Picture this if you will. You’re a super busy mother of teenagers and a ‘tween. You decide to rise early on a Saturday morning so you can enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee, undisturbed, still wrapped in your cozy fleece robe and slippers. You pad over to the kitchen sink, steaming coffee in hand, to gaze out the window at all the beauty and serenity nature has to offer at this young hour. Ahh……
Then your eyes pan to the right because something in your peripheral vision catches your eye. It’s last night’s dinner dishes, complete with caked on scraps of food, scattered silverware and serving bowls, still on the deck. That’s odd, you think. I dismissed myself from that dinner last night, early, to meet up with friends. Did an emergency take place after I departed, calling my kids and husband away from the table suddenly? Then fury sets in when you realize, no, the family is sleeping in, blissfully, right now.
This scene really happened to a friend of mine and I still laugh about it because she used choice words and gestures to tell the story, but also because it is a scene not unfamiliar to me. (Misery likes company). Sometimes the people in my house forget that if they make a mess, they are responsible for picking it up. There are no Alices (The Brady Bunch) or Florences (The Jeffersons) in our house. Like my friend, I, too, have been surprised to see dishes with caked on food in the morning, but I find them in the kitchen sink instead of on the back porch. Why are they in the sink when I come down in the morning? Because two of my kids are now teenagers and go to bed later than my husband and I do, and their insatiable appetites require late night feedings.
But wait… That explains who left the dirty dishes in the sink, but it does not explain why those dirty dishes were left there. After all, we have a dishwasher as well as good old fashioned dish soap. And these are teenagers, not toddlers. What gives?
The answer is obvious to my teens: The dishwasher was in the middle of a cleaning cycle and we were too tired to wait for it to finish cleaning and cooling down (so the dishes stayed in the sink). True: our dishwasher takes an outrageously long time to clean a load of dishes. But all I can think is that those few dirty dishes could have been washed by hand in 5 minutes. The next day, they needed to soak so that the caked on food would come off, prior to being washed.
In the past, I would have come down in the morning and been instantly enraged by the mess, assuming it was selfishly left for someone else (like me) to clean up. Then I would have projected that none of my kids would ever be suitable for dates and/or marriage partners because no one would ever put up with this kind of sloppiness. Now, however, I have a new outlook in order to keep me sane. In this situation, for example, I calmly ask the kids to choose which task they would like: emptying the clean dishes from the dishwasher or loading the dirty ones into the dishwasher after it’s been emptied. (Neither task belongs to me, mind you).
It’s a win-win situation, because my kids know they need to clean up after themselves (I tell them daily) and they see the humor in being given “choices,” a system that used to make them feel empowered when they were little. And the bonus is they don’t have to witness any meltdowns on my part, which were not fun for anyone (and often escalated into demands for widespread cleaning).
Perhaps you’re thinking that my kids should not have to be reminded to help out since they’re getting older. I agree. Hold them accountable, you say. I have gone that route. I devised chore charts when my kids were younger. I became a chore cop, trying to observe whether my kids did the various tasks assigned to them. It was a constant battle. They tried to reason with me that not all chores are created equal. True: Taking the trash cans out to the street, although not fun, is done just once a week. However, setting and clearing the table is tricky when dinner time is different every night and sometimes comes in the form of fend for yourself.
And laundry? It makes me smile to know, finally, that each kid is now responsible for doing his own — or at least getting the dirty clothes from bedroom to washing machine, to dryer to couch. I still need to have my “laundry folding parties”. This is when a mountain of clean clothes continues to grow on the basement couch until all kids must be enlisted to help sort and fold. Hey, this is not a party!, I recall one of the kids blurting out in realization, years ago. (No, it is just another friendly tactic your mother has for getting you to help out). And they will, without complaining, usually.
Do my kids clean up after themselves without fail now? Not a chance. I still have to remind them that doing so is helping them develop into responsible adults. And yes, I have had days when I could easily have a meltdown and demand that everyone drop everything instantly and clean. But I have learned a few things about kids and responsibilities over the years, including:
- The need for picked up, organized surroundings differs from person to person. I happen to be the kind of person who is calmer when my house is somewhat neat and clean. Perhaps I feel more in control or can concentrate better. However, I can’t expect my teens’ bedrooms to be pristine. If they can do their homework well, sitting in a messy room, all the power to them. Likewise, if they have no problem climbing into an unmade bed, fantastic.
- Picking up after oneself is an act of consideration for others. It’s one thing to have a messy bedroom, but leaving a mess where others spend a lot of their time is inconsiderate. Why should anyone have to look at another person’s shoes, notebooks, makeup, or piles of clean laundry? At the end of the day, everyone is equally tired, so each person needs to pick up after himself.
- Things are easier to locate if they are put away immediately. Everyone is so much happier in the morning if my kids know where to find their backpacks, signed permission slips, baseball caps or lunch bags. Ben Franklin had it right when he said A place for everything, everything in its place.
- No one wants to be perceived as a slob, even teens. Think of it this way: If a friend unexpectedly dropped in to say hello, would you take pride in the appearance of your home? This happened in our house, recently. My daughter put me on the spot, encouraging me to show a visitor my newly painted bedroom. So, I obliged, cringing at the dust bunnies on the stairs, fingerprints on the walls and dirty towels on the bathroom floor that I could see as my guest followed me up the stairs. Lesson learned. (Note: I’ll be sending my mother-in-law up to see my daughter’s bedroom the next time she visits).
I can’t expect my kids to be perfect. I do want them to know, however, that their behaviors and habits affect those around them. Less than a year from now, my firstborn child will be heading off to college where she will be sharing a dorm room with another freshman. What that means is she has eleven months to practice being a neat and considerate future roommate. Fingers crossed her roommate will be practicing too.