Reporter's Notebook

Sitting Alone in the Cafeteria
Jim Young / Reuters
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Prompted by Laura McKenna’s piece about students who sit by themselves at lunch, readers share stories of childhood loneliness and discuss how to make school feel more welcoming for everyone.

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When Kids Choose to Sit Alone

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.  

We’ve received many thoughtful responses to my article “When Kids Sit Alone” and our request for personal stories from people who sat alone in the school lunchroom.

Harry Brighouse, a professor of education and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, contrasts the American system of unsupervised lunch periods with his secondary school in the U.K. He says it is up to adults to make schools more humane.

My first secondary school (public, U.K.) wasn’t particularly well led, to be honest. But, we had a 90-minute lunch break. Lunch was two sittings, with assigned seating. Each table had 8 places, most had one teacher, and all had a mix of boys of girls, and a mix of years (we were 12-18 year olds, and about half the kids left school at 16, so it skewed a little bit younger). The idea that you would leave vulnerable children to be rejected by their peers (or allow them to reject their peers) at lunch time was never considered.

What you describe—adults leaving children to bully, reject, ignore each other, IS already an adult intervention. Nobody goes to school unless adults make them, and nobody would choose to be at the school with the people who bully, reject and ignore them, if they had the choice. It’s up to adults to make that experience humane, or inhumane. In most American schools they choose to make it inhumane.

Echoing Harry’s positive description of lunchroom behavior in the U.K., another educator said that teachers and students eat together in France:

Last week, this photograph of a college football player sitting at a school cafeteria table with a middle-school student with autism went viral:

I understood that picture a little too well; my son sits alone in the cafeteria every day, too. While looking for some help for him last spring, I learned about “lunch-bunch” programs, where teachers or therapists provide organization, facilitate conversations, or simply offer a safe place for kids who can’t find a clique in the cafeteria. These programs have begun to crop up at public schools around the country and offer a lot of promise for kids who sit alone.

One reader, Mike Hugman, emailed me to thank me for the article I wrote on the subject. As a child, he also had a difficult time fitting in with his classmates. He pointed out that you don’t have to have autism to have these problems and agreed that schools could do more to help kids like himself.

Mike said that he “suffered in silence.” Perhaps it is time for less silence about silence. Tell us: Did you have a tough time in the lunchroom at school? Could (and should) schools step in to help kids like Bo, Mike, and my son?

Mike writes:

I was one of those kids who sat alone almost every day, and while I was not autistic, I was extremely shy and didn't know how to break out of my shell. The experience was extremely distressing, since I wanted nothing more than to make friends and fit in but I was completely clueless on how to do that, or who/how to ask for help.