When Kids Choose to Sit Alone

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, I highlighted some helpful emails from educators, as well as a reader who “suffered in silence” at the lunch table as a kid. Below are more perspectives from readers who sat alone in the cafeteria—but they didn’t suffer. My assumption that all kids enjoy company of some sort—even if they don’t feel like making conversation—elicited passionate responses from these readers. Here’s one:

I had my son, an autistic high school student, read this article. He typically sits alone too. I asked him what he thought, and basically his answer was that lunch is the only time he gets a break from the huge stress of having to socialize. He did think the football player was very kind, but he would not want a companion at lunchtime everyday. Not all children with autism will feel that way, but the point is, don’t assume sitting alone is always a tragedy.

Another reader strongly opposes the idea of a school initiative that would encourage social interactions at lunchtime:

That is the thing that bugged me about your article. It implies that autistic kids want to be part of some kind of lunch party, and pushing them into it is a saving act. I’m high-functioning autistic, and even as a kid, I have been alone by choice. I’d rather pursue the weird and thrilling thought patterns in my own mind.

However, other readers agree with Mike Hugman—the reader who “suffered in silence”—that social isolation in school was miserable for them. Rachel Helie writes:

A large part of my childhood was spent alone in one way or another. We moved frequently, and that did not facilitate the “making of friends” for someone already shy to the point of paralysis.  

I struggled to communicate with my peers in a way they could understand well into my teens. And I frequently found hiding places away from the lunch horde. I would sooner skip meals than face the gauntlet that was the school cafeteria.

I was taken under wing by librarians and observant teachers who sensed my unease and gave me the time I needed to be alone. Sometimes I found people like me tucked into library corners and classrooms during the lunch hour. Sometimes we even talked to each other.

I am not on the spectrum, but now, at 37, I know myself well and know that in order to feel comfortable enough to “make friends” I need that safety and quiet that allows my voice to be heard. I would thank the guardians of that quiet who bent rules for an uncomfortable kid and gave me a chance to learn that about myself.

Perhaps the way to provide support for people who desire it, while not burdening those who enjoy the break from social interactions, is to let the child decide for him or herself whether they want help. A reader describes one such system:

One of the schools in Summit County in Ohio has a “Buddy Bench” on the playground. And if a child sits there alone, others have been taught to go over and sit with the child in support.

Meanwhile, other readers said that kids need more than a small fix in the lunchroom; they need a more inclusive environment in the school and the community. Here’s one parent, Elizabeth Nelson:

I think it’s worth adding to this conversation: The overwhelming majority of parents are clueless about where and how they contribute to the isolation of kids. Parents who are satisfied knowing that “my kid has a nice group of friends” are often skipping the life lesson of empathy and inclusion. Adults at school aren’t going to have much impact when the messages aren’t reinforced at home. I did as much as I could (as a parent) to create inclusive social situations, inviting every kid under the sun to participate in activities with my picked-on and excluded kid. Invitations were accepted (especially when kids were young and parents were happy for me to “babysit”) but never reciprocated.

One more reader, Renie, agrees that broader changes in schools are needed to help kids like hers:

My children went to a very small public school and one of them was badly bullied—way more than I ever knew at the time. Sure, it was children who did the obvious bullying, but it was adults who mainly ignored it, blamed her for it, or enabled it.

A school can create an environment where inclusion is the norm. Assigned seating at lunch is one way to help those children on the outside; another is to always assign children to particular groups when there are group assignments in class. Things like “lunch bunches” try to solve problems that don’t need to exist in the first place. It’s much better to ask how we can prevent the isolation that surrounds some children than try to fix a problem that develops because our structures create that isolation.

Update from one more reader, Joy (and posted by editor Chris Bodenner):

Regarding all the articles about school children eating alone at lunchtime: I think your followup note (“When Kids Choose to Sit Alone”) was a well-balanced piece, especially in contrast to the narrative most of the media and social media initially favored (i.e., the football player being a hero for sitting with the boy). In high school, I disliked eating lunch with my schoolmates enough that I took to eating during fourth period classes whenever possible in order to avoid the lunch room. Then I got a car and took to eating lunch alone there. I didn’t hate my classmates (and I’m pretty sure they didn’t hate me either), but the lunch setting was just too much social interaction crammed into a loud, chaotic 20-minute window.

When I went to college, I didn’t eat a meal with another person until my second year on campus, and surprisingly enough, I missed it. While I’m not a social butterfly by any stretch of the imagination, I do appreciate some social interactions—a sort which I found, as I’m guessing some of your other readers also found, was not facilitated well by lunch room engagement.

All to say, thanks for the “update” article and for being willing to think through a story that’s pretty easy to read as a happy-feel-good story but can also be a starting point for a more nuanced discussion.