I used to mistakenly pack my kids' suitcases with all the wrong stuff. I would then 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 my son 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" must have certainly been up all night with a whiny child who couldn't sleep because his mother packed the scratchy pajamas.
So when it comes to packing for your family, please follow this simple rule: Don't.
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.
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. Or at least mine isn't.
Look, 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, because she doesn't understand my complex relationship with my T-shirts. I have the same problem with my kids and their clothes.
Or consider my jeans. I have many, many pairs. 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 wish I could offer a lesson here about my children packing their bags being part of their learning to think ahead and gather what they need for 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. Do not give them free reign, or they will pack only candy bars, a snorkel, and the family dog.
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 pack one copy of the list in your bag for reference. When they say "Mom, I don't have any extra socks," 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 your problem?