The grade-school lunchroom has long acted as a microcosm of social life. It’s where kids choose whom to sit with, develop friendships, and resolve conflicts. And lunch is one of the few less-supervised periods in most kids’ school days. Over the past several years, however, some school cafeterias have become invaded by a new group: parents.
Twenty years ago, when I was in elementary school, having a parent join you at the lunch table was unthinkable. Parents or caretakers dropped everyone off in the morning for school, leaving us to grow, play, and learn until we were collected. But lately, parents are playing a much more active role in their children’s educational lives. According to a September report from Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused on children and their family, parental involvement in school is rising. “In 2016, the percentages of students whose parents reported attending a general meeting at their child’s school, a parent-teacher conference, or a school or class event reached their highest recorded levels,” the report states.
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. One school district in Darien, Connecticut, found its cafeterias so inundated with parents that this week it announced an outright ban on parent-student lunches. “It feels like a punch in the gut,” Jessica Xu, a parent whose oldest child is in first grade, told the Associated Press after learning of the decision. “I chose the town for the schools. I’m so frustrated the schools don’t want me there.”
As the number of parents joining their kids for a midday meal swells, schools have tried to be accommodating. Most schools value parent involvement, but at a certain point it can become disruptive. A middle-school teacher in Connecticut, who asked to be anonymous since she was not authorized to speak on the record, said that she doesn’t think parent-student lunches are a bad thing, but she has seen them cause issues in the past. “The parents would bring pizza for some students and not others. It became a little bit of a circus and I do remember feeling like it was disruptive instead of being just a sweet lunch between just the mom and the kid,” she said. “I think she was using lunch to try to buy her daughter friends,” the teacher said of one mom.
Some kids, especially the young ones, begin crying when their mom or dad attempts to leave after lunch. Other children whose parents aren’t able to visit them (possibly because they’re working) can be left feeling neglected. School districts have attempted to thwart these problems by forcing parents to sit with just their own children, sometimes in separate rooms or areas. Rogers Middle School in Texas even offers parents and children the opportunity to dine at a “bistro” with fancy-looking chairs to avoid lunchroom disruption.
But according to Katelin Chiarella, a second-grade teacher in Hayward, California, schools aren’t doing enough to stem the tide of family lunches. Chiarella bemoaned the trend, which she sees as just another example of helicopter parenting. “Some parents come in and actually spoon-feed their kids, kids who don’t need to be fed,” she says. “Some parents make hot lunch at home and bring it to them.” She says that there are at least seven or eight parents a day in her school’s lunchroom. The school has tried to curtail that number, but it hasn’t worked. “They kept showing up anyway,” Chiarella says.
Parents who do eat with their children said that family lunches are a positive thing. If anything, they argue, schools should be encouraging parents to become more active and involved in their children’s school lives. Sarah McSpadden, a mom and family vlogger who documents her family life on Instagram, said that eating lunch with her third-grade daughter and her daughter’s friends has provided a valuable window into her child’s social life. “You see what people are eating, not eating, see which kids are throwing food, talking too loud, who is sitting by themselves. It’s a chance to poke in on your kids’ day that you wouldn’t get if you didn’t have lunch with them,” she said. In her district, she says, there are parents who join their children for lunch up to three days a week.
Shamaila Quddusi Jairajpuri, a mom to a second grader in Alameda, California, said that if she doesn’t bring her son homemade hot food for lunch, he usually won’t eat. “He says, ‘Oh, Mommy, I want to have this [for lunch]. But if he takes it in the morning, it gets cold … pancakes, after three hours they are cold and rubbery, who wants to eat cold pancakes?” she said. “My son was a very picky eater in kindergarten. He would go hungry in the morning. I would feel bad because he would not eat. If I’m there, I can make him eat.”
Through volunteering at school and joining her son for lunches through kindergarten, Jairajpuri has become close with many of the children in her son’s class. “They say, ‘Oh, can you open this for me?’; they talk to me about their day,” she said.
While kids in elementary school may be thrilled to have their parents in, especially when they bring food, by middle school it’s safe to guess that most are mortified by the practice. McSpadden said she never joins her children in the ninth or 11th grade for lunch. By then, they’re more independent.
The middle-school teacher from Connecticut said that even though it can feel upsetting to be cut off from what you consider valuable time with your child, it’s important to remember that schools have the best interest of kids at heart. “I know from being an educator for over 12 years … It’s the school’s responsibility to care for the students while they’re in school, and they need to make the best choice possible for the students,” she said.
But David Frankel, a North Carolina entrepreneur who tries to join his kindergartener and fourth grader for a meal at least once a quarter, said that schools should encourage more parent involvement, not discourage it. Besides, he added, “nowadays, with most parents working, it’s hard to find quality time with your kids. After school, you’re dealing with after-school activities or hours of homework. Sometimes lunch is the only uninterrupted quality time you get.” This may be true, but Frankel admits that school districts are trying to strike a delicate balance. After all, if school lunchtime becomes quality time for kids and their family, then it’s no longer a place for them to learn how to interact with their peers without a parent’s watchful eye.