The Tradition of Out to Lunch at PS 321

PSP members talk about the benefits (and the few potential drawbacks) PS 321 of off-campus lunch.

Original Poster:

We are  upset and confused about whether or not to let our 9 year old go out to lunch per PS 321's tradition for 4th and 5th graders. We have gone back and forth, and, in a moment of weakness, I signed the permission slip-- and never should have until we had made a clear decision. . (this issue came up during the week my father in law was pronounced terminal, a week of his dying process, We were schelping back and forth from NJ,  He died on Sat.  and we buried him yesterday)  

Of course my son wants to go and all his friends are..Yes, we don't have to send him out. My husband and I are concerned that 9 is not old enough to be on your own on BK streets (there is a confined area but the school is not responsible for the kids, there are crossing guards for crosswalks)   We feel so pressured by the dynamics to let our kid go, if he doesn't go, he isn't "cool" and is made fun of- and it is seen as a punishment for the remainder of the school year. So if we don't let him go there will be hell to pay. My husband's family speaks of the risks of sexual predators (there are 5 registered sex offenders who live near here), possible abduction or getting hit by a car (how can the crossing guard watch several hundred kids?)

But 9 year olds out in the street with no supervision??  Any thoughts??



A majority of PSP members believe the 321 program to be:
- safe
- safer now than in the 1970s
- there IS a crossing guard
- a great learning experience
- an important lesson in responsibility
- part of growing up
- part of NYC childhood experience
- kids travel in pack so there is safety in numbers
- peer pressure isn't that intense
- kids don't end up straying too far
- kids will pool $ and share
- kids will do a combination of food from home and takeout
- kids LOVE it
- parents LOVE it

Full Responses:

"I think your concerns are very valid, and you know your child and your own comfort zone.  In the end, you have to go with your gut and make your decisions independently, and not based on what "everyone else" is doing.  That said, I highly recommend the book "Free Range Kids" by Lenore Skanazy.  I resisted reading it for a long time, but when I finally did, it really changed my thinking.  And she's a very entertaining writer."

 "Can you speak to other 321 parents about what this really looks like on the ground?  Obviously you know your kid better than anyone else, and you need to do what works for your family and not just follow the crowd blindly.  But I'm assuming the kids go out in groups -- or you can work with other parents to form groups -- so they're not exactly on their own, and it sounds like a great opportunity to build independence in a safe environment. I grew up in Manhattan, and in 4th grade I started going to school on the public bus by myself (30+ minutes, one transfer), and this was a time when NYC was a LOT less safe then it is now.  I recently asked my mother about how and why she felt comfortable letting me do it, and she said "You weren't alone.  I knew that several of your classmates were doing the same route, and at the beginning I'd coordinate with other parents to make sure there was a group of you going at the same time."  And my husband grew up in Park Slope and actually went to elementary school at 321, and he remembers some families in the neighborhood getting together and forming "lunch clubs" where kids going out for lunch would trade off going to various kids' houses who lived close by. So there might be a community approach that would help you feel more comfortable."

"I think it's a good thing for his development, both in terms of maturity and socialization. I grew up in the Slope in the '70s and we played out on the sidewalk and stoops by ourselves without a problem... and the Slope is exponentially safer now than it was then. I think it helps to remember that crimes like sexual predation are incredibly rare, but the media makes such a big deal of them that we think they're common. As the city and the country get safer for children, people worry more rather than less."

"'I'm sorry you've been having such a hard time and feel so under pressure about the out to lunch decision. I think you should do what you feel is best for your son. I really doubt he'd be made fun of or considered not cool. A lot of kids don't or can't go out to lunch for a variety of reasons. My 5th grader is volunteering to serve salad in the cafeteria on Fridays and is giving up her outside lunch that day. One of her friends only goes out on Wednesdays. This is our 10th year as a family with one or more of our kids at 321 and I've NEVER heard of anyone being hassled about it. (Anyway, sometimes you have to be the "uncool " parent. My daughter tried to convince me in 3rd grade that everyone else had an i-phone except her. My son told me in middle school that all his friends watch 6 hours a day of Netflix and stay up until 2am... If you feel you have valid reasons why going out to lunch would be unsafe, tell your son about them.) That said, I personally love the 321 tradition of out to lunch. My youngest daughter and I were sad to learn last year that she wouldn't be able to go out to lunch M-F, as her older brother and sister had done. The cafeteria is crowded in 4th and 5th grade (they share the lunch period) and kids can't sit with their friends from other classes, or talk as much as they'd like when they are inside. They have two blocks along 7th Ave where they can buy food and all of the people who work at the stores get to know the kids and keep an eye out for them. The kids all look out for each other as well. My daughter gets $5 a week that she has to budget out and supplement with lunches from home. ( My son reported that at MS51 he knew kids that got $40 a day- but he always chose to take a bag lunch...). I think nine is a good age to have a little more responsibility and independence. Knowing how to cross the street safely is a skill that nine year olds should learn. The idea of sexual predators and kidnappers snatching our kids off the street across from the school at noontime is probably less than the risk of them being struck by lightening. I worry more about my 17 year old (taller than I am these days) taking the subway at night, or for that matter going off to a college campus next year..."

"My daughter is in the same grade at 321. Just wanted to share thoughts. As I post this they are about to be released on the streets of the slope in 5 minutes...OMG!!!! Factually, on the crossing street part of it you aren't completely informed - they had an assembly with the kids yesterday and Liz spoke last year at the 3rd grade spring parent meeting - the kids are only allowed to cross at the corners where there are guards and no where else. - 7th Ave and 1st and 7th Ave and 2nd. So the guards will watch traffic at those spots (not the hundreds of kids but focus on stopping the cars either way as the lights change).  Also, beyond the crossing guards, there are administators/staff out on the block keeping an eye on behavior, rule following, etc. I think it unlikely a sexual predator will be able to grab a kid on those blocks during "out to lunch" without someone noticing - there are too many kids and people around and involved - it would be way too visible!
One thing our family has done to make things more controlled at the start is banned buying food - we have allowed my daughter to go out but for the first month she has to bring her own lunch. That way she has one less piece to focus on (deciding where and getting to where she wants to buy food FAST before there is a line). That means she has to find friends who also will sit outside of a restaurant for the first month and it is raining today (ARGH!) - so there are social complications (and as you mentioned, this is a big social moment) but only for a month. And we aren't the only ones doing that. I think overall, developmentally, this is a really valuable opportunity for our kids in many ways, as scary as it is for us. How lucky are we to have school staff on hand and lots of peers around experiencing the same moment the very first time our children are "alone" on the street.  I feel much better about this than I would sending my daughter to a corner store for the first time on her own.  And the beauty is that they get to do it over and over and practice in a supported environment before that corner store moment happens (at least for us - hasn't happened yet). Whatever you decide though, it has to be right for your parenting and your child. And yes, sometimes, that means making your kid "uncool" . And my sympathies to you in that regard - I hate being that parent.  On that front, you may want to discuss with Beth Handelman  the vp who supervises out to lunch and find out how may kids don't go and just what you are doing when you deny it.  I am not sure that social outcasting is the result - that could be 4th grade begging -  but it may well be true that the huge social impact is worth the very miniscule risk of abduction...and you can do a lot of home training on trusting your instincts, sticking with friends, etc."

"It sounds like there are a lot of stressful things going on in your life which make you fearful of losing your son. That fear shouldn't be the reason you keep him from learning to experience making choices on his own. I recently saw an article that in 1919 a kid traveled distances of 6 miles to go fishing with friends at age 8 - and today many parents won't let an 8 year old go to the end of the block unsupervised. There are studies that show a correlation between independence and success. Frankly we are doing our kids a disservice. They can't learn to make decisions if we make them all for them. They have to learn to manage risks otherwise they will be victims as adults. For example, when I was a kid I was allowed to experiment with alcohol and drugs in a controlled environment (ie, only in a house with adults nearby, no driving, no drugs from strangers, and yes I broke the rules sometimes)- but when I went to college I was not interested in drunken parties and I didn't feel any pressure to fit in. I had a mature attitude about substances and substance abuse from my experiences. Now that's too the extreme I realize and I'm not saying you should follow that path. I am saying that lunch away from school is still a controlled environment as controlled as can be expected in a city. The kids self select their rules what places are cool to hang out which ones are not. You chose to raise your child in the city why would you want to protect him from the amazing opportunities the city has to offer including the freedom to leave school and choose lunch at one of dozens of local restaurants? Our society loves to make parents scared so they can sell them products to protect their children - but take a look at the statistics - 99% of sexual molestations and child abductions happen with family members and people the child already trusts (priests/teachers) - the chances are incredibly slim that anything will happen. There is a greater risk that you overprotect your child and then as an adult they make terrible dangerous decisions when no one is there to protect them. As for cars well getting hit by a car is a real chance - I recently complained that my corner is too dangerous to cross - and then I looked up the statistics - no reported injuries in the past 5 years. I assume you have taught your son how to cross the street - I highly doubt he and his friends are going to jump out in traffic. If you trust that you have taught your child good habits then trust him to start using that judgment you've been installing in him. And don't judge him by how he acts when he's with you, he's relying on you then out of habit. I think you'll find you like the person you've raised once you give him the freedom to grow."

"My older son graduated from 321 in June and has been going out to lunch for the past two years. The kids are definitely not alone. In fact, they all flock to a couple of nearby places. While I understand your concern, there really are tons of adults and people around -- and the kids just don't stray very far. I have never heard of an incident occurring. And the kids really seem to love the freedom and responsibility, as well as the break. That said, lots of kids will also bring lunch and hang out near school with friends who buy lunch. So the peer pressure isn't quite as intense as you might think. It does have the potential to get very expensive, not to mention unhealthy, so I made a deal with my son that I would give him a weekly amount to budget himself. And if he spent it all on Monday and Wednesday, say, then he would bring lunch from home on Friday. And we discussed the fact that he was not allowed to buy junk. You could start by allowing him to go out one day a week and just walk by the school at lunchtime to see how it feels to you."

"I believe the area around 321 is pretty safe and the merchants care about the kids god forbid something should happen the kids can run into a store for help. My eldest daughter went to middle school in Manhattan and out lunch was very new to me. The kids had boundaries and new not to cross them it took me a while let her go out. The kids mostly traveled in packs and went for pizza or bagels.I did however suspend my daughters out lunch in seventh grade bc she and her friend ended going crosstown on an adventure which resulted in a phone call from a truant officer."

"I first encountered the PS 321 kids out to lunch a couple years ago while grabbing a slice of pizza during a work-day visit to our under-renovation home.  I have to say that I was surprised that the school allowed this because I personally didn't have out to lunch privileges until I was a senior in high school.  What actually disturbed/amused me more was that, instead of pizza, almost every kid was ordering zeppoles (deep-fried, sugar-coated dough) for their lunch. My husband, who also didn't have off-campus lunch privileges until high school, likes to reminisce about how he would eat cheese fries every single day for lunch at his local diner.  So you may think your kids are abiding by your edict not to spend the lunch money on junk food, but you'll never know if they are!"

"This time is so short and so big and memorable and important. I say it is in the child's best interest to learn some of this independence now. If they go to a middle school that also let's them out everyday, then by the time they are in high school, it will be old hat and it will not be "new" at too old of an age, which I notice makes kids act wilder from being caged for so long.MS 51 was on the top of my list and my son's because of that freedom, I actually considered that real inportant. He didn't have that going out option in elementary and I definitely wanted him to have that in middle school.My vote is to let him do it. I think it is a great learning experience."

"I think the freedom is great, I just have trouble with it because not everyone can afford to go out to lunch and it allows for yet another chance to highlight economic disparities. My kid wants to go out twice a week at her school, and all I can think of is that I bring my lunch everyday and maybe go out once/month. It's very expensive, unless you get the $1 pizza slice which is not very healthy."

"My younger son went out to lunch every single day he could when he went to 321. He just started high school this September to give you a time frame. Not every child who goes out to lunch actually buys lunch out. For example, my son was allowed out every day but 3 out of the 5 days, he brought lunch with him and ate with his friends (even if they came back with pizza or something purchased), and the other two days, he was given money to go and buy something. he was happy with this situation and he said a lot of his friends did the same thing. He was just glad to have the freedom to go out.  Of course, some kids had money every day, but, such is life. The other thing that happens sometimes is kids who don't have a lot of money will pool their money and then share things.BTW, both of my sons attended 321 and both went out to lunch every single day."

"I'm sure many folks will respond to your email but I thought I'd offer a couple of suggestions of things that we did when my older daughter (now PS 321 alumni) was in 4th grade and SHE was nervous about going out to lunch.
I called the parents of a few of her closest friends and we all agreed upon the following set of guidelines for our children:
*  Kids meet at the same set of red benches in front of the school on all out to lunch days.
*  From there, if some kids were to purchase lunch they would buddy up and go in pairs - no one would go alone.
*  Most children brought their lunch from home in 4th grade so there was always a group sitting at the red benches throughout the year.
*  We gave both of our children a good watch in 4th grade because they are responsible for getting to the backyard in time.
*  Some kids will buy junk with their money so I always want one part of lunch to be healthy, from home.  Either fresh fruit or a sandwich or greek yogurt and then my child can supplement with something using her judgement.
My younger daughter went out to lunch for the first time today and she LOVED it.   I think its a wonderful program."