When I was 13, I came home from a sleepover at a friend’s house (let’s call her Sleepover Friend). The phone rang when I walked in the door and it was another friend calling (we’ll call her Phone Friend).

I quickly found out that Sleepover Friend, with whom I’d just had a great time, was now out. No longer in the group. Had inexplicably become a social leper. Phone Friend was calling to say that Sleepover Friend was suddenly annoying or stuck up or dorky or some other sort of 13-year-old crime. Just like that. Because sometimes that’s how the social cookie crumbles when you’re 13.  It certainly had for me before.

So, what did I do? Let’s just say my character wouldn’t be the 80’s movie hero sticking up for the underdog. I decided to avoid the risk of joining Sleepover Friend in no man’s land and – though I’m ashamed to admit it – I joined in the criticism with gusto. I was sitting under our kitchen table “for privacy” when suddenly, out of nowhere, my mom grabbed my legs, pulled me out from under the table, grabbed the phone and hung up on Phone Friend.

Panic.

Looking into my mother’s eyes, I saw a reflection of myself that I did not like. I was called out, this was not how things worked in my family. My dear mother let me know in no uncertain terms that this mean girl behavior was not allowed in our home and was a high ranking punishable crime. 

My mom helped me realize the small voice inside me – the one I’d been ignoring – was the one I actually needed to hear. She not only made me think about what I’d done, but about who exactly the kind of person I wanted to be. She was tough on me, and being face to face with my mom after breaking this rule was absolutely a defining moment.

Until my mom sat me down I was afraid to do anything other than what I needed to do to stay in the group. We all know that the role of social outcast quite simply sucks. Who hasn’t been on the outside of a group of whispering girls who suddenly stop talking as soon as you approach? Who hasn’t walked up to a middle school lunch table and found there was “no more room.” Who hasn’t overheard stories of the sleepover all your friends attended, realizing with a sick feeling in your gut that you hadn’t been invited? I didn’t want the pain of being out of the group, so while I was a “good girl” and a “nice kid,” I opted to be mean in order to protect my own behind.

That moment with my mom wasn’t just a life lesson about fitting in. It was the beginning of what I’m committed to teaching both as a parent and a teacher: we need to be inlcuders. No one is left out in any big or small way. Our in-ness cannot come at the expense of someone else’s out-ness. We’re all here, arent’ we? We all fit in.

Welcome to the human family – population: everyone.

As parents, we need to be less concerned with asking if our child is included and ask more questions about whom they include. The message from us, and more importantly what we model, must be that there’s always room for one more. Each and every person has worth, has value.

We all believe that our own children are special, we all love our children deeply, adore them infinitely. And we should. We all think our kids are the most amazing. And they are – to us, their parents, the people who cherish them most in the world. But our children must also know that as singular as they are within our hearts, out in the world, they’re no better than anyone else, no more or less special than all the other humans. 

Their feelings of worth must come from being part of the good in the world, not from being in when someone else is out. We need to teach our kids that doing what’s right is often also unpopular. And we have to acknowledge for them that doing the right thing will sometimes be so very hard. But teaching them to see and stand up for the value of their fellow humans, even if it comes at the price of their own belonging, is a hard thing worth doing.

As kids get older they claim to long for privacy and a hands-off approach, just as they did when they wanted to pick out their own clothes when they were two. But we do not owe it to our kids to check out. Sure, they send a strong “go away” message sometimes? And just as I don’t give in to the multitude of other wants, I’m not giving up on the big stuff. I’ll pick my battles, of course. Doritos for breakfast? Maybe. Messy room? Ok fine, now and then. I can be persuaded. But turn a blind eye when one good friend is no longer included in the sleepovers? Not a chance.

We need to look for that moment when it’s time to grab our kids by the legs and drag ’em out from under the table. Knowing when to step in and keeping abreast of what’s going on requires an effort from parents. I offer some suggestions of questions you might ask your kids to keep your finger on the pulse:

1 | Who are the “mean kids” and why do you think they act the way they do? 

Pro-tip: the answer can’t just be that they’re a terrible person. As a teacher, I’ve met a lot of kids and I’ve never met one that was simply a terrible person. People who are mean are hurt, lonely, scared, misunderstood or misdirected.

2 | I’ve heard you say so-and-so is a tough person to be around.

Why? What can you find that’s good about them?

3 | What would happen if you just said yes instead of ignoring the request?

I know you’re not friends with that person, but maybe they asked to be your Snapchat follower or to sit with you at lunch because you seem kind. 

4 | Who might see that on Instagram and feel left out?

Did you need to post it?

5 | Tell me about how your lunch table works?

Can anyone sit with you and your friends? Do you have someone to sit with every day? Do you ever see kids with no one to sit with?

6 | Who needs a ride?

We’re happy to drive as many kids that need a ride and if there are too many I’ll find another mom to help me. (Kids seriously sometimes get left out just because there are no more seats in the car.)

My talk with my mom changed my thinking, it allowed me to see myself and the situation differently. It changed my heart. And with practice, I might have even had a few 80’s movie style moments…doing the right thing and hearing that slow clap in the background (if only in my mind).

Talk to your kids. If they’re feeling left out, do whatever you can to help them connect. If they’re the mean kid, do whatever you can to help them change that. You’ll make mistakes, but you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to pay attention and speak up.

Let’s teach our kids how to value one another. Let’s teach our kids that there’s room for every single one of us at the table – even in the middle school cafeteria.