What life lessons will kids learn from lunchtime?

Many years ago I was consulting in an elementary school in Maine. When the PE teacher said he preferred having lunch in the cafeteria, as opposed to the teachers’ lounge, I decided to join him. It had been decades since I’d dined in a school cafeteria and I wanted to relive the experience. But what I experienced in that cafeteria was nothing like what I recalled from my own school days.

In my time, lunch wasn’t just about eating but also about socializing. Except for recess it was the one chance during the school day to talk with friends, exchanging thoughts and sharing information about the events in our lives. I’m sure we also picked up a life lesson or two about manners and etiquette (if we talked with our mouths full no one could understand what we were saying), but mostly we learned important lessons in communication. After all, one learns to communicate by communicating!

However, in that Maine elementary school there was no talking allowed. The students were there to eat – and to eat only – and there were teachers stationed strategically throughout the cafeteria to ensure that the rule wasn’t broken. These adults brought to mind the Gestapo standing guard.

At the time – and for a number of years – I believed this school’s policy was an exception. An aberration. Sadly, I’ve since learned that there are many, many schools where the no-talking rule is enforced. Moreover, with recess, where offered, now limited to a few scant minutes during the day – and too often following lunch instead of preceding it, as it should – lunchtime is typically a rushed and stressful event. (See “Changing the world one lunch period at a time.”) The only life lessons learned here are that (a) friendship/communication/socializing is not a good thing; (b) meals are not meant to be enjoyed; and (c) life is hard!

Hmmm. Is this what we want elementary-aged children to glean from their education? Even if we ignore the belief that a healthy life involves feeling respect and appreciation for both food and friendship, we can’t ignore the simple truth that communication is one of the most essential skills we possess as we navigate through life. Do we expect that, as adults, these silenced students will suddenly (magically?) know how to successfully communicate – with partners, peers, and employers? Is no previous experience required in order to master this skill?

The whole notion of no-talking lunch periods infuriates me. Despite the fact that they’re both “institutions,” schools are not supposed to resemble prisons!

In contrast, I invite you to watch this video of a lunch period in an elementary school in Japan. And, if you’re so inclined, jot down the number of life lessons learned here. I can assure you that your list will be long – and that everything on it will serve these students well, both in the present and in the future.

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