Part 2 of 2: I was that new kid sitting alone at the lunch table.
I shared part 1 of the story here. I thought I was the “only one,” but it turns out that this story resonated with millions of people. There’s more to the story. Today, I’m sharing what else happened, the most important factor that impacted my resilience, and what parents can do to prevent bullying and raise children who are resilient and kind…
The summer before sixth grade, my family moved from northern Virginia to a small town in Ohio. My parents placed me in the Catholic school thinking it would be a welcoming and warm environment. Within two weeks, I was begging my parents to transfer me to the local public school. The children – boys and girls – teased me. That’s the year I started to have acne. They made up a name for me – turning my last name — Ackerman into Acneman. I can still remember one boy in particular relentlessly taunting me. He was the cute, popular boy.
The nuns announced I was leaving, blamed them all for my departure, as I sat there shrinking back in my chair wishing they’d just stop.
My parents switched me over to the local public middle school. A group of girls invited me to sit with them at lunch. I was so excited to have friends! Finally, someone who was kind!
But then one day, as I described in this viral post, I naively walked into the cafeteria and half way to the lunch table where I usually sat, I realized all the seats were taken. There was no room for me. But like in a bad movie that has you cringing in horror watching the fool so naively and slowly realizing what’s happen as you shout “Noooo! Don’t!!!” I walked up to the table of girls and actually asked, “Can I still sit here?”
They looked at me and everyone started laughing. Kids from tables close by saw what was going on and joined in laughing.
I looked around the cafeteria and saw nowhere else to sit. No one took the risk to invite me to sit with them. I was all by myself in this one.
I quickly found an empty lunch table. And that’s where I sat for a few months. Alone. By myself. I was that kid sitting alone at the lunch table.
No one noticed that I’d be the last one to pack up my things at the end of English class right before lunch. I’d plan it out. I would slowly gather my things. I’d slowly make my way to my locker and then to the bathroom. I couldn’t really stay in the bathroom or in the hall – that wasn’t allowed. I’d go through the lunch line just to buy milk. Eventually I’d make my way to my table for one. And I’d sit there.
At one point, a male teacher came up to me. I saw him coming and I was dying on the inside, “Please! No. Don’t walk over here! Don’t bring any more attention to me! Please!”
“Do you want to sit with someone?” He asked me.
“No, I’m fine,” I said. I felt like I had to look like I wasn’t breaking inside.
But the truth is, over those two years in Ohio in middle school, something within me broke. I went into sixth grade feeling happy. I liked myself. I came out of seventh grade with scars that stayed with me until I dealt with them in adulthood.
As if the “lunch table experience” wasn’t enough, one day, a girl knocked on the door to our house and she stood there with a group of kids and said, “Come out here. I’m going to beat you up. You like my boyfriend.”
I was absolutely stunned. I was way too busy surviving to even consider liking a boy, let alone know which guy she liked. I didn’t even know people would FIGHT someone else!
Here’s another awful story: A boy hit me over the head with a baseball bat.
Yes. You read that right. I was hit over the head with a solid wooden baseball bat.
I was playing over a neighbor’s house and her younger brother was not being too nice. I said I was going home. I got on my bike and they boy yelled to me, “Lisa!” I instinctively turned around. And he slammed a baseball bat into my head.
That landed me in the Cleveland clinic.
Even though these experiences were awful and cruel, my story is a resurrection story. These early middle school experiences broke something within me, but they didn’t break all of me. This could have all looked very different. Why didn’t it?
The number one reason: I had a supportive family.
I had parents that listened to me and regarded me. They devoted their attention and energy to raising me and my siblings to be human beings of character with strong values. They constantly kept reflecting my light back to me. They kept believing in me. They were there for me.
My story is a resurrection story because I had parents in my life who would not let all of me break. I learned to treat the broken parts of me with tender care and regard because my parents treated me with regard. I healed those parts that the bullies beat up through learning to really love myself – because my family loved me.
I had parents who listened to me and regarded me.
That is why I am who I am today. That is why these experiences didn’t break all of me. That is why I am a compassionate human being who holds space for and supports others in their healing and sees the good in others. That is why I write and speak about creating a more compassionate world.
Parents, our children are going to see someone who is left out, picked on, or bullied. Middle schoolers will find something to make fun of. Our children may be the ones who are left out or bullied. Or – and no one wants to think about this – our children may be the ones who are doing the bullying.
I’ve come to see now as a psychotherapist that the children who bullied me probably had parents who were bullies. They may have experienced their own trauma. They felt powerless and wanted control. They felt bad about themselves – and they sought to feel better about themselves by hurting others.
We can do better. We must do better.
There are way too many school shootings. There are too many children being disregarding and mean – to their classmates and to their teachers. There are too many children already addicted to video games and electronics. And there are too many tweens and teens experiencing depression and anxiety.
Every single one of our children wants to know – deep in their bones – that they matter, they belong, and they are loved. They need to feel safe. Their resilience rises when we believe in them. They flourish when we regard them.
In working with hundreds of clients over the years, I have seen what helps our children to flourish. I’ve seen what it takes for a child to be kind, to stand up to bullying, and to be resilient in the face of adversity. I’ve seen what it takes for a child to be a leader, to take a stand, and to be happy — emotionally, psychologically, and socially.
I want to talk straight with you. It’s time now to make a difference in your child’s life, in your community, and in our world. We can create a more compassionate world – starting within our homes.
Here are six ways we can help our children rise with resilience, feel connected, and believe that they matter — and prevent bullying:
1. Get off our phones. We’re all addicted. Even if you aren’t on social media, 99% of us are on our phones a heck of a lot more than we need to be. Put. The. Phone. Down.
2. Be present. Yes, we have to pause and actually look at our children. Interact with them. SEE them. Give them space to share if they’d like. Get to know them. DO things with them. We have to BE that safe space for them to come to. We have to have the energy reserved to be able to sit back and really see our children.
Do you know what tweens and teens really want? Parents who are just “around.” They probably won’t SAY that to you! But the truth is, they are going through an incredibly crazy time – inside their brains and bodies. They still have developing nervous systems and brains. They are encountering BIG STUFF with their peers for the first time. They need to know that you and your home are a sanctuary for them.
Just as I say in my course, Regarding Our Children, we are NOT talking about “perfect parenting.” We are talking about “responsible parenting.” That means taking our responsibility as parents seriously and stepping up to what living that out really means.
It might mean making some big changes with your family (I told you I was going to talk straight with you). It might mean doing less and being around more. Forget the big house, the fancy car, the latest “stuff,” or the grand vacation.
I told my kiddos they can count on never having a car with the latest technology. We live in a modest home. Our vacations are usually visiting friends and family and then we have a “big vacation” every few years. We spend less on STUFF so we have less of a need for working so hard and long hours. We are about experiences rather than stuff. We’ve been mindful of what we value as a family (spending time together) and that has meant some big “no’s” for things professionally.
Do what you have to in order to be present. We all have limitations. And we all have choices. Find a way to do the work you need to do AND be present.
3. Keep reflecting our children’s light and their goodness. Toddlers and teenagers will press our buttons. Over time, we start putting people into boxes. The world also labels them: Joey the stupid jock, Suzy the slacker, Jane the complainer, Timmy the impulsive one. If there’s anything I can emphasize so very strongly to you – and that I do in Regarding Our Children – it’s this: we have to be the ones who keep seeing the goodness in each and every child and reflecting that inherent goodness back to them. We are the ones who have to send them the message that they belong, they matter, and they are loved. Always.
Our children will encounter meanness. They will get labeled. And we have to be the ones who pick them up, hold the mirror to them, and say, “Hey, I know you. And you are a good, beautiful human being. I believe in you.”
Maybe if the children who bullied me in middle school would have had parents who mirrored their goodness, they wouldn’t have felt the need to “feel better” by putting me down. They would have seen me sitting there alone and taken a chance to go and sit with me.
Back in middle school, every single day my mom said something positive to me about me. Every single day. She still does! When I was writing my book, Gems of Delight, she sent me texts telling me she believed in me. She often replies to my blog posts and tells me how proud she is of me. As a child, my dad helped me problem solve – he still does today. And both of them together kept believing in me and providing me ways to keep shining my light.
4. Teach our children responsibility. Here in the United States, we have slacked in this area. A few years ago, I was talking with a colleague of mine who has worked with children for over 40 years. She said that the trend she has seen is this: children have less resilience. We have to back off. Give your children autonomy while at the same time keep them accountable for their actions and give them responsibilities.
Don’t “go in for the save” when your child plays sports all weekend and isn’t able to study for the big math test on Monday. Talk about expectations with your children and show them how to be responsible for their own lives. Stop rescuing your children. Let them fumble and fail. In Regarding Our Children, I’ll show you how can promote a growth mindset, emotional intelligence, and resilience. If your son makes a bad choice, be alongside him but let him figure out a way to make it better. If your daughter doesn’t do the dishes before leaving to hang out with friends, don’t go in for the save and do them for her. Set the expectation that chores are done before fun. Divide up the family household chores and let your children be responsible for their part. I talk to coaching clients all the time about creating a family chore/responsibility chart (advice: it is NOT creating it for them and telling them what they are doing. You’ll get no buy-in).
I had a paper route in eight grade. I played soccer, had a job, and was on the honor roll every single year through high school. There were expectations at home and responsibilities I had. (Even through college and graduate school, I worked, held graduate assistantships, and went to school full time). I’m sure you had some version of this, too.
When we talk about the rising rates of depression and anxiety in our tweens and teens, it’s not because they have too many responsibilities. It’s because we are expecting them to do more, do it perfectly, and do it earlier. We jump in to rescue them when they are having a hard time. We have this fear they won’t get into Harvard and they have to go to an ivy league…or else.
Or else what?! They won’t be…happy?!
This isn’t setting our children up to thrive. It’s setting them up to feel anxious and bad about themselves. Rescuing them now sets them up for freaking out later when they are on their own and encounter challenges.
Let’s teach our children about what they’ll encounter on the road to mastery – doubt, failure, conflict, boredom – and how to navigate those difficult phases. Let’s teach them how to use mindfulness in the moment of self-doubt or failure. Let’s teach them the skills of emotional intelligence so they are kind to others and know how to work on teams. And let’s teach them what it means to be responsible for their lives.
5. Teach our children to be the one who risks kindness. Let’s teach our children how to be the first one to risk being kind. We can model this. In your family, make this a motto: be the first one to be kind. When you and your spouse start to get annoyed with each other, be the first one to be regarding. Model “choosing kindness” to your children.
I would have felt so much less alone had one person risked coming and sitting with me at the lunch table. Just the other day, my son told me something that happened with a friend. I asked him, “What was your response?”
He said to me, “I told him, ‘Hey, buddy, I’m here for you. You got this.”
I told my son, “You are the friend I would have wanted when I was your age.” And I meant it. He is the same age now as I was when I sat alone at the lunch table.
The “first one to be kind” is the leader. A strong, effective leader. Other will follow suit. Let’s teach our children the skills of empathy and courage to stand up for what is right.
6. We have to own our stuff to heal. Our children are not our “punching bags” – literally or figuratively. We do not control them or own them. We cannot decide their passions and gifts for them. Their lives are not our own. If you have shame issues – if you have past trauma stuff – own up to it, take responsibility for it, and see a professional. OWN YOUR STUFF. OWN YOUR HEALING. Maybe your dad was physically or verbally abusive, or your mom was a depressed and absent mother. Maybe now you have a lot of rage within you and you have a short fuse with your family. OWN your reactions and behaviors. Go and get help. Let the generational trauma stop with YOU and your choices.
Now as a psychotherapist and coach who has worked with many clients, I think about how maybe if the father of the boy who hit me over the head with the wooden baseball bat would have been in his own therapy and working on his own stuff, his son wouldn’t have been so angry and violent. Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in the Cleveland Clinic. One man could have made a difference by swallowing his pride, being willing to delve into the places in his own heart and life where he felt vulnerable and powerless, and healing his trauma. THAT is being a man.
I was that kid sitting alone at the lunch table.
I do not want this to be any of our children.
Imagine if every single parent reading this post decided to really regard their children, be present, reflect their children’s light, gave them responsibilities, and worked on their own mental-physical-emotional health.
Imagine if every parent in your children’s school decided to do this. Your children would go to school with other children who are emotionally well, kind, and compassionate. Imagine the learning that could take place! Imagine school being a place where children aren’t bullied but rather BUILT UP.
I’m going to keep on imagining it and creating it. And I’m about supporting you to imagine it and create it, too – starting in your home.
I believe the Dalai Lama’s words:
“When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts.”
“Be kind whenever possible. It’s always possible.”
In any moment, we can take responsibility for our most precious gifts – our children – and teaching them how to be compassionate and kind — to themselves and others.
At the end of seventh grade, my family moved back to Northern Virginia. I carried those middle school experiences with me for a long time. But I went on to heal from these middle school experiences because of my family. And I am a loving person because I was shown such love. We can do the same for our children. Let’s create a world where our children don’t have to encounter bullying – at home or school. We can do this — together.