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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 25 · Number 2 · Winter 2008

Dan Lewis and Robin DeRieux

Robin DeRieux and her son, Dan Lewis. (Photo: Bud Harmon)

Aggie Family Pack

Parents: Get helpful news from UC Davis each month of the school year by signing up for Aggie Family Pack, an e-mail newsletter. Each issue includes articles about tough issues confronting students, campus news, events and deadlines, and a column by John Corrigan, deputy business editor at The Los Angeles Times and the proud father of Kevin, a UC Davis sophomore. To subscribe, register online at


Lost Papers and Forgotten Assignments

The unique challenge of living with and letting go of disorganized kids.

Some kids are born with good organizational skills, emerging from the womb with a feeding schedule printout for Mom, cc to Dad. Other kids immediately misplace theirs and don’t come across it until years later when they’re scrounging under the desk for a missing library book — the one that’s holding up the release of their final high school transcript. The challenge for parents of disorganized students is to find that wayward library book and get it turned in before the university rescinds your child’s admission for incomplete documentation. Everyone you know is bereft because their kid has gone away to college, and there’s no way you want to be bereft because your kid isn’t going away to college.

But the bigger challenge for parents of disorganized progeny is to let your college students carry the platter, sympathize when they call and tell you they’ve dropped it, then fade discreetly into the shadows while they pick up the pieces. Remember, the ultimate goal is personal responsibility. We all want kids who grow up and pay their $350 cell phone bills on time. We don’t want them to get arrested for delinquent parking violations. Even if it does remind them to call home.

When our son was still in high school, I overheard a cell-phone conversation between a friend of mine and her daughter, a graduating senior at UC Really Hard to Get Into. The daughter called during finals week to say she had shown up for an exam and found the classroom completely empty. “Oh my,” her mother commented. “That must have been a terrible feeling.”

I can imagine various ways I might respond if our son called to say he showed up at the wrong time for an important exam. “Oh my! That must have been a terrible feeling,” is not one of them. It’s a pithy remark: sympathetic, nonjudgmental and refreshingly devoid of unsolicited advice. Unfortunately, my parenting has always been short on pith.

Anyway, it turned out that my friend’s daughter accidentally showed up several days too early for her final exam, not several days too late. Even though she had navigated foreign countries on a study abroad program, she just couldn’t manage to find her way to the right lecture hall at the right time during finals week. She’s one of those kids with a special gift for disorganization. If her story makes you chuckle, then you don’t have one of those kids.

The unique abilities of disorganized kids usually surface sometime in middle school, when they suddenly refuse to let parents pin book reports onto their shirt fronts. Disorganized children crumple up these book reports — along with grading rubrics, project assignments, field trip permission slips, birthday party invitations and soccer schedules — and they create a collection of permanent archives, which can neither be accessed nor discarded. Disorganized students have papers crumpled in the bottom of their backpacks, papers crammed in their lockers, papers on the floor behind their desks and papers in the pockets of their clothing. Disorganized students can produce a sheaf of papers at any given moment but never the specific paper requested. If by some miracle a disorganized student could find a critical piece of paper at the right time, he would have forgotten to get the required parental signature.

Although your student may not have any natural aptitude for organization, he certainly can learn systems that help him succeed in school. Since many of these methods are not strictly ethical, I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on a planner. A planner seems pretty straightforward — it’s just a portable paper calendar for recording appointments, assignments and due dates. You might spring for a hand-held electronic organizer, but only if you think you can trust your student not to lose it. Ha! Just kidding — of course he’s going to lose it.

We bought our son his first planner when he was in middle school. He was stymied by a semester-long social studies project, paralyzed by the enormity of the task before him. After delivering a stirring planner lecture, I sent him off to map out the long-term project, suggesting that he break the assignment down into bite-sized pieces. Being a 13-year-old, he managed to communicate the utter uselessness of my request (protest, bluster, suck in breath, roll eyeballs, scowl, stomp out of room). He came back five minutes later and asked meekly, “It’s February, right?”

That was many years ago, however, and now we have complete confidence that this young man can succeed in college without the need to call home for occasional clarification on the month of the year. I mean, he can just Google that, can’t he?

Well, maybe I am a tiny bit concerned that our disorganized son will let things fall through the cracks during his years away at college. In fact, sometimes I wonder if the cracks will be big enough to hold the things he can drop. But I’m determined to give our freshman the space to make mistakes. No matter what disaster he calls to report, my new mantra is “Oh my! That must have been a terrible feeling.”

Fortunately, he chose to attend UC Far, Far Away rather than UC Right Here in Town, which should make it easier for me to resist rescue efforts. And when my husband questions my resolve, I remind him of the time our son called home in eighth grade with a frantic request for delivery of a science assignment that lay forgotten on the bedroom floor. I said no. I felt that turning in homework was his responsibility, not mine. It was a difficult phone call, but I think he learned a valuable lesson to carry along to college: If you get a bad grade in science, it’s your mom’s fault.

In addition to being the new writer for UC Davis Magazine’s “Parents” department, Robin DeRieux writes for the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Her son is a freshman biology major at UC Far, Far Away. Just for the record, he would like to point out that he earned an A in eighth-grade science. No thanks to mom. Robin can be reached at