One of the many joys of being a stay-home parent is the opportunity it brings to administer a quick kiss and hug to a child just when he's achieved something big or small - or when his confidence falters in the trying.
But with the kids back at school all day and most mothers back at work, the opportunities for a quick snuggle seem lost. And that's a shame, since our joy over our children's progress doesn't disappear on the way to the workplace. What's needed, then, is a way to express our feelings in absentiam .
One fits neatly in with the school lunchbox: Napkin messages. As you pack your child's lunch, you can pen a few lines on his napkin - simple words like ''I love you'' and ''You are nice'' for your beginning readers, and more complex messages like ''I'm sure you'll do well on the spelling test'' for your older kids.
Even nonreaders enjoy figuring out pictograms like smiling faces and ''I love you'' messages. Including some of the new letters and words the child is learning offers a chance to practice a new skill.
It's important that these messages stay low-key, so resist the temptation to nag (or ''prod,'' as one mother puts it). If you must use the napkin to remind your child of an appointment, try to do it in a non-demanding way. ''Your piano teacher should be proud of how well you've practiced this week,'' works better than ''Don't forget your piano lesson this afternoon.''
It's also important to keep these messages free from anything that might embarrass your child. I discovered - too late - that the notes were such a novelty to my eldest child's class that they passed them around the lunchroom for all to see.
Although the messages should not be embarrassing, this doesn't mean they must be general. Specific, supportive statements approving your child's handwriting or history paper can do a lot more for a sense of self-esteem than ''You are a good boy.''
I'm also convinced it does something for the parent. We seem to spend so much of our time correcting and guiding our children that it's nice to have a chance to tell our kids just why we adore them.