The Case of the Missing Veggie Sticks

Staving off my son’s panic attacks.

On Friday afternoons, my son Simon plays soccer in a clinic organized by one of the mothers at his preschool. He looks forward to the routine: The kids gather at dismissal, and a group of mothers and baby sitters walks them down a path in the woods to the soccer field at a nearby park. I haven’t been one of the accompanying mothers yet this season because I have to pick up my older son, Eli, at his school before we meet Simon at the park. This is OK with the other moms, because later this spring it’ll be my turn to chaperone the walk. And Simon, who is 5, hasn’t complained about my absence. It’s his scene—his woods to run through so he can get to the park first. In other words, a bite-sized sliver of independence, broken off from a week of school, parents, and baby sitters.

Sounds great, right? Except for the missing snacks. The food in question is typically veggie sticks or, if Simon comes to the supermarket, mini Chips Ahoy or Oreos. On the first week of soccer, I brought the snacks, but by the time I arrived, it was too late—he was already furious and starving, or would have been if he hadn’t devoured the other kids’ snacks. The next week, I carefully packed veggie sticks in Simon’s backpack. But the moment Simon wanted his veggie sticks, and wanted them desperately, he couldn’t find them. This happened in the minutes before I got to the park, and Simon panicked. By the time I saw him, he was crying, purple, practically vibrating, and shrieking, “Where is my snack?”

Simon’s upset wasn’t a temper tantrum, not of the spoiled-child variety. It was a reasonable desire—snacks before soccer—unreasonably expressed. As my friend Erica says, about her daughter who also been prone to panic, it’s as if in that moment, one’s normally bright, prepossessing child can’t see, and so he can’t look for what he needs. Simon was being asked to fend for himself, even if just in some small way, and when something went a little awry, he suddenly and completely discovered he couldn’t. So, what to do?

First, I tried issuing instructions. But each week, the scene of distress played out in similar fashion, defeating my drill-sergeant efforts. Week No. 3: The mother who kindly drove all the kids’ backpacks to the park (the better for their woodsy romp) hadn’t gotten to the park yet, and so Simon thought his bag was lost. Panic. Week No. 4: Simon got his backpack and opened it but didn’t see the bag of snacks tucked behind a folder and his lunchbox. Panic. And week No. 5—oh, who knows, I can’t remember what went wrong, and the details don’t matter. The point is that hard as I tried to stave off crisis by reminding Simon from week to week that his snack would be in his backpack, his backpack would be delivered to the park, and all he had to do was to look inside, take out the bag, and put the food into his mouth, he couldn’t quite manage it. Not without a panic attack. Which turned him into a purplish puddle, frazzled the other moms and baby sitters, and (not least) embarrassed me, the ever-too-late mother running up to reassemble her wrecked child.

My first thought, admittedly drenched in guilt, was to somehow rearrange Eli’s pickup so I could get to the park earlier. The on-time mother, swooping in to save the day. Then I decided that I was the one panicking. If I could just figure out how, the setup was ideal training ground for self-sufficiency, which I like to think I’m a big believer in. The school-to-soccer routine repeated, week to week. Most of it, he liked. I knew that he could handle getting food out of his backpack because every day at school, he hangs his bag on a hook, unzips it, takes out his lunchbox and water bottle, and sets them on a shelf. (Thank you, Montessori.) The trick was to translate that from school to park, without being there myself to coach him through it. I didn’t want to involve another mom. I wanted to help Simon from afar. I wanted him to roll with the small injection of spontaneity and loose supervision that is also what he loves about soccer on Fridays.

I consulted Erica, and she counseled giving Simon a visual aide—a cue that he wouldn’t be able to miss and that would remind him where his snack was and how to look for it. When her daughter started going places on her own and panicked over being left there, Erica would take off a bracelet (preferably one she didn’t care that much about getting back) and give it to her daughter to hold. As it happens, there is a children’s book about Erica’s idea: The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn. The story follows Chester the raccoon, who is afraid to go to school for the first time. His mother kisses the center of his hand and tells him to hold his hand up to his face if he feels like he needs her. Absence made present. Sort of. Which for most kids is probably enough.

The Kissing Hand is a hit in kindergarten classrooms, to judge from the lesson plans it has generated. But it all seemed a little treacly and coo-ey, which meant that Simon wouldn’t be likely to go for it, and just looking at the art projects and bad poems exhausted me. Plus, Chester’s dilemma was slightly different than Simon’s. Chester panics over missing his mother herself; Simon just missed me in my usual role of snack finder. Veggie sticks in hand, he would run back to the playground without looking back. The trick was to get him to lift himself over the moments in between. He needed to become his own smoother-outer, his own fixer.

So, here’s the plan for soccer this week: On Friday morning, we’re going to sit down, put the snack into his backpack together, and talk through the afternoon. I’m going to write a big red S on the back of Simon’s hand. S for snack, S for Simon, S for See what you can do for yourself? I’ll prompt him to issue his own instructions: What do you do when you get to the park? Where do you look? What do you do when you see the S? Maybe none of this will make any difference, and later in the day I’ll find Simon purplish as usual. But we’ve got a few weeks of soccer on Fridays left in which to master solving a small problem on your own. Not to mention a lot of years of childhood.