When I was a kid, I don’t remember my mom ever packing my school lunch for me. I’m sure she did from time to time, but for the most part, she made sure that we had things in the kitchen that I could easily grab and throw into my lunch box.
I wasn’t the most creative lunch-packer; in fact, I ate the same lunch (yogurt and an apple) for lunch almost every day. Fast-forward a few decades, and while the standards for school lunch have certainly changed (hello, Bento boxes), I’ve found that I can still use my mom’s approach for my own school-age daughter.
And while it’s sometimes a struggle to keep my 6-year-old’s attention on the process of packing her own lunch, experts say that it can have several benefits.
Clinical social worker, writer and parenting coach Carla Naumburg says that while the process may be bumpy to start, it pays off in the long run.
“It’s not easy up front,” acknowledged Naumburg, who started her two daughters packing their own lunches at the start of the school year. “But it’s going to be worth it, because in a couple weeks, they’ll be great at it.”
But, Naumburg adds, she’s not just doing it to make her life easier, or to turn her girls into mini sous chefs — there’s much more to it.
“It’s empowering for them,” Naumburg explains. “It helps them build confidence in themselves, it helps them feel connected to the family in a meaningful way, and kids really crave that.”
Not Just Lunch
It doesn’t just have to be about school lunches — picking out clothes, packing backpacks or other tasks can also have the dual benefit of empowering children and relieving some stress for parents. Identify some part of the morning (or evening) routine where your child can take a more active role, and set up a framework for your child to get started.
Spell It Out
A key to success is making sure your child understands the specifics: what are they being asked to do? How will they do it? When do they have to have it done? For younger children, a sticker chart or a poster can help them stay on track. For older children, it may be enough to let them know that they have to complete their task before moving on to something else, like watching TV or playing video games.
Stick to the Basics
An article for the Child Mind Institute reminds parents to prioritize the essentials (clothes, food) first before asking children to concentrate on other things. “If we can get those things done somehow, we can start to build those habits and make it so that mornings are easier in the future,” said Dr. David Anderson of the Child Mind Institute.
Once you have put your child in charge of something like getting dressed or packing lunch, it can be hard to stay out of their way — but it’s very important, says Naumburg. “If I’m near them, I often can’t keep my mouth shut,” she notes, adding, “and they are more likely to come to me for help.” Finding that middle ground — where you’re available to your child in case they need help, but not hovering — sends an important signal to your child that you trust them and believe they are capable of doing whatever task you have asked them to complete.
Say Thank You
Once your child has gotten a handle on their new task, be sure to let them know that the work they’re doing — even if it’s just your kindergartner putting away his shoes — has value. Naumburg said she made sure to let her daughters know that she appreciates being able to start her work day earlier, which in turn gives her more time in the afternoon. “They liked hearing that,” Naumburg said.
Most mornings, when my daughter is packing her lunch, I’m in the kitchen doing the dishes — a few steps away, but purposefully not paying close attention to every move she makes. She knows that if she needs help opening a package, or reaching something in the refrigerator, that I’m right there. But most mornings, she’s just fine on her own.
Emily Popek is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Otsego County with her husband and their daughter.