How a snack cake gave me a glimpse of the future

My teenage son is prone to eye rolls and sassy comebacks. But an encounter in a parking lot showed me a gentler side. 

Artyom Geodakyan/TASS/Zuma Press/Newscom
A person holds slices of bread given out by a charity in Komsomolskaya Square in Moscow, an event that occurs every Thursday and Saturday in the Russian capital.

I didn’t expect parenting a teenager to be this hard. 

Lately, my son and I clash at every corner. About schoolwork. His attitude. Friends. Screen time. On and on. It seems as though everything I say is met with an eye roll or a mumbled “whatever.” 

I try to bite my tongue, pick my battles, and keep the nagging to a minimum. But my fuse is admittedly shorter than normal right now, due to some unrelated anxiety, illness, and lack of sleep.

On a recent drive home, after picking up my teen and his little brother from school, we made a quick detour for a grocery pickup. As soon as the food was loaded, my older child snatched from the trunk a box of individually wrapped snack cakes, a processed confection I’d grudgingly allowed. 

As he oohed and aahed through mouthfuls of yellow cake and frosted coating, I silently questioned my decision to indulge him this way. I couldn’t help wondering if this decision would come back to haunt me with an extra dose of teenage crabbiness, possibly from a stomachache, later in the evening.

But before we’d even exited the parking lot, he grunted for me to pull over. I just wanted this errand to be done, to tick it off my list. But then my son surprised me: He asked if he could share a few of his treasured treats with a homeless man, who stood coatless, with a matted beard and underfed dog, just outside the big-box store.

Of course, I obliged. 

Actually, I kicked myself. This was a gesture I hadn’t even considered in my haste to get home, even though my car was packed with food.

Without hesitation, my teenage son handed the stranger a few little cakes. The man thanked us, and we continued on our way.

Far from lamenting the treats he’d just forgone, my kid seemed genuinely worried. “What if he doesn’t like them?” he said. And a few seconds later, as we pulled out of the parking lot, my son exclaimed, “Mom! He’s already eating one!”

Throughout our journey home, we frankly discussed how difficult it must be for people experiencing homelessness. It was a rare conversation with no sarcasm. No push and pull or negotiations. Simply a time to reflect and take stock of how much we have to be thankful for.

When we eventually turned in to our garage, that same teenager – expressing concern for my recent illness – announced, “You’re not unloading any of these bags. We got this, Mom.”

I had bought a ton of groceries in anticipation of upcoming get-togethers and visiting relatives. When I offered to at least carry in his backpack, he directed me to take his little brother’s schoolbag instead. 

My sons worked together, teenager leading the way, hauling the goods up the stairs and carefully placing each grocery sack on the kitchen table. I found myself taking in their bigness, their blossoming sense of maturity that occasionally surfaces to give me a glimpse of the men they’re turning into. 

As I write this, I’m trying to bottle that moment. To keep it safe for those times when I’m ready to snap over a rude remark, a missed assignment, or another pair of dirty socks that somehow couldn’t find the hamper.

Yes, parenting a teen is harder than I expected. But it’s also sweeter: Sometimes, when you least expect it, they show you a bit of what’s deep in their hearts, a peek at who they really are behind the cloying body spray, graphic T’s, and sassy comebacks. When you’re fretting over the nutritional value of a silly snack cake, they turn around and give you a lesson in love and compassion.

And, in that moment, you realize you’ve actually raised a pretty awesome human being. 

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