“Parents are always saying, “It would just be easier to do it myself.” But then they don’t “do it themselves”—this is illogical on the face of it, no? They don’t do it themselves because they feel an obligation to instill a moral lesson in their kids, namely, that they should keep things up to a certain standard (usually the parents’ unnegotiated standard).”
– Mary Schultz
From the archives: Posted on 28th February 1996
“How can a child be non-coercively persuaded to clean up a mess for which she is responsible? The specific case was a box of kleenex all over the upstairs.”
First, you might look at your starting point, to see whether you maybe need to bracket a few of your own assumptions in order to understand the whole problem. If you want your children to see the logic of your arguments, you must provide them with enough information to be able to evaluate your logic–and that means providing them with, or at least not covering up, the sorts of assumptions that underlie your logical arguments. You have presented your child with a couple of unexamined “givens” which he or she maybe has not noticed directly but may be aware of, and reacting to, at least subliminally.
It sounds like the definition and meaning of “mess” may be in dispute, although you may not see it so. That’s a big problem among any group of people living together, and needs to be addressed seriously and respectfully; one person’s mess is another person’s coziness. It takes creativity to solve this problem (and it’s a typical one between adults, e.g., husbands and wives, college roommates, etc.).
“Kleenex all over the upstairs” may seem to be obviously a mess, to you. Your child might not agree. You may wish to define it as such (or you may not be able to see the underlying ideology of neatness upon which you operate). I define newspapers left by my husband all over the floor as a mess. My husband does not agree; he experiences newspapers all over the floor as a “homey” atmosphere. The problem of the newspapers on or off the floor can be negotiated. What infuriates either of us is to be told that our definition of mess is wrong. That’s a different problem: that’s the problem of not hearing and/or respecting another person’s perception of the world. Negotiate the kleenex, but don’t start by covertly telling the kid that hir sense of reality is wrong and yours is right. Or at least say it directly, so the kid knows what s/he is up against.
The second “given” is the definition of “responsibility.” I think it’s even more important to explore and negotiate the meaning of this one since it has a lot to do with being civilized. To me, it almost doesn’t matter whether you are creative enough to come up with a perfect solution to the kleenex problem, as long as in the process of trying to solve the kleenex problem the child (and the adults) get some decent practice exploring and negotiating the range of what “personal responsibility” means—within the family, among friends, in the larger community, etc.
Parents often see themselves as the Responsibility Sheriff, as if without such an authority figure around to force other people to be responsible, no one would be responsible. I have always found that children want to be civilized, want to be part of a civilized community—they just want equal rights in negotiating a community’s definitions of “civilized behavior.” If you present “mess” and “responsibility” as pre-defined, you are not only being despotic, you are not allowing your children to practice being logical.
The question is whether it bothers you to live in a state (family) where the only people who get to make up the laws happen to be the state (family) police. People obey laws much better if they have made the previous social contract to live under them. People obey laws best if they have agreed beforehand that they are good and just laws. Sure, people will obey laws under threat of force—but then you have to depend on threat of force.
Yeah, we have been born into a social contract by being born into the country where we live—and we probably don’t like all of our country’s laws, but in some countries we can argue laws and, perhaps, change them. I prefer to live in such a country. I certainly wish to live in a family that gives each of its members at least this right.
“How can a child be persuaded not to make messes in the first place?”
Are you sure that you would want to do this? The world is born out of Chaos. All new things by definition are at first “messy,” no?, i.e., they don’t fit into the established order. You want your kids to be creative, no?
“Are messes an inevitable part of childhood”
I think so.
“and should parents just pick them up themselves, hoping the kids will get it eventually?”
You know, I’ve wondered about this. Parents are always saying, “It would just be easier to do it myself.” But then they don’t “do it themselves”—this is illogical on the face of it, no? They don’t do it themselves because they feel an obligation to instill a moral lesson in their kids, namely, that they should keep things up to a certain standard (usually the parents’ unnegotiated standard).
Since we have been living in Panama, we have had the luxury of a housekeeper, who keeps the house obsessively neat. I worried that I was raising kids who would not know how to keep their own nests clean when they grew up. (I had an example of a dirty-nester in my husband.) After a couple of years here (of not requiring my kids to do housework, or even clean up after themselves, much), I noticed a very interesting phenomenon. Both my husband and my oldest son were becoming very neat; they had become used to the ambiance of a neat house, and so it bugged them for it not to be neat. Their standards of neatness were raised as a consequence of living in neatness. That my son’s room is always neat (by his own hand, now) seemed logical to me since my personal opinion has always been that uncoerced people like neat nests. That my husband’s standards changed—but only when I was no longer attempting to coerce him into accepting my definition of neatness over his own—was a welcome surprise.
So, maybe parents should listen to themselves when they say that it’s easier to do it themselves. It is. (And while a number of you will point out that it’s easier still to be able to afford to pay someone else to do it—well, it’s not quite so simple as all that. Having someone else do your shitwork is very complicated—but that’s another story.)
- How Taking Children Seriously helped me solve my housework-hating problem
- Help! Child hates eyepatch!
- Herbert Spencer on children’s rights