There, I said it. One of the great struggles of parenthood. What’s right? How do we approach it? What’s the magic trick to getting the kids to clean up their messes? When will I ever get a break form picking up hair elastics and socks and stepping on legos? Okay, admittedly, I think I have only stepped on a lego once or twice, but you know what I mean, right? How do we win this eternal struggle?
We used the chore chart when the older two were little, sticking the little smiley faced on the board for each job completed. They loved it. They did their jobs. For maybe a week. It was fun and everyone was happy and then it all just fell apart. We got to bed a little late and put off adding the smiley faces or someone pitched a fit at bedtime and it wasn’t worth tackling one more ‘to do’, or maybe they figured out that they didn’t really HAVE to do those jobs, that smiley faces and prizes are just tricks we use to make them do what WE want. I can’t remember why that attempt failed exactly, but I’m pretty sure you can relate.
I’ve explained to them the whole idea of ‘putting it away when you’re done with it’ and how that actually makes your life easier. But they are kids and that just doesn’t resonate. They don’t care. And the thing is, neither did I when I was their age. Did anything my mom did actually work? Has anyone ever found that magic touch that fixed this problem? Positive reinforcement only gets you so far. “Hey, I love how you put those markers away when you were done with them!!”… two days later there are plastic animals strewn around, puzzles decorating the floor, school work and coloring pages scattered, and a mess of discarded articles of clothing all over the house. Nope. They did not get the message that when you put things away mommy is happy. But should they care? Is our happiness a reason to play psychological games with our kids to coerce them into doing something that almost everyone universally hates doing?
We’ve tried the weekly house-cleaning routine. Saturday morning ‘no cartoons on the computer until your rooms are clean’ doesn’t work so well when they decide that they’d rather play or make breakfast than watch anything anyway. Assigning jobs works well enough, but it’s never pretty. Especially with a particularly fierce 5 year old in this house. There are some jobs she will do happily - helping empty the dishwasher or matching socks. But she shares a room with her big sister and there is never a moment of peace when room cleaning is required; “I cleaned up all of MY stuff, the rest if HERS. NO YOU DIDN’T!!! THAT’S NOT MINE!! MOMMY!!! SHE’S NOT HELPING ME!!! Mom, I cleaned up all of her stuff (big sigh).” If you have kids sharing a room, you can picture that, I’m sure.
It gets to a point where I sometimes would rather that everyone else just leave the house and let me do the job myself.
But then my kids would grow up to be irresponsible and reckless and lazy and all kinds of bad stuff, right?
So what do we do?
I am opposed to paying kids for chores because I believe that taking care of the house is just part of being a family member. Yet, I will admit that recently I have been giving more thought to the idea. I stop myself when I realize that it is just one more grasp at getting things to work the way I want them to and it might last a good month or so before no one cares about making money anymore, especially if they realize that they don’t really have to do the chores because Christmas is coming and they’ll get spoiled anyway. Or something like that. (alternate rewards are just another version of money, it’s all currency and it only lasts so long until they are done with that one too)
Is it unrealistic to think that kids will ever take responsibility for cleaning up after themselves and around themselves? Is that just a part of childhood that we as parents need to accept and deal with by trying over and over again all the repeatedly failed attempts at making them clean up? Do we have to resign ourselves to the notion that we brought them into this world, we have to clean up after them for a certain amount of time until they are ready to take over?
The idea of scaffolding comes to mind here. In teaching it is talked about a lot - you give a child just the right amount of support to help them learn something and ultimately become independent in completing the task at hand. Doing a chore together so that you can talk them through how to do it can be time well spent and eventually they will learn to do things like run a load of laundry, but that never seems to apply to ‘just cleaning up your stuff’.
I have tried leaving everything where it is and waiting to see when the other members of my house will notice what a mrs things are and by about 8 days I get twitchy and just have to start cleaning up. And none of them EVER noticed. Which makes me think that it is really just me who cares about cleanliness and order in the house. So why am I fighting a losing battle that is apparently more about me and my needs than it is about them and their shortcomings?
A good friend shared a story about his son, who had been a life-long slob and when they went to visit him at college, he asked his parents to please take off their shoes because he had just cleaned!
So maybe it does all sink in eventually. It just takes 18 years of madness to get there. Keep on keeping on, parents. It is all worth it in the end.