non-structured times of your child’s school day (their teacher is likely milking their few free minutes by—pure speculation here—lounging with their feet up in the classroom playing Candy Crush, or sneaking a well-deserved smoke in the parking lot). By hanging with your kids at this social hour, you are effectively prohibiting them from getting to know the other kids in their class, bonding over the cafeteria mystery meat or their mom’s terrible sandwiches (look, I tried).
2) You could spend those hours volunteering in other, much more helpful ways.
I remember when my kids went off to kindergarten, strolling into this giant building with me on the outside having no idea what went on in there for the next eight hours. It’s why I was such a big school volunteer when my kids were that age, just to get inside the building and case the place for myself. Our school cafeteria was always looking for parent volunteers, actually, and usually on Fridays I would hang out with the kindergartners, opening milks and subsequently wiping up milk, helping kids dump the proper things in the proper recycling. I didn’t actually sit down with my kids, but I did appreciate the opportunity to see who was sitting with who at what table, who was acting up, who wasn’t, how bad my homemade lunches looked next to some fancy bento boxes, etc.
There were other volunteer opportunities, too—pretty sure there are at most schools. My absolute favorite was reading time, when you go to read to the class. I would still do reading time if they let me, but it cuts off at 2nd grade, and my kids are in 6th. I remember reading from my daughter’s favorite picture book, Kitty Princess, and telling the class, “This story is about a kitty princess who’s bossy. Do you know someone like that?” Everyone in the class pointed to this one girl, who shrugged. She totally got it.
But even beyond reading time, there are usually book fairs, craft fairs, art shows, sports teams, room parents, walk-a-thons, and my god, field days, where I monitored the tug-of-war for several years. If you want to be involved with your kids’ school, unless it is the The Ayn Rand School For Tots, the school will likely appreciate your volunteer efforts. Ergo, there is no need to come to school and eat lunch with your kid.
3) You are interrupting your child’s important separation from you.
Your child needs to know that they can survive without you (in a totally supervised environment) for eight hours. If you show up in the middle of the school day time period, you’ll have a more attached kid rather than an increasingly independent kid.
4) You are setting up a disturbing helicopter parent pattern.
The parent who eats lunch with their kid in grammar school—in some cases, as one expert in that Atlantic article points out, spoonfeeding their school-aged child—is likely going to be the parent who calls that kid’s college professor when they get a C after never showing to class, or follows up with a prospective employer after their kid’s job interview to see how it went.
You know what you wind up with then? A dependent who lives in your basement. Forever.
Look, I don’t like some of this growing-up business either. Weekends with my kids used to consist of family time at various museums: Now the kids hang out with their “friends” at “Nerf gun wars” and “sleepovers.” Sure, I enjoy the downtime. I also miss them. I told them yesterday that the day after they go off to college (they’re twins), I am immediately getting a dog to help me ward off what will undoubtedly be some devastating loneliness after the double-barrel of two kids leaving at once. It’ll go from chaos to silence in 24 hours.
But that’s the job, parents. To grow strong kids, who, if you do the job right, will no longer depend on you. (As much—c’mon, they’ll always need you a bit.) Part of that process means letting them go—and part of that means letting them eat school lunch on their own.