August 27, 2008

Unless, of course, you are raising robots

My architect students call it the "universal design solution." That's a strategy in which you design a product so that it will work for every situation so that way you can mass-produce it cheaply and efficiently.

Of course, there are all kinds of problems inherent with the universal design solution. In the book Cradle to Cradle, the authors use detergent as an example of a product designed without a particular landscape in mind. Water quality varies from place to place, but a mass-produced detergent will be designed for the most difficult situation, like washing grease in hard water. A product designed for universal use needs to work in the worst case scenario. That means even someone in a community with soft water, who is just washing watermelon juice off a plate, will be using a high-strength detergent, dumping into the waste stream (and eventually, the local water supply) chemicals that were completely unnecessary in the first place.

More difficult, but perhaps smarter and better for the environment, is designing products that take into account the landscape and the local culture.

What I was thinking about, when I was discussing this with some of my students, was not about soap or office buildings or any of the other bland, mass-produced products in our culture. I was thinking about the parenting advice I used to get when my kids were little. Often the advice was given to me by people who hadn't even met my kids. They'd say thing like, "Well, it's important to make sure kids do X," or "Of course, it isn't good to do Y." They'd make these sweeping statements about how to raise kids, even if they didn't know much about me or my particular kids.

I always question these generalizations about what "good" parenting is, even when it's something accepted as conventional wisdom. So much depends on getting to know your child. The kind of parenting that worked with my quiet, analytical Boy in Black may not have been the best approach for an outgoing, impulsive kid. The kind of laidback approach I used when my daughter was in elementary school, letting her take days off from school whenever she felt she needed to, worked for a smart, self-motivated over-achiever, but perhaps wouldn't have been the best strategy if she were a child who needed encouragement to do well in school.

Even now, when I have teenagers, I often get parenting advice from well-meaning people who tell me, in all seriousness: "Well, teenagers should do X, " or "it's good for teenagers to do Y." Mostly, I just shrug and ignore these sweeping generalizations.

Because the universal design solution doesn't work so well with parenting.

12 comments:

concretegodmother said...

...or with teaching!!!

Jennifer said...

I've a three and a half year old and a nine month old, both boys, and already I can see several things that worked with the older are clearly not right for the younger.

KathyR said...

Teenagers should do

...

their own laundry.

That's the only thing I could come up with that all teenagers should do.

Songbird said...

I'm with Kathy.

jo(e) said...

Ah, but each person doing his or her own laundry would make no sense in a household like mine, where we have a whole bunch of people. It makes much more sense to combine all the laundry so that whoever chooses the laundry as their chore does one load of whites, one load of darks, one load of dress shirts and such, etc. Our house rule is that no one is allowed to do "selective laundry" -- that is, only washing your own stuff rather than everyone's. Selective laundry is a practice that drives me crazy.

Boy in Black does not even own enough clothes to make a whole load of laundry. It makes more sense to combine clothes from the whole household when we do laundry. (I say "we" but I never ever choose the laundry as my chore when we divide up the household chores. I hate doing laundry.)

kathy a. said...

well, i can see your point, jo(e). but i think we can all agree that teenagers should do laundry. and clean up the bathroom, every so often.

it's just easier in some households to assign the laundry task by not doing it for them.

Rae said...

Those kinds of sweeping directives never used to bother me, but then I came to a place where I was having things like that tossed at me from people of many different nationalities, and suddenly it all seemed so much more intense.

I'm been restored to sanity, though, trusting myself with my kids, who I know better than anyone. It was nice to read your post and hear those thoughts from someone who has seen the results!

heidi said...

I so agree with you on this one!

I'm an example, BTW, of someone who never did laundry as a teenager. My Mom always did the laundry. But once I was living on my own as an adult, it took me only about five minutes to learn how to do it. No biggie.

YourFireAnt said...

Yeah, and it's not as if you actually do thelaundry; the WASHING MACHINE does it.

FA

elswhere said...

So I picked up a magazine to read on dinner break yesterday, and it turns out Newsweek (not to mention all the child development and genetics experts they quote) agrees with you:

http://www.newsweek.com/id/151758

They don't mention anything about laundry, though.

jo(e) said...

Elsewhere: Thanks for the link!

k8 said...

Selective laundry was necessary in our house when I was growing up. My mother is far too attached to bleach. As in, she's been known to use so much that it isn't just a matter of having colorless splotches on clothes - we would find bleach holes! That, and she shrinks everything By the time I was 12, I didn't let her touch my clothes if I wanted them to survive. But she insists on doing laundry just the same. I feel bad for my dad.