Why I Don’t Pack My Teenage Daughter’s Suitcase

It’s tempting, yes. But make no mistake about it—I absolutely, positively refuse to pack for my teenage daughter. In a world full of “helicopter” parents, (i.e., hovering, control-driven sticklers who would rather eat a cockroach than allow their children to publicly flounder), I know that my stance is likely unpopular. However, as an on-again, off-again member of this perfectionist sect, I wonder… if we do everything for them, what is this really teaching our kids?

Last year, my daughter took a school trip to Europe. Her teacher-chaperones gave out packing lists and other important information to parents. I knew several moms who (after cheerfully gaining possession of these lists) set out with tenacious tunnel vision to find each and every item needed, checking every box at least twice. And, in the end, with smiling, satisfied faces, they produced perfectly-packaged suitcases for their children that were full of all travel necessities, and then some. Not me. I simply handed the packing list to my daughter, told her to take an inventory of her possessions, to make note of anything she didn’t have, and then helped her buy what she still needed. I told her where to find the suitcase and announced that she would need to pack everything and survey the checklist herself to ensure that she had it all. After the initial shock wore off, she announced that “so-and-so’s mom packs everything for her” and made comments to the tune of “What if I forget something?”

Well, now. That’s a good question, isn’t it?

Hmmm…where was I to begin? I was thinking that, if you can’t do this by yourself now, you will never be able to do it by yourself. You are not three, you are thirteen, and it’s officially time to start taking responsibility for your own life. I am here to support, to guide, to help with things you still can’t do alone (such as taking your own credit card to the store to purchase things you need). But I will not… let me repeat… will not… micromanage you to the point of creating unnecessary weakness. For in the end, my goal as your parent is to raise a strong, independent, capable human being who can successfully adapt to life’s ever-changing circumstances…. and figure it out on your own. Mommy simply will not be there to pack your suitcase, to do your history project, to wash, dry, and fold your laundry, or to manage your life as you get older.

But even as I sat on my high horse and continued my imaginary rant, the question remained… what if she forgets something?

Let’s fast forward. A young woman attends college and receives her first big assignment. She walks into the library—on her own—not knowing exactly where to go or where to begin. Fear takes over, the pressure mounts, her insides begin to crumble, and the first thing she wants to do is… call Mommy, because she’ll tell me exactly what to do. A difficult professor pushes her to take on new academic challenges. Wait, I have to call Mommy first. Eventually, she graduates and interviews for a job, but can’t decide which company to work for. Call Mommy, she’ll even call the company and decide for me. And the pattern becomes that, if she can’t call Mommy and do exactly as she’s told, who knows what she will do? Statistics have clearly shown higher levels of anxiety and depression in children who have been “over-parented,” and therefore lack the inner wherewithal to make decisions for themselves.

It is true that our children need us, and that they are, in fact, a direct reflection of our parenting. It’s only natural that we want them to succeed. But, as someone once told me, you can do everything possible to be a great parent; however, you will ultimately find that even great parents cannot take away their child’s free will. Why not begin to let them exercise that now, starting with the small things, like preparing and packing their own suitcases for their teenage excursions? Yes, they may fail. Actually, let me rephrase that. They probably will fail, in some capacity, at least. And failure can be embarrassing. It can make kids and parents look incompetent and foolish, and can even be expensive, both mentally and monetarily. But that’s okay. For without failure, children will never learn how to bounce. And the sooner they learn how to do this, the better off they’ll be, because resilience is key to successful survival. Who knows, they might even do it better than we as parents can…. Imagine that! (Note: Of course, I’m not suggesting that you don’t double check for potentially life-threatening oversights, such as forgetting essential medication.)

So how does this story end? My daughter read the checklist, packed herself, and somehow made it to and from her destination. I’m certain that she forgot at least something. But she managed to have a great trip, and the confidence she built in her own ability to prepare will be something she will carry with her for the rest of her life. I’m pretty sure that whatever she forgot, she will always remember in the future.