11-year-old Bo Paske’s life was changed for the better after famed Florida State University football player, Travis Rudolph joined him in the school cafeteria. As we learned when this event went viral on social media, Bo has autism and was often excluded by other kids at school. His mother told TIME magazine that he often ate lunch alone and had very few friends before this took place, but he is now well accompanied in the school cafeteria. Since then, other parents whose children struggle with Autism Spectrum Disorders have posted online about how hard it is for their kids to be left out of social activities, and about how hard it is for them as parents to stand by as their kids continue to be excluded. While this story is very special, it shouldn't be such a unique experience. Normalizing the act of approaching a peer who is not the same as us is essential in helping all kids flourish.
What an incredible difference a simple act of kindness like this can make. By setting an example of compassion and inclusivity, Travis Rudolph can help motivate change. A story like this helps to encourage children without social difficulties to reach out to kids different from themselves with sensitivity and warmth, despite how scary that can sometimes be. It isn't always easy to reach out to someone different from us, and making an unpopular choice to join someone who doesn't fit in with the standard crown can also be intimidating, but it means so much to children like Bo Paske. It can also enrich our own lives, as we have the opportunity to learn and grow from these experiences just as must as the recipient of our act of kindness.
For the most part, I don't think kids are malicious in their tendencies to stick with others who they can relate to more easily. It's completely natural to remain within our personal comforts zone much of the time. That's why I believe that parents, educators and community leaders have much to learn from this story as well. Coaches and teachers encourage participation sports and other extracurricular activities where they teach them about team work and sportsmanship. I think that they can also learn some fundamental lessons about community and perseverance by joining with people unlike themselves.
Ultimately, stories like this are an excellent opportunity for us all to take note of how others around us might be feeling about the way we treat them, whether or not we intend to make them feel that way. We should all feel inspired to pay more attention to our behavior, and take note of opportunities to do nice things for others, regardless of our differences.