Save the Sandwiches, Please!

Jake Ross, a 10 year old boy with Asperger’s syndrome, has gone without lunch a few times in school during the past months. Apparently, his parents fell behind in putting funds into his lunch account, and the lunch workers, as a result, have more than once taken his lunch away from him, after it was served, and thrown it away.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not unique. The Willingboro, New Jersey school district has this as a set policy, and the Salt Lake school district in Utah recently made headlines for similar behavior.

A couple of issues with this:

  1. Children are left hungry while trash cans get fuller. That’s hard to understand. If the school simply made less food and stopped providing lunch for students that hadn’t paid, or if the extra food were kept and given to students whose accounts were current, OK, but to make good food just to toss it? In addition to not really solving the problem, another problem – waste – is added.
  2. Many of these schools receive government funding for the lunch, or are eligible for it. Basically, they could provide a free lunch for all of the students if they wanted to. Obviously, it isn’t really a money question because they schools are making the same amount for lunch, whether or not the accounts are up to date.
  3. There doesn’t seem to be any clear correlation between the action taken by the schools and the issue at hand. How does throwing out a child’s lunch clear up the problem of an unpaid account? The school doesn’t need to keep giving free lunches if that’s not their policy, but is it unreasonable to come up with a more viable solution? Why not invite the parent to help with different school services and events in lieu of paying cash? Or develop an alternative payment plan? Or decide, together with the parents, that the child will no longer participate in the lunch plan and will bring his own lunch?  There are plenty of ways the school and parents can work together to solve this issue.

The policy of taking the lunch that has already been served to the child and throwing it out does nothing except shame the child. Now, in addition to the original financial problem, we’ve added an emotional one – shame often leads to a double negative: resentment toward the person who has shamed you, and discouragement with oneself.

Is this really what we want children to feel? Whether the shame comes from a confiscated lunch, or from embarrassing pictures posted on Facebook, or from parents saying “Oh, you can’t imagine what my Johnny did today…” and airing the child’s “dirty laundry” in front of all the friends or relatives, the effect is the same: the children feel ashamed with themselves and trust authority less. After all, faced with a real problem, instead of receiving viable help from the authority figure, they’ve been put down, and needlessly so.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t advocate a consequence-free mentality. I believe it’s very healthy for children to experience consequences, which are a natural part of life. But those consequences should empower the child to grow, learn, and overcome challenges and difficulties, not make them feel belittled, powerless, and snubbed.

I have never seen something good come from shaming a child, and I don’t expect to. Shame shuts down – it doesn’t motivate. Children ARE motivated by gratitude, love, trust and responsibility. They will do in a second for someone who has genuinely helped them what they will never do for the person who shames them. Think about it yourself. Has being shamed ever moved you inside to desire to change your behavior? On the other hand, how many times have you considered changing your behavior because of a positive role model or because someone has won your respect because they CARED about you?

Most of us have no influence over the school districts and their decision regarding school lunches, but we do have influence in our own families and communities, and, above all, our own children. We do choose what we post on Facebook about our kids and what we say about them in conversations. When we hear about or witness kids being shamed or embarrassed, we chose how we react and whether to laugh, participate in the shaming, or try something a little more countercultural.

Please, if you have kids of your own, or are regularly around kids in one capacity or another, help foster a culture of GROWTH. Help crowd out wasted sandwiches and other methods of shame with forgiveness, love, collaboration, guidance and responsibility. It does make a difference, both in who you are, and in who that child will turn out to be.

Leave a Reply