Parenting: The slow process of taking care of children until they start to take care of you.

I Used to Do Everything for My Children. Now, They Do Things for Me.

I Used to Do Everything for My Children. Now, They Do Things for Me.

Snapshots of life at home.
March 25 2014 11:23 PM

The Kids, They Know Things

I used to do everything for my children. Now, they do things for me.

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These tiny little stitches connect our family in a new way. We now travel as an adventuring party. We use the kids as scouts, or an extra pair of eyes. It’s no longer be careful crossing the street, but what street do we cross? Like characters in Dungeons and Dragons, the little ones—with their distinct clothing and high dexterity—can't carry heavy weaponry, but they can be dispatched to pick locks and fetch magical rings from small places. Sometimes they can heal during combat. My wife got a brain freeze drinking a margarita and the boy advised her to put her tongue on the roof of her mouth. It eased the pain just as it had with his Slurpees. 

Clive Thompson, in his wonderful book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, explains why this shift in load-sharing is so natural. We all take to search engines like Google so easily, he explains, because it is an extension of something humans have been doing for ages. “Transactive memory” is our tendency to store information in those around us to make up for our horrible ability to remember things. I rely on my wife for transactive memory about the names of our friends’ kids, my best friends’ birthdays, and dates longer than five years ago. I now store information in the kids about our household schedule and ever-changing routine. Their schoolwork also makes them a handy reference for quick knowledge on the basic properties of science and geography. I like to drop what they know into my stories to pretend I am more knowledgeable than I am.

The latest development in this shift comes via Minecraft, my son’s current obsession. (He's building a wind powered Howitzer across the kitchen as I write this.) In Stockholm they use Minecraft to teach kids about the environment and city planning. That's fine—my son did choose to make the Howitzer wind powered, after all—but the real benefit of Minecraft is that it teaches the kids to teach themselves. The game has no instructions so they seek instruction on YouTube. On Saturdays, we no longer listen to music on the family computer, we listen to some fellow from New Zealand explain how to use Redstone. My son splits the screen to watch the video on one side and try out the construction in the game on the other side. 


Then the dishwasher broke. Or, I should say, it got very good at doing something very unhelpful. It pulverizes the food and then spreads the sediment in a fine mist over all of the dishes. The crust makes our glasses look sand covered, like the kind you see at craft fairs where everyone has run out of ideas. Pour yourself a glass of water and one-eightieth of last week's collected dinners will reconstitute at the top of the glass. 

I looked up our brand of dishwasher on Amazon and the reviews were full of swearing, screwdrivers, and petulance. Because the dishwasher is so universally bad, there is a community of the furious. People offer various remedies and I have tried them all. They work for a day or two, but soon enough, I roll back the top rack and it's Eruption Hour with Dad all over again. During one of these regular seismic events our son looked for an instructional video on YouTube. I assumed this was an attempt to divert from doing his homework, which it was, but he nevertheless found a very good video. A bearded fellow patiently instructed us how to take apart the dishwasher to fish out broken glass.

Within minutes we were spelunking inside the thing, removing meaningful-looking parts and making sorties to the basement for new tools. Suddenly, what G.K. Chesterton said turned out to be true: An inconvenience is just an adventure wrongly considered. We now had a project. My son started narrating our moves in a detached voice. It was the same voice my daughter had used when reminding me not to beat the pancake batter too smooth and explaining to me that our oven cooks a little hotter than others—patient, authoritative, and with a hint that you have a lot of old comic books in your attic. It was the generic voice of the YouTube narrator.

Just as I was about to make a dive into the ganglia of the inner dishwasher, my son counseled patience. “First,” he said wisely, “We've got to support the door to protect the hinge. Some large books will do the job.” I think they call this reverse mentoring in the leadership seminars; either that or it was incipient mansplaining. He grabbed some art books from the living room and put them under the open door so that my weight wouldn't break it.  We're really going to be in luck when the wind-powered Howitzer goes on the blink.

Based on this account, you may think that our house is one sleek humming situation of efficiency. No. The load sharing only happens in areas where the kids are enthusiastic. It is very hard to get a job out of them that is not of their own making. So they are still subject to frequent bouts of idleness. When it comes time to do chores, the load sharing activities become the shield. If I start to ask my daughter to pick up her clothes, she'll have two mixing bowls and drawn butter going before I can finish the sentence. At some point the 10th plate of homemade caramels is just a dodge.

The kids also lack expertise in some of the most basic practical matters. I asked them to shovel the driveway after one of our many recent snows. After a half hour there were signs that shovels had been dragged, but not much more. The kids were making snow angels on the roof of the car, which, now that the snow has melted, has a new constellation of dents.

Good. It’s worrying enough that robots are coming to take our jobs. I’d rather not have the kids make me obsolete just yet, too, though that is what this collection of observations signals. The parenting scale starts out with you taking care of their every need and then the balance slowly shifts. You teach them to become independent so that they can spring into the world in good order, and if you do it right, they not only leave, but leave you dependent on them.

I can already imagine the missing that will be just a little more acute when they're off on their own and we have to pick up the duties they once delighted in performing. It’s a sort of anticipatory phantom limb syndrome. We'll be surrounded by dirty plates, cursing the dishwasher, and charging around the parlor in the toils of the remote control. I guess I can always call them for advice. It’ll be a nice excuse to check in. As long as I know how to work whatever device it is that we’ll be communicating on by that time. I suppose that’s what grandchildren are for.