The newest parenting-related picture to go viral on Facebook is a photo of a huge stack of filled trash bags. Mom captioned the photo with the explanation that her teenage daughter wouldn’t clean her room, so the mom bagged everything up, and was making her daughter pay her $25 a bag to get her stuff back. It was hard to tell just how many bags there were, as they were all stacked on top of each other, but there were clearly enough for the daughter to owe her mother at least a few hundred dollars.
As is usually the case, the comments were overwhelmingly positive, and the mother was almost universally praised. I’m always kind of amazed at the feedback on these things. I’d like to think – really, I need to think – that there are people out there who don’t feel right about it, but who just don’t know what else they would do in that situation. Or maybe there are people who want to offer some alternatives, but they are shamed into silence by the “Stop being so judgmental!!” crowd. (By the way, when you publicly boast online about how proud you of are how you’re punishing your children, you are explicitly inviting feedback. It’s the way the internet works)
Dialogue is a useful thing. Lots of parents can relate to the struggle of kids and messes, but not every parent chooses punishment and/or shame as a parenting tactic. There are alternatives to navigating even the messiest of messy rooms, that do not involve bagging up all their stuff and throwing or giving it away, or making them earn it back.
As with everything else, it all begins with relationship:
1. Recognize that everyone is different. Personality and individual constitution play a big role here. Some people are naturally very tidy. Some make a mess everywhere they go. I am very much the latter. And while I’ve come to appreciate how much better I operate in a clean, uncluttered environment, it is something that I have to continually work on. I am 42 years old, and I still have to make a conscious effort to keep things picked up. Harping on me or shaming me would not only not encourage me, but would also make me angry, and even less likely to put forth the effort. Kids are no different! If you make them feel badly about themselves, they’ll live up to the negative. Instead, help and encourage them, and see what a difference it makes, both in their behavior and in your own peace with the situation. Accept them the way they are, and resist the urge to compare and pit one against the other. Comments like, “Why can’t you be more like Henry?” are hurtful, and leave scars that last well beyond childhood.
2. Adjust your expectations. I am not a big fan of the phrase, “Pick your battles,” but bedroom cleanliness is one area where it may apply. It’s okay – and yes, even a positive thing! – for them to have the freedom to keep their own personal space the way they like it. Some things shouldn’t be negotiable, for good reason (for example: leaving food or trash laying around can attract bugs; too much clutter on the floor can become a safety hazard) But there is a whole range of happy compromise in between hospital corners and things-are-growing-faster-than-bacteria-in-a-petri-dish. Adjusting your own expectations and working with your child, rather than against him, go a long way towards both keeping the peace in the home and your relationship intact.
3. Model taking care of your own things. I have found, again and again, that when I’m in a good routine myself, the kids tend to magically follow suit. Show them what it looks like to take pride in your home. Pick up after yourself. Put things away after you use them. Don’t grumble about housework. Treat it as an act of service for yourself, and for your family. Your kids learn far more from watching you than they do from any speeches you may give them about cleanliness.
4. Ask them to pick up before things get out of control. I think we have a tendency … (and when I say “we”, I mean “I”) … I think we have a tendency to let things fester and not say anything about them while they build. Then, we inevitably get resentful, the situation gets blown out of proportion, and we finally burst. We finally say something, or ask for help, and we’re not very nice about it. It is a whole lot easier – and more peaceful for all involved – to say, “Can you please pick up these legos on the floor so I can tuck you in without hurting my feet?” than it is to deal with the fallout of a room that’s reached a level of “We need to rent a dumpster and fill 87 trash bags if we want to see the floor again.” Getting into good habits, working together, and talking to your kids instead of barking orders helps the entire household run more smoothly and peacefully. Plus, it is far less work to deal with little messes as they happen than it is to deal with giant messes that have been accumulating over time.
5. When it does get bad, ask if you can help. So, you’re thinking, “Picking up before things get out of control sounds nice in theory, but that ship has already sailed.” I so get it. Speaking as both a mom and as a person who has a natural tendency to let messes take over: I think that when it gets to that point, it isn’t so much that your kids don’t want to pick up as it is that they are overwhelmed at the enormity of the project and don’t even know where to start. The struggle is real! Ask if you can help. Break it up into smaller jobs and tackle it together. Do whatever works well to get the job done. Make it a game, set timers, play some music. If they don’t mind you touching their things (some of my kids would rather do it themselves, some welcome the assistance), you can even surprise them by doing it for them. It’s a huge gift to give them, and my daughter in particular is always so thankful. Then, once you’ve gotten it under control again, re-visit #4. Repeat as necessary.
6. Help/encourage them to periodically cull through their belongings. The less “stuff” you have, the easier it is to keep it organized. Every so often (ideally a couple of times a year, or at least before big gift-giving occasions like Christmas) help them go through their things to see if there’s anything they don’t want anymore that they can then sell, donate, or give away. Personality plays a large role here too. Some kids have no problem giving up toys that they don’t play with anymore, even if they just got it a year ago. Others really like to hang on. Respect where they’re at, and work with them on solutions. Help them find new homes for the things they don’t want, and help them organize and store the things that are staying.
It is a frustrating feeling indeed when messes get out of control. But giving into that frustration and unloading it via yelling, punishing, or shaming your kids doesn’t help anyone… not you, and certainly not your child. Instead, take a deep breath, – or 10 or 100 – take the emotion out of it, and work together on solutions. You’re not going to change your child (and really, would you want to??!!), but you can help him with strategies he can use, both now and in the future.
And as for you as the parent? Remind yourself as often as necessary that kids are all different, and that that’s okay. Tell yourself that you’ll respect your kids where they’re at. Work with your kids on keeping their rooms tidy, but recognize that the space is ultimately theirs, and that that’s okay too. Decide what is non-negotiable and let go of the rest.
And if all else fails, just shut the door.