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Lunch: A love letter to my teen

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Parents are constantly told all the things they SHOULDN’T DO for their teen — deliver forgotten homework, set alarms, fold laundry. But with so much emphasis on responsibility, are we forgetting compassion?

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Until recently, when our kids reached junior high they made their own lunches. It was a policy born of necessity with six kids at home — just like emptying the dishwasher at age five, washing your own laundry at twelve. My boys never complained, though they sometimes created interesting meals like oranges, string cheese and a handful of chocolate chips. Most days, they made a sandwich, threw in a chalky tasting Capri Sun and an apple. No big deal.

But by the third week of his sophomore year, Xander was exhausted. With classes starting at 6:05 a.m., three AP courses, two orchestras, team sports and his work as class president he rarely got to bed before midnight. One evening, he moaned he never had time to make a good lunch in the morning. Ten-year-old Mary immediately piped up, “I’ll make your lunch.”

She set right to work gathering sandwich fixings, polishing an apple, drawing a picture on his lunch sack…all while keeping up a constant stream of chatter, “What do you like in your sandwiches?” “Do you eat bananas? Yogurt pretzels?”

The next day Xander came home filled with gratitude, “Thank you Mary. That was the best lunch ever.”

Seventeen-year-old Hans (who is not a whiner) ever-so-slightly grumbled, “I wish someone would make my lunch.”

Gabe piped up, “Me too!”

And the assembly line began.

Spreading mayo and just the right amount of mustard, Mary carefully arranged cheese slices and meat while cheerfully asking each brother if he preferred grapes or apples wedges. Night after night she repeated the process.

As I watched my girl laugh with her brothers and bask in their effusive praise, I wondered if my desire to teach my kids self-sufficiency impeded an opportunity to show love to my older children.

So, when Mary’s ballet switched to evening rehearsals, I took over her job of slicing and spreading, wrapping and bagging.

In addition to the primal connection between love and food, there’s likely nothing as potent as a sack lunch for creating daily gratitude: the thrill in the morning when they pull their lunch out of the fridge, happiness at lunch time while eating it, thanks in the evening when asked for their sandwich preferences for the next day.

I also took more notice of the small kindnesses my boys do for me: driving Mary to dance, picking up milk from the store, cleaning the kitchen on a night when I’m working late.

Delighted by all the happy feels in my house, I asked a group of teenagers, “What makes you feel loved by your parents?”

I was surprised by the simplicity of their answers:

“When my dad interrupts my homework to play a video game with me.”

“When I fall asleep reading and wake up in the morning with the light turned off and a Kleenex marking my place in the book.”

One girl became emotional as she described her mom picking her up from school every day and taking her directly to soccer practice. “Every day, I leave my backpack in the car. And every day when I come home from practice, my mom has carried my backpack into the kitchen and set it on the counter. I don’t know exactly why, but seeing that backpack always makes me feel so loved.”

Maybe that’s the trick. Teach your kids life-skills and responsibility, then look for small ways to ease their burden during the hectic teen years. After all, the rhythm of family life depends on give-and-take, picking up where someone else left off, forgiveness and easy laughter. My children depend on me, but I can also depend on them and I hope they take that compassion into future relationships.

The only people who question the new mom-makes-lunch-every-day phenom are my two oldest sons who cobbled together meager lunches all through junior high and high school. “Spoiled kids.” They joke, with a sheen of sarcasm that reveals their hurt.

I look at my big boys with their broken-down cars, shabby apartments, multiple jobs, grad school applications and new marriages.

“Sit down,” I insist, “let me make you a sandwich.”

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