Dear Portia: My Kids Are Slobs. Help!

Dear Portia,

How do you get your kids to clean up after themselves? My kids are 12, 10 and 7 and I feel like I’ve tried everything over the years. Chore charts, reward systems, scolding, drawing attention to the mess, calling them back to do it again when it’s not cleaned up properly. IT NEVER ENDS. As a naturally neat person I’m sincerely mystified by these little people who could not care less about being surrounded by a mess. I fantasize about buying 4 tiny houses so I don’t have to deal with it. I’m tired of the constant reminding and I feel like Mad Mom is the only thing that gets their attention.

Hates Being Mad Mom

Dear Mad Mom,

The other day, I deep-cleaned my bathroom. I wiped down each individual blind, dusted behind the toilet, and felt a delightful frisson of pleasure when I got the soap scum from the bottom of the shower door.

So I get your question with all the fibers on my Swiffer pads. Sometimes, the sheer mess my two daughters make is mind-boggling.

But it might surprise you to know I was a slob as a kid. An oppositional slob.

I hated cleaning. My mom and I constantly battled over chores, unloading the dishwasher, the mess in my room and bathroom, and my disdain for dusting. 

If your kids are anything like I once was, there are two main reasons they’re messy.

  1. They actually do not see most of the mess. Disorganization, clutter, and grime do not bother them. My mom’s distress over piles and clutter really befuddled me as a kid.
  2. Being messy is a way to exert independence and power when you live with a tidy person. I didn’t think about it this directly as a kid, but resisting cleanliness helped me be my own person apart from my mom. (My husband’s mom, who was not so tidy, had her kids exerting independence by CLEANING).

And then, one day, post-college, I went downstairs in the house I shared with roommates and felt a shiver of discomfort. I saw dirt for the first time in my life: smudges on the windows, the dust bunnies in the corners, the crumbs on the sofa, the mess on the counter—

And I could NOT STAND IT. Why didn’t we clean, ever? What was wrong with us?

At the very same time, I felt horror. “Oh, no!” I thought. “I’ve turned into my mother!” (Sorry, Mom.)

It was not until standing in that (not even terribly filthy) room that I understood that there is beauty in order and cleanliness, and grace in taking care of a house. I had thought avoiding chores made me happy, but I was wrong.

If you’re thinking my early slob-hood gives me a pass on frustration with my own kids, you’d be wrong. HOW ARE THEY SO SLOVENLY?

I am also well-acquainted with Mean Mom, even though I try to shove her under the bed when guests arrive. And yes, four tiny houses sound completely reasonable.

I’m with you, Mad Mom. I’m really, really with you.

Given my untidy past, I have gone back and forth between trying to chill the heck out about chores (trying to avoid the power struggle) and demanding my daughters pick up their &^%$ rainbow loom projects. But in the middle of those wild mood swings, I have noticed a few things about me, cleanliness, and my kids.

Their Uncleanliness Is Developmentally Normal

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember just how much skill cleaning takes. Part of what overwhelmed me the day I noticed dirt was that I had no idea where to begin. That day happened nearly twenty years ago, and it’s only in the past five years that I really feel like I’ve gotten a handle on housekeeping.

Tidiness is a learned skill, even if it feels simple.

So keep your expectations really, really low, even with older kids.

If You Have a Partner, Include Them in Household Management

Much of the burden of housekeeping is about being in charge—of cleanliness, of buying supplies, organizing, teaching kids, and reminding them (over and over and over) to do chores.

You may be a single parent, or your partner may work long hours, travel, or simply not be willing to engage (if it’s the latter, I’m sorry.) But otherwise, have a frank dialogue with them about managing the house.

It made a huge difference when I talked with my husband. It isn’t even that he’s doing more than he used to—he just agreed he’d be solely responsible for several tasks, and also help shepherd kids on weekends when they have stuff to clean.

Not bearing the entire weight of responsibility on my shoulders made a huge difference.

It’s Okay to Have Boundaries

It’s perfectly fair to expect your house to work for you as well as for your kids. My mental health suffers in an untidy, unclean space.

So I have tried to set limits that ease my burden. I buy as few clothes, shoes and toys as possible, and keep toys almost entirely downstairs where I find them easier to pick up. I don’t allow food upstairs. They aren’t allowed to take art supplies upstairs or outside.

But for years, I required no formal chores, and barely asked my kids to clean up anything. I could do so because I could (mostly) clean up myself.

Your limits will look different than mine, but I think it’s worth asking: assuming they don’t help at all, what would help you feel saner?

I’d recommend starting a dialogue with your kids about this. How can you make your house work for everyone—not just you OR them? If they want you to stop nagging them about chores, what possessions might they be willing to move/store/or eliminate in exchange? What spaces can be messy behind closed doors? What spaces do they share with others that they need to keep tidy? Do they have suggestions?

The book Positive Discipline has great suggestions for ‘family meetings’ to discuss these dilemmas. My kids don’t like formal ‘meetings’, but the principles described there can work in casual conversation, too. The point is to treat your kids with dignity and find solutions that work for everyone in the house.

Let Go of Fear and Shame

I tried a chore chart with my oldest when she was five. About ten minutes in, she was flailing on the floor, screaming “NOOOOOO.”

That night, I did some THINKING.  I realized the main reason I’d made the chart was that I was afraid people would think I was a terrible mother if I did not. After all, a five-year-old isn’t very helpful.

Reluctantly, I decided to scrap the chart, and didn’t ask her to do anything for three more years.

Now she helps a ton, without tantrums. My fear was truly unfounded.

I wonder what kind of stories you’re telling yourself about your struggle over chores. Does your kids’ messiness seem like disrespect, rather than simple lack of skill or indifference? Are you worried you’ll “spoil” them? That they’ll eventually star in a Hoarders episode? Are you worried what an unclean house says about you, or about your parenting skills? Do you feel like you’re being taken advantage of?

Are there more generous ways of thinking about the problem? Is it as dire as it feels?

Reframing how you think about your kids’ untidiness will help a lot. It’s not personal, it’s probably age-appropriate, and within reasonable boundaries, it’s not the end of the world.

Model Joy Instead of Martyrdom

Living with slobs is a real problem. So please, don’t think I’m trying to be Susie Sunshine here.

But. If we are constantly angry about chores, complaining about messes, and sighing about housework, our kids will probably avoid them—and us. Power struggles do not help things. 

The truth is that creating order, cleanliness, and beauty is lovely. It does not have to be a burden. Your tidiness is a real-life skill that your kids are picking up just by living with you. Consider it joy to show them how much easier it is to live with order.

I’d really recommend reading Kathleen Norris’ book, Quotidian Mysteries. It changed my attitude towards housework.

I’ve also been helped by keeping Sabbath. Choosing to rest from the endless cycle of dirty-to-clean reminds me that doing housework is a blessing, not a curse.

I think this sense of peace is what will, in the long term, teach our kids. It might not happen until after they leave your house (I’m crossing my fingers for sooner). But I suspect one day all of our kids will wake up like I did and realize it’s not fun to live in a pigsty.

Choose Real Tasks Over Proving a Point

My dear friend Melissa once told me something that has stuck with me. Basically: our kids can tell if have them do a task to prove a point, vs. because there’s a real need. Compare:

  • “Pick up this lone pink sock! You never pick up after yourself!”
  • “I need help keeping on top of dishes and laundry—and you’ll need to know how to do both as an adult. Would you rather do a laundry apprenticeship or a dishwashing apprenticeship this summer until you can help do those tasks on your own?”

Guess which one gets less resistance? Guess which one actually helps you?

Our kids are smart, and they like to feel useful, not like they’re doing make-work. Cleaning up each and every mess they make is often make-work. Learning real skill with laundry, dishes, or yard work is something else entirely.

Choose The Home You Make–Not Just Tidiness

I appreciate Alfie Kohn’s writing on parenting. In his book Unconditional Parenting, he recommends “[keeping] your eye on long-term goals.”

My long term goal is having a home we all enjoy.

How my family and I keep house together drastically affects that home. Given my tidy streak, I struggle to value welcome, joy, and creativity. I love clean floors, so when my daughter makes oobleck I want to sigh about the pink puddle on the floor. When my oldest creates a collage I reflexively wince at the scraps under the table. I have to almost physically force myself to see beyond their mess to recognize the joyful exuberance right in front of me.

Yes, my house needs to work for me, but primarily, I want it to give life to all of us. So the spirit behind our housekeeping matters. As hard as it is to live with small chaos machines, I promise that modeling order and flexibility will bring you more joy then ever a clean house will.

It’s in the home we make, not just our homemaking, that allows us to really live well.

Heather Caliri
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