Tuesday, February 05, 2013

This Is A Long Game

One of the important parts of getting ready for the Chinese New Year is cleaning. We already keep whisk brooms, dust pans, and dusters around the place for the kids to use, but in preparation for the holiday, and in keeping with the theme of "out with the old, in with the new," I went out and augmented our collection of cleaning supplies.

As the children busily "scrubbed" the school down yesterday, parents joked about how they could now help out at home, getting their own house ready for the new year, and the children smiled, knowing it was a joke.

I don't claim to be a parenting expert, we have parent educators for that, but if there's one frustration parents speak with me about more than others, it's around the topic of their children and cleaning up. No one is expecting their preschool aged children to handle major cleaning chores, but it's quite common to want your kid, especially as she gets older, to at least start taking responsibility for putting her toys in the toy box, for dropping her dirty clothes in the hamper, and for bringing her dishes into the kitchen, if not putting them in the dishwasher.

The questions I get aren't about how to get their kids to do these things, because everyone knows they can command or bribe or threaten their kids into doing it: what they want to know is how to get them to do it without bossing or manipulating. They know, for instance, that at school, most of the kids, most days, take at least some part in our clean-up time. They also know that I'm an advocate for teaching through the "law of natural consequences," that the best way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it. So, they assume I know some trick for making it happen.

As a parent I spent some time struggling with this. Indeed, my teenaged daughter's bedroom still usually looks like a teenaged daughter's bedroom. I don't struggle with it any more because I've learned to close the door.

There was a time when I figured that the natural consequence of a messy room was that she would not be able to find the toy she sought or the clothes she wanted to wear, and that happened sometimes, but instead of cleaning her room, she learned to live with the consequences. You see, having a clean room was my agenda, not hers. At school, the kids tend to pitch in because 1) it's just what we're doing, and 2) they know the natural consequence of not cleaning up is that we simply don't proceed with the rest of our day until the job is done and the grown-ups are not going to do it for them. At home, a clean room is an aesthetic value that our young children simply don't share with us. What makes us crazy doesn't bother them in the least.

Some parents talk to me about what they call "logical consequences." For instance, they take away the toys that are left on the floor, putting them, say, on a shelf out of reach, saying that this is the logical consequence for not being put in the toy box. I'm sorry, but I don't see how that's any different than a punishment clothed in a gentler sounding garment. Believe me, your kids know it's a punishment.

I came to the conclusion quite some time ago that there really is no natural consequence for a messy room, at least for a child. They don't obsess like we do over tidiness and order, they don't mind wearing dirty clothes day after day, if they even notice it at all. We're the ones with the agenda about cleanliness. And since that's the case, I realized, it's rightly our own responsibility. 

The way I took on that responsibility was to stop pestering my child about her room. I also stopped buying her so much crap, which I think is a huge contributor to messy children's rooms. When her things wound up in the common spaces in our home, I merely carried them to her room and left them there. And, most importantly, I attempted to role model the kind of cleaning behavior I valued.

I decided to quit looking for a quick fix; it seemed to only lead to frustration. And who needs that? The better part of parenting is learning to pick your battles, and this wasn't a hill upon which I was prepared to die.

A funny thing happened. When my daughter was 12, she piled all her toys, and I mean all her toys, in the middle of her room and declared she wanted to get rid of it. Today, her room is still messy by my own standards, mostly with a floor littered with clothing, but when a friend is coming over, guess what? She puts the clothes away and loads the dirty dishes into the dishwasher. Again, not leaving a room as tidy as I might like, but at least presentable.

I've come to realize that this is a long game.

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Birdie said...

What a great post! I have a 5 year old boy and (so far) what works for us at home is this: I will say "I'm going to go clean my room now because I like having a clean room to sleep in. If you feel like it, you could clean your room too! Then we'll both have clean rooms!" I then leave it to him. 9 times out of 10, I will check on him and he will be busily putting his things away, excited to be doing such a "grown-up" thing. But the times he doesn't want to, I don't push or prod, because sometimes I don't feel like cleaning either :)

Anonymous said...

As a parent of an 18 year old, I totally follow you here and appreciate your finer points about the messy room reality -- the amount of "crap" we buy them ... how neatness is not important to children ...

My mom's quip lives with me - you can't be creative and be neat at the same time ... which plays out the whole left brain/right brain behaviorist philosophy - the creating can't happen alongside the editing.

Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your thinking.