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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Illustration by Rob Donnelly

For the first time in my life I have a secretary. If I were a branch manager or assistant V.P. of sales in an honest profession, I might have gotten one sooner. But I am a journalist and we work alone. Finally, though, I have someone who understands the latest iPhone updates, delights in Bluetooth pairing, and can disarm clamshell packaging. I have been sprung from Windows 8 jail because my new helper disabled its improvements and made it work just like Windows 7. If I need to know the name of the second largest river in South America or who started the Surrealist movement, I just ask.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This arrangement, in which I have all the power but choose to surrender myself to another’s precise expertise, fills me with a sense of possibility and future accomplishment. It is bossy of me to use the word secretary, though. I should probably just refer to them as my children.

The dynamic is changing in our house. Our son and daughter once relied on us for everything, but lately they have acquired little talents that we depend on. I'm not talking about chores. They only take out the trash at gunpoint. Plus, anyone can do chores. What has changed is that they’ve joined the load sharing arrangement that used to involve just my wife and me. 

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Over our 20 years of marriage, my wife and I have come to a corrugated distribution of duties—she submits the medical forms and does the laundry; I pay the bills and mow the lawn. There's some sense in the distribution—she's a better cook and I've been doing home IT since I stopped my first VCR clock from blinking—but a lot of our task list is the accumulation of chance. When the kids reached a certain age, plunging the toilet became a regular emergency. I was home for the first calamity—achieving a personal best in the two flights to the basement dash. After that I have been Johnny on the spot. 

Now we have new members drifting into our labor movement. On a trip to New York, my 11-year-old son and I were headed downtown on the subway. We were late, and without my wife, the family subway Sherpa. (I do airports and we both have specialized knowledge about train travel.) No problem. I figured out the route, the transfer spot, and, since I handle insouciance in our family, no one could accuse me of being a tourist, though it had been 15 years since I’d lived there.

A train approached. We could ignore it, I told my son. I was as confident as I'd been when I warned him about the third rail and explained how to roll under the platform if he fell on the tracks. Fortunately, he had not been listening. He’d become fascinated with the maps, so he explained that we could take this train and still make the transfer down to the Village. Just as I was saying! For the rest of the trip I checked my calculations with him. 

I approach the supermarket the way I write. I start in a sturdy enough fashion. I have a list of items written down on paper much like an outline, but once I'm pretty clear on my direction, the wind is in my hair and I'm gaining speed. With writing I can usually get to the end on instinct (we'll see about that), but this doesn't work with shopping. I forget to write “chicken” on the list when the purpose of the trip is to collect provisions for chicken dinner. So my wife can expect a text soon after I've left the house. Unless I am with my 10-year-old daughter.

When I come home from work, muffins are cooling or bread is rising, because that’s how my daughter unwinds after school. She reads recipes in cookbooks for fun. Instead of a pet, she wants to get a bread starter to keep in the refrigerator and watch over it. So we now have a second person in the house who keeps the kitchen in her head. This means at the market my daughter can be dispatched to retrieve items it takes me twice as long to find. She knows the difference between farfalle and fusilli (and she can make the obvious penne for your thoughts joke). She won’t bring home parsley when she’s been told to get cilantro as some brute once did.

What's most useful is that she remembers that we're low on baking powder so we should probably pick up a little. She also improvises. "I know you like coffee and this coffee looked good," she recently said, throwing a bag into the cart.

When the kids use a vocabulary word precisely or ace a test it’s nice to see, but when they navigate the world in these little ways, it is sweeter. It suggests they’re going to be practical people, which are just the kind of people you want to have around in a pinch. They will be able to manage the little perils of routine living—fixing a flat tire or setting the humidifier so that it doesn't flood the basement when the season switches from fall to winter. (Running the wet-dry vacuum is my duty.) One of the big questions of parenting is “Are they going to be okay?” These early signs suggest they will be.

The kids are doing more than just picking up the physical load. They’re sharing the mental load too. My daughter is obsessed with camp (we've talked about this before, you may remember), so she researched the camps, the flights she’d take, and the dates that worked with her school schedule. That spared us time waiting for Expedia to load, which was nice, but it also freed us from some of the worry that we’d pick the right place for her.

When we take family walks in the woods, the kids love to show us where they cross the creek, or the paths they’ve cut through. That’s what these little bits of mastery are: routes they have carved out of the world that are their own. Stuff that hasn’t come from their parents.

Once we started to rely on the kids, it became a habit. When I couldn't read the small print on some instructions without my glasses, I instinctively handed the paper to my daughter who saw what I couldn't. Ordering a movie sometimes requires entering a NORAD level password using only the television remote. You punch the buttons and it doesn’t take, you stab the remote toward the TV and the letter f appears 11 times. You try to hit order and wind up deleting every letter you patiently entered, or you rent Gigli by mistake. None of this happens when my son pilots the remote, so this is now his duty. He also loves any excuse to use a knife or make a knife out of the closest sharp object, so clamshell packaging is also his thing.