There are lots of aspects of middle school that create PTSD in highly successful and competent adults. Let’s just say it’s not the happiest time in most people’s lives. So in honor of a week that includes Make a Friend Day on February 11, No One Eats Alone Day on February 13, and Valentine’s Day on February 14, I’m making a radical suggestion to middle schoolers and, really, to all of us. Can we celebrate our differences and embrace the things that unite us? Can we try to include others?
Making friends and Valentine’s Day seem to be a natural fit. During a week devoted to displays of love from cards to flowers to gifts, it’s logical to share the love by starting a friendship. The question is, who will that new friend be and what’s the deal with no one eating alone?
In the Chicago Tribune, Heidi Stevens shared that Beyond Differences is sponsoring National No One Eats Alone Day on February 13. Stevens interviews Laura Talmus, the founder along with her husband Ace Smith, of Beyond Differences. Talmus describes the experience of her daughter Lili, who died at age 15 from complications of Apert Syndrome. Kids in middle school did not bully or tease her because of her appearance. Rather, they ignored her.
The social isolation was particularly tough for Lili at lunch. Thus, the idea of creating a day on which no one eats alone. But what about all of the other school days? While we are focused on friendship and love this week, is it possible to teach kids to have empathy for that classmate who stands alone at recess? Is it possible to infuse the principle of inclusion into the everyday life of a school?
When I was director of Cherry Preschool, we decided to tackle this issue head on. We borrowed the ideas of Vivian Gussin Paley. In her book You Can't Say You Can't Play, Ms. Paley states that the classroom is not a private place like your home. Just as there are rules governing a multitude of school behaviors, there should be a rule governing the right of all children to participate. In addition, she believes children are often excluded out of habit rather than for any real reason. In other words, "exclusion is written into the game of play. And play, as we know, will soon be the game of life."
Once Cherry Preschool instituted the rule YOU CAN’T SAY YOU CANT PLAY in its classrooms, many good things followed. New friendships were forged as children got to know other children, children felt relieved (even the ones who did most of the excluding), and teachers could handle issues of exclusion matter-of-factly (You forgot the rule) rather than approaching each instance as a moral puzzle to be solved.
Children no longer asked, "Can I play?" It was assumed that everyone could, just as it was assumed that everyone had the right to use the toys or paint at the easel. The preschool also advocated for the adults in its community to build on the You Can't Say You Can't Play philosophy by extending the hand of friendship to people who were new to them and/or the school community.
Cherry Preschool adopted this rule because all children should feel safe and accepted in their school communities. Parents have reported over the years that their children were puzzled when they saw children excluding one another at their elementary schools. They became playground ambassadors, explaining kindness and inclusion to their peers. They stood up for children being bullied. I like to think they taught a few others along the way that, “You Can't Say You Can't Play.”
Of course, there are times children and adults want to be alone, and those times should be respected. The difference is instead of a child asking, “Can I play?” that child should be asked, “Do you want to play with me?” The possibility of inclusion should always be available.
I continue to hope that all of us, as adults, will think about this issue and model this behavior for children from a very young age. Teaching empathy and inclusion before kids enter formal schooling is a start. Revisiting it at different stages of development will be necessary, especially as children enter middle school.
In all of our communities, we need to bring those who eat alone in from the shadows. Trust me, it will enrich everyone’s life.
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