Special Care Instructions

About a month ago, I was out snowshoeing through this interminable winter with K.J. Dell'Antonia. She writes and edits Motherlode, one of the most popular parenting sites on the Internet, so she could be considered something of a parenting expert, if such a thing exists. As we made our way through the deeper drifts at the edge of the hayfield and entered the quiet of the woods, I said, "Something weird is going on in my house. For a while there, laundry was getting done, dishes were getting washed, and wood was making it from the woodpile to the house. Now, though - maybe it's the winter, maybe it's cabin fever - all of a sudden my kids have forgotten how to do anything."

Turns out, the same thing was going on up the hill at K.J.'s house. She wrote about it, of course. In her version of our shared parenting plight, she laments that "Entropy has attacked our chore chart," and continues, "Is it some kind of universal late-winter failing; a junior version of unkept resolutions? Because all around me, other friends were saying much the same thing. Just when the parents thought the children were on board with whatever household chores they were assigned, snap! They walked off the job." 

That was about a month ago. I hear things are improving in her house, but as I have done little to rectify the situation over here, nothing has changed. 

This morning, my younger son welcomed the day with his usual complaint, 


That's unkind of me. He doesn't shout the same complaint every morning. Some days he says,


My response is the same for both versions. 

"Do you mean 'I have no pants' in the sense that you have no pants, or in the sense that you have pants, but don't know where they are?"

Because, of course, he has pants. More than one pair, even, and this lovely March morning, I knew precisely where they all were: dirty, inside-out, and strewn across his bedroom floor. Most of them, anyway; one pair was in the middle of the living room floor, where he'd stepped out of them the night before.

This situation would be irksome for any parent, I suppose, but it's particularly distressing for THIS parent, because those dirty pants mark the spot where my personal and professional lives converge.

For those of you who have only recently joined in on the fun, here's a primer: my job is to give parents advice about how to raise kids who keep their socks and pants in working order. I've spent the past two years writing a book about how to help kids be independent, competent, and intrinsically motivated. I write about that same topic in my column at the New York Times. Most weeks, I give at least one interview about what the Gift of Failure looks like in my own home.

Today, it looks a lot like this:  

See? Even the dog is embarrassed by this egregious display of sloth, and she knows sloth. 

I'm supposed to have this kind of stuff sorted out, and yet, as this photograph shows, I've clearly failed. I taught the 11-year-old owner of these jeans how to use a washer and a dryer years ago, and yet here we are again, right where we started. 

I'm no stranger to failure, that's for sure. I am one of those optimist-types who dives pell-mell into new ventures, figuring things will turn out okay, or at the very least, I'll work it out as I go along. When I was just out of college, for example, I tried my hand at computer programming - because, really, how hard could that be? After it became clear that I was not going to succeed at this computer programming thing on my own, a generous and patient co-worker spent an entire weekend working with me one-on-one. I don't think it's a coincidence that we are no longer in touch.

Over that weekend, he taught me about the power of the programming loop, a sequence of instructions that is repeated until a certain condition is reached. A programming loop tells the computer to do something, such as pick up a pair of socks and put them in the hamper, over and over, until a certain condition, such as the lack of any more socks to pick up, is met, and the program is able to move on to whatever the next instruction may be. My programs, however, tended toward infinite loops, procedures that lack an exit routine. Those socks end up in the hamper and then....nothing. My programs kicked out error messages or looped forever in a worthless and maddening sequence of processes with no endpoint because I failed to give the computer adequate, detailed instructions at every stage of in the program, from the beginning all the way through to the end. 

This morning, those jeans were a blinking, beeping, blaring error message alerting me to the flaw in my parenting program. While I have a pretty good vision of what the end result of this parenting job should look like, and I've spewed out plenty of code, I've left out too many instructions. My loops are infinite for lack of clear, executable instructions.

So today, I faced that failure and learned from my mistakes - with a little help from my friends, of course. I re-read K.J.'s post about the entropy situation in search of her successes. I retrieved my very highlighted and dog-eared copy of Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin's new book about creating habits that stick, looking for executable ideas. And then, I re-wrote my program.

In a couple of hours, when The Boy Who Has No Pants arrives home from school, we will sit down together, debrief the school day over a snack, and then, when he's powered up and ready, I will update him on the new version of our family program, a little something I'm calling Laundry 2.0.  

Late breaking-addition: An observant commenter noticed I left out one very important instruction, so I have added it to the washing machine, and am posting an updated photo. I can't believe I left this directive out; it's one of the things that sends me over the edge.