A One-Step Guide to Packing Your Kids’ Stuff For Vacation (Step 1: Don’t!)

As Published in The Week on July 17, 2015

When you give birth to a child, that child entrusts you with a thousand small tasks that are necessary for his survival and comfort. It’s important to remember that these tasks are on loan, that we need to eventually give them back to the child for our own survival and comfort. The bathing thing reverts back to them. The shoe-tying thing reverts back to them. I delight in each of these milestones, but none has felt better than letting my kids pack their own stuff for vacation.

I should have learned my lesson when I was first married, the time my husband was running late and asked me to pack his bag for a wedding. Instead of a suit, I accidentally grabbed a tuxedo, and he spent the weekend overdressed, annoyed and repeatedly mistaken for a waiter. On the bright side, he has never asked me to pack for him again. I believe this is what they refer to as a self-correcting problem.

But when I had kids, I found myself once again in the capacity of packing other people’s suitcases full of all the wrong stuff. I would spend my vacation explaining why I chose to pack the t-shirt with the too-tight sleeves, the bathing suit with the grabby liner and the book that he finished two weeks ago. Or answering questions like, “You didn’t bring my headphones? Who goes on vacation without headphones?” I don’t know. Me? Henry David Thoreau? 

Whoever coined the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” was certainly up all night with a child who couldn’t sleep because his mother had packed the scratchy pajamas. When it comes to packing for your family, please follow this simple rule: Don’t.

My failure as a packer stems from the fact that I’m neither a professional valet nor a mind reader. One person’s mind is not broad enough to grasp all of the nuances of another person’s complex system of sorting and choosing. Personally, I own 20 T-shirts, all with different purposes. I have some for exercising, some that don’t leave the house, some that are good under a sweater but should never be exposed to direct sunlight. I could hire a curator to come and catalog my T-shirts and she still wouldn’t be able to pack for me.

And jeans? As if. I have many, many pairs and each is slightly different in terms of size, length, wash, and waist height. I choose jeans based on event venue, height of attendees, phase of the moon, and whether I’m going to be standing or sitting. In fact, if there’s any chance I’m going to be sitting on a barstool, I only have two pairs of jeans that would prevent me from offending the people behind me. I am the only person alive who knows which two those are.

If I threw caution to the wind and asked my kids to pack me a pair of jeans, I’d end up having a conversation like this:

“Why would you pack those jeans?”

“I don’t know. You just said ‘jeans.’”

“Those jeans haven’t fit me since 1987.”

“Then why do you even have them?”

“I liked 1987.”

I pack my own stuff primarily because I don’t want to have to explain what was so great about 1987.

I want to offer a metaphor here about my children’s packing their bags as a part their learning to think ahead and gather what they need to embark on life’s great journey. But that’s really not what this is about. My kids’ packing their own bags is about honoring the basic concept of vacation: taking a break from what you normally do the other 51 weeks of the year. If I’m fielding complaints and looking for other people’s stuff, I’m pretty much just doing my day job.

Letting your kids pack for themselves may seem a bit like letting the inmates run the asylum, so it’s important to protect yourself. I type up a deliberately vague list and print a copy for each of them: 4 pairs of shorts, 4 T-shirts, 5 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of underwear…. Then for insurance I add, “Anything else you may want to bring.”

I pack one copy of the list in my bag for reference. When they say, “Mom, I don’t have any extra socks,” I produce the document and counter with, “Oh darn, let’s look and see if that was on the list…” Sure, that kid’s going to spend a week in the one pair of socks that he left the house in, but see how it’s not my problem?