The Forgotten Lunchbag Dilemma: Which Parent Are You?

The actual forgotten lunchbox, sitting exactly where my precious child left it

This morning it happened again. My eldest daughter—a brilliant, kindhearted honor roll student—left her lunchbox on the kitchen table before scampering out the door. By the time I realized what had happened, she, her sister, and their father were out of sight. This had happened a couple days before, but I had noticed almost immediately and had time to rush outside and hand it to her with a firm “remember your lunchbox!” warning as she returned a sheepish yet grateful look. This time, I’d have to make a different choice as to what to do—or not do.

Parenting is hard work. Even the most Mary Poppins-like among us struggle as we try to make the best decisions for our kids and families. As the mother of two bright, beautiful, kind daughters who sometimes push my buttons, I am constantly seeking ways to be a more patient, fair, mindful parent. Yet despite having amassed an ever-growing toolkit of tips and tricks, I still occasionally find myself in situations that leave me wondering what to do.

So where did I turn for help? Social media, of course! No place offers more instant advice than Facebooklandia. Within 20 minutes of seeing what had happened, I posted the following:

We have a new rule that if my daughter forgets to bring her lunchbox back home from school we won’t pack her one the next day—she can either get a school lunch (free, but very limited in vegetarian options) or pack her own. The last time this happened, she reluctantly ate at school. Today she had taken pride in packing her own lunch. It was really cute to see. The only downfall was that she left her lunchbox on the table, and I noticed three minutes after her father had left with both kids.

I so much want to take the lunchbox to school for my loving yet forgetful child, but I feel like this would be enabling. (We normally have to remind her to pick her lunchbox off the counter as she leaves, which didn’t happen today.)

Am I cruel for letting her learn this lesson the hard way, knowing it may very well happen again?

Instantly, the responses began pouring in, and they neatly divided themselves into two distinct camps:

1. Team “Leave the Lunch at Home”

A bunch of my mama friends were quick to reassure me that NOT coming to the rescue was not cruel at all (especially because lunches are offered for free at her school), but that doing so was actually in her best interest. Some of the comments included:

“Not at all! If there wasn’t food available, I might say drop it off this time. But there is food available, so she won’t go hungry.”

“Nope. I’ve done that before. My kiddo left it in the car after I reminded twice her to take it. She got the school lunch but didn’t forget it in the car again. She’ll be fine.”

“Better for her to learn this now than later. Too many 20-year-olds are suffering now due to excessive parental rescue.”

“Great learning for her! And it always helps me to remember that when I step in or rescue, I’m basically saying, ‘I don’t believe in you.’ It’s much easier to step back when I think that way. Stepping back says, ‘I trusted you to figure it out even if it was hard.’ #warrioronmama”

And my absolute favorite response from this bunch:

“She’ll be fed in a few anyways!”

2) Team “Take the Lunch to Her”

While this option was far a less popular recommendation overall, I found the rationale both touching and compelling, especially because I myself frequently forget and misplace things.

“As the mom of a very forgetful young child, I feel you. I’ve played it both ways. [My daughter] is now in fifth grade and the forgetfulness is less and less. I’m over my short phase of letting her just figure it out. Whenever I bring the lunch/soccer cleats/jacket/kindle (on the less and less frequent basis) she looks at me with—and I know feels—such appreciation. As the preteen, pushing-away phase increases I think it is the little things like that that let you connect with your kids in that parental loving way. I feel the same when [my daughter] occasionally texts me from her iPad with emoticons. It’s another nonverbal way of checking in and connecting.”

“As a grandma, I say take it to her. Everyone forgets things in life.”

“My daughter started using an alarm clock last week, and now Hall-n-Oats’ ‘Rich Girl’ wakes her up promptly at 6:00 A.M., replacing my bunny snuggles. She makes her own breakfast now, too. This. is. crushing. But I keep a brave face and give her a high-five. So hell yes, I will take that lunch to her because I know tomorrow she’ll find her own solution (and that’s what I tell her 80% of the time).”

Both teams offered solid advice. I found myself nodding in agreement to comments on both sides of the aisle. What I came to realize is that there is no one “right answer.” Every child is different, every scenario packed with its own nuances.

As my offspring, Luz is either genetically programmed to be forgetful like her mama or modeling behaviors she has witnessed in me on numerous occasions. But as a 40-year-old woman, when I leave something at home or need a favor I can text my husband and he is usually happy to rescue me. Gadget-free Luz does not have that luxury. Combine that with the fact that she is a sensitive soul and and overall sweetheart, it’s easy for me to see how taking her the lunch would not be the worst idea in the world.

The other voice inside my head remembered what I did the last time she forgot her lunch: I put a note in it saying it was OK she forgot it, I understood, but this would be the only time I would bring it to her because I knew she could get lunch at school if she were to forget again.

Another voice reminded me of a workshop I recently attended at Region 20 called “Love and Logic.” I’d heard people rave about the system, and decided I would take advantage of this free community resource. (Yes, you read that right: Region 20 offers free community classes every day, on everything from parenting to making math fun to how to handle bullying. It’s an amazing resource and I encourage all parents to take advantage of the content.)

So in the end, I didn’t take her the lunch. I wanted to—boy, did I want to!—but I didn’t. Instead, I chose to spend my day working on the projects I’d committed to, including squeezing in some time shopping for her and her sister.

As difficult as this decision was, I came to the conclusion (with a little help from my friends, of course) that as long as I am kind and calm, letting her handle the logical consequences is OK. And perhaps even beneficial. 

When I picked up my sweet daughter and handed her the lunch she had packed and forgotten, I said, “You made an awesome lunch this morning and it will be an awesome snack to share with your sister before music class today. I’m sorry you forgot it, and I know it must have been hard to have to go through the lunch line, but the good news is the food didn’t go to waste and you didn’t go hungry today.”

She wasn’t sad or disappointed. In fact, she answered back cheerfully, “It’s OK, Mom. They had good veggie options at school today.” 

I was happy and surprised by her mature response and obvious lack of distress. Maybe I had done something right after all. And maybe, just maybe, there’s more than one “right” way to handle a situation. Either way, I sleep easier now knowing that I’m teaching my daughter how to handle disappointment and solve her own problems in a healthy way—and that it’s possible to do so with love, no matter which decision I make.

Here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, a sunny, cultura-rich land where la gente are the majority. As a child I spent my days doodling unicorns and puppies and people and anything that caught my fancy. Drawing was my life, and I dreamed of one day being an artist. After high school, I left town for a bit to attend Yale University but ran back to Texas as soon I’d tossed my graduation cap in the air. I got a “real” job in advertising, where I met my wonderful husband, Victor. In 2005, I got a little brave and decided to step into art full time, for the first time. I spent a year recreating the Mexican Loteria, updating it to reflect the symbols and culture I knew: the “Tex Mex” version. The My Loteria game and corresponding line of kitchenware appeared in H-E-B grocery stores and boutiques around the country, which was pretty cool! Fast forward a couple years, and Vic and I decided it made perfect sense to move to the middle of nowhere and sell ice in the desert (in Alpine, Texas, where we opened the Murphy St. Raspa Co., an homage to Mexican shaved ice, candy, art and culture). A baby later and with one more on the way, we decided to come back home to San Antonio to be closer to family. I landed my dream job as the Marketing Director of The DoSeum, San Antonio’s Museum for Kids. Life was good. But I knew deep down in my heart of hearts that I needed to give my art another try. And a little more than a year ago, I took that leap and never looked back. So here I am today: a mom to two awesome little girls, a muralist, portrait artist, wife, and social media addict. I built a tiny house art studio in my backyard, dusted off my paintbrush, and began painting again after a two-year dry spell. I recently completed my first large-scale public mural to celebrate the San Antonio missions’ World Heritage designation, and am plotting my next art move as I type. I spend my days painting portraits, planning murals, perusing social media, and being my kids’ scheduler in chief. And you know what? I’m having the time of my life.