School lunch used to be a relatively uncomplicated affair. Parents sent their kids off with sandwiches. Kids ate in school cafeterias and got along with one another or didn’t. Either way, moms and dads tended to be blissfully unaware of what went on in the lunchroom.
Then, sometime during the 1990s, parents started showing up to eat with their kids.
“It’s a tiny offshoot of helicopter-parenting, which started in the 1980s,” Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult” and formerly the dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, tells The Post. “I would have been mortified if my parents showed up at school lunch when I was in second grade. Now there are kids who embrace it.”
School-cafeteria incursions made headlines in November when the wealthy New York City suburb of Darien, Conn., put the kibosh on parents lunching with their elementary-school offspring.
At a town meeting — where the change in policy was attributed to reasons of security and a bid to keep things running smoothly — one Darien parent likened the ban to being “punched in the stomach.”
Says another, “When you read about how kids are being bullied and the uptick in suicide rates and kids on medication, I want to help my son [who was having a hard time socially] put things into perspective. By going to lunch at the school, I was able to listen and model. It is not about being a helicopter parent. It is about being engaged.”
Lythcott-Haims, who “applauds Darien for taking a stance and reminding that school is for children,” believes otherwise.
“Sitting with children at lunch is related to tracking and surveilling them,” she says. “Elementary school is meant to be a first step away from home. Lunch is part of that.”
A teacher on the East Coast, who wrote the public-school tell-all “Teacher Misery: Helicopter Parents, Special Snowflakes and Other Bulls–t” under the pseudonym of Jane Morris, points out that sitting in on lunch to see what is really going on at school is unproductive.
“I have a daughter in kindergarten who kept asking me when I will be coming for lunch,” says Morris. “She sees some parents coming every day and is jealous. I thought of taking off from work and joining her. Then I realized that it’s not healthy.”
Plus, she says, it doesn’t give much insight into your kid’s behavior.
“Once you show up to observe, your kid acts differently than he or she does when you are not there. She’s clingy when I’m around and gets upset when I leave. But my daughter is not like that when she’s on her own with other kids.”
Darien is not alone in contending with overprotectors who lunch. At Rogers Middle School in Texas, noontime visits became so pervasive that there has been a segmenting of the lunch room: In one area, it’s all kids. In another, it’s parents eating with offspring. At an elementary school in Beaverton, Ore., last year, parents were broken of a habit that had them hand-delivering lunches to the lunchroom and then sitting down to eat with their kids. In Hayward, Calif., though, it still persists: Parents there reportedly bring hot lunches for their second-graders.
Meanwhile in Greenwich, Conn., the practice continues to thrive.
“Parents are invited to occasionally come and join their children for lunch; we maintain a broad policy,” says Kim Eves, director of communications for Greenwich Public Schools, who enjoyed eating with her kids when they began attending elementary school there in 2000. “Parents come in as much as they feel comfortable doing it and it is not overly disruptive. It works for the parents and it works for the kids.”
No specific policy exists in New York City — where security guards and sign-in sheets tend to discourage unplanned appearances — but parents do find ways of inserting themselves into lunchtime.
In Park Slope, which stands as a hub of helicopter-parenting, at least one mother volunteers at PS 321’s lunchtime salad bar specifically as a means of cozying up to her son.
“There’s a kid whose mom comes every day to do salad-serving, but she never does any serving,” said a fourth-grader between bites of breakfast at a muffin shop across the street from the school. “She stands by her son and talks to him during lunch. Then if he doesn’t finish his sandwich, she finishes it for him. We’re not allowed to make fun of the kid, but we do giggle.”
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