Lexington asked me if he could start getting hot lunches at school. I said no to the processed food of the cafeteria and offered to amplify his brown bag contents instead. He dropped the topic, and I thought it was history. Weeks later, his sister reported that she saw Lexington in the hot lunch line more than once. Something was up.
My son explained that he used his allowance and gifts from friends to order the meals. It was possible that the first part might be true, but my mother’s instinct told me that there was a backstory unfolding. I told him to only eat the food in his lunchbox and not to accept money from friends.
The next week, he whined about being the only kid who doesn't get cafeteria food. I tried to bargain with him—to fulfill his wildest desire without destroying his innards. If he ate his packed lunch daily, then maybe twice a month he could get a plate of processed fill-in-the-blank. He smiled. Finally, we were on the same page.
A few days later, I received a bill from his public school. My kid had treated the cafeteria like a bar and run up a tab. Apparently in the morning, the teacher asks who needs lunch, and somewhere along the way, Lexington started raising his hand.
I put the school staff on alert. I gave Lex a high-five and told him that I trusted him to make healthy and honest choices. Three hours later, I got an email from his teacher saying that he raised his hand.
He was not confused or entrapped. He was disobeying me daily. I fantasized about abandoning my nonviolence philosophy just long enough to whip his ass. I talked myself out of dragging him to a police station for a scared straight chat.
He needed an age appropriate consequence. No Spongebob. The day after, he did not even try to order. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? Sometimes we over complicate this whole parenting thing.
My throat got dry as I realized that my little boy was lying to me.
A few days later, he fell off the wagon. When he got home I saw that he had small bills in his pocket. He said that he found money. My throat got dry as I realized that my little boy was lying to me. When I suggested that we turn the cash into the lost and found, he collapsed.
Rapid tears preceded a mumbled, “You’re gonna' be so mad. I stole the money, Mommy.” That was the backstory.
Looking for validation, he asked, “Aren’t you glad that I told you the truth?” I nodded trying to contain rage that I had never felt toward him. I asked, “Who did you steal the money from?” He replied, “This is the part that is going to make you so mad. A long time ago, I stole one, two, or three 20s from you.”
My son had turned into a pickpocketer for processed food. I thought of the book Sugar, Salt, and Fat. Had his brain turned into the addict phase? Were his morals lost with the consumption of corn dogs?
He had been running a con for weeks. This is the moment where my little boy evolved from being an amazing gift from the great unknown to a complex human freaking being. I wondered where I went wrong as a parent. Is this how little thugs start out? Jacking hot lunches?
He wept and asked me again, “Mommy, aren't you happy that I told you the truth?” I answered, “Yes, honey, I am grateful. That feeling that is making you cry is called guilt.”
He was lying about meals with the same vigor of a teenager with a girl in hidden in his room. But he did not have a car or phone for me to take away. I made him skip an allowance cycle and do extra chores around the house. Then, I set a goal for him. If he could make it a week, I would buy him one the next Friday.
We hugged. We were going to do this together. Every night, I asked him if he wanted to be a little boy who keeps his promises. He made it Monday through Thursday. And, then came Friday. This time, the school secretary called me to report the crime in real time, “He ate a cheese pizza."
That night, he cried, “Mommy, I can't stop ordering hot lunch. And, I can't stop lying to you.” I told him that I told my parents one or two lies when I was his age. I remembered this and found comfort in the fact that I did not grow up to be a sociopath.
I told him that sometimes, doing the right thing feels impossible. Kind of like parenting. The next week, he made it. I wrote a note for his teacher, “Lexington has earned the privilege of ordering one hot lunch.”