A few weeks ago I made a last-ditch effort to get my son to make his bed in the morning. We'd been having the same argument for 23 years, and now that he was going off to law school I thought it was time for him to shape up. I honestly believed that people who left their bed unmade would never be successful in life—that an unmade bed signified sloth, indifference and lack of moral character. Winston Churchill always made his bed. Martha Washington always made her bed. Conversely, Helen of Troy never made her bed. Neither did Attila the Hun or Al Capone. I was sure of it.
One morning, I arrived at my office to find an e-mail from my son with the message, "Ha! The tables have turned!" Opening the attached document, I found an article discussing why sleeping in an unmade bed was healthier than sleeping in a made one. According to a study published by Kingston University in London, a disheveled bed enables pockets of moisture in a mattress to dry out faster—thereby dehydrating and killing dust mites and other massively annoying creatures. Since my son has allergies, making his bed in the morning could literally make him sick.
This was not the first time my son had pulled a stunt like this. For years he'd been citing studies that homework was bad for kids or that people who played video games were more attentive and thus made better drivers. If I fired back that playing video games wrecked one's eyesight, he'd trot out a study proving that they improved a person's field of vision.
What these experiences drive home is that the information age is the bane of all conscientious parents. If you try to tell your kid to mow the lawn, he will cite a study published in Geophysical Research Letters indicating that the amount of fuel used in cutting a small lawn does disproportionate damage to the planet, so it would be better to leave it untended. If you try to persuade your children that "early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," they will dig up a study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine indicating that students who get up at the crack of dawn lose their zip early in the day, while those who remain snuggled up beneath the covers long after sunrise maintain a high level of productivity well into the evening.
The worst thing about all this is the source of my son's information. His sister, who is in the neuroscience PhD program at Georgetown, is the one who funneled him the report about unmade beds. His sister is the one who found the study linking video games with improved vision. In discussions of this nature, his sister is both instigator and umpire, because she never allows an opinion to stand unless it can pass scientific muster—which wrecks things for people like me, who rely on conventional wisdom and common sense.
I have now officially given up trying to get my son to empty the dishwasher, put gas in my car or pay for the five boxes of cereal he eats every time he comes home. I know that he will merely text his sister and get her to produce a study proving that dishes are more germ-resistant if they remain in the dishwasher, that cars are more fuel-efficient when running on empty and that parents who constantly complain about their children's finances have short life expectancies.
This is what I get for having a daughter who's a scientist. If I return to this planet in some future life and again have kids, I hope they're a pair of screwballs. Maybe then I'll be able to get one of them to mow the lawn.
Joe Queenan, the author of nine books, writes regularly for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Guardian.