Am I a bad parent if I do the majority of the cleaning up after my kids?
— Rather Do It Myself
Dear Rather Do It Myself,
So much of parenting requires risk analysis.
On one hand, we have the future well-being of our children to consider. If we don’t teach them to clean up after themselves, they might grow up to be messy and entitled brats.
On the other hand, we have the current well-being of us, the parents, to take into account. We are living in the age of burnout. Many of us lack the bandwidth — emotional and temporal — to get our children to clean up their Hot Wheels on a regular basis. There’s so much to squeeze into a day (jobs need to be worked, dishes need to be cleaned, stories need to be read, etc). Is it really so wrong to cut the tedious child-led clean-up session out of the daily schedule?
The short answer is, absolutely not. With few exceptions, there’s no single activity that can make or break our children’s characters. Maybe your kids don’t clean up their toys, but they do other chores like feeding the dog or setting the table. There are oh so many ways to instill a sense of responsibility in our children. If you aren’t doing any of them, or if your kid loses it when you make any request, then you have a bigger problem than that pile of toys or whatever it is you are quickly cleaning up.
The tricky part is striking the balance between teaching our kids these lessons and not turning into frazzled lunatics ourselves in the process.
Carla Naumburg, author of the upcoming “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids,” said parents need to remember that “it is not their job to teach their children everything.”
“We parents expect ourselves to be the teacher, the coach, the therapist, the cook, the jailor, the judge. Everything! Parents need to trust that other people in their kids’ lives are teaching their kids, too,” she said, adding that it’s fairly common for children to have to clean up after themselves in school.
Daniel Siegel, a child psychologist and co-author of “The Whole-Brain Child” and other parenting books, encourages a quality-over-quantity approach to teaching children responsibility. He wants parents to put their energy into something they have the bandwidth to do and then stick with it.
“Your child is looking to you for regularity, routines and predictability, though not rigidity. They want a structure that has flexibility to it,” Siegel said, adding that parents should think hard about which responsibility lessons feel necessary to them.
Some issues, like teaching a child not to play with knives, are obviously urgent. Other issues, like a child who doesn’t finish his Cheerios every morning, are obviously trivial. It’s the ones in the middle, which might include getting your child to clean up after themselves, that can be most challenging to figure out how to handle.
“You have to decide, what’s the deal?” he said. “If you come to the conclusion that teaching your children to clean up after themselves is important to you, then you have to make the time to do it. If you don’t, let it go.”
Naumburg said she sees a lot of parents getting too ambitious with their lessons and then feeling overwhelmed as a result. For example, when she wanted her daughters to learn to cook, she didn’t start with a big, elaborate recipe. Instead, she let them open a bag of frozen broccoli and dump it in a pot.
“The truth is, kids learn grit and resilience in small moments, too,” she said.
If you decide that teaching your kids to clean up their toys is important to you, remember that it’s OK to start small. Maybe at the beginning, it’s just the dolls in the hallway or the Legos on the table. Maybe they are in charge of putting away 10 things or cleaning up for three minutes — something I often do with my children — and then you do the rest. A toy-free bedroom or living room every night might be too much, too soon.
Remember, mess is a subjective concept. Where one person sees “Grey Gardens,” another might see Marie Kondo. Considering that you wrote about cleaning up, I suspect that you, like me, fall into the clutter-phobe category.
Try — and I know it’s hard — to accept a little more chaos. If your children’s toys aren’t posing a hazard, then maybe a few of them camping out on the carpet overnight isn’t such a bad thing. Or if your children give cleaning up a shot but have a different definition of clean than you do, try to be encouraging anyway — especially if it means an easier daily routine and a less-exhausted parent hitting the pillow every night.
Another thing to remember: Our attitudes about messiness tend to be gendered. Women experience more pressure, internal and external, to have their houses look orderly. A recent Pew Research Center study found that teenage girls, ages 15 to 17, spend over twice as much time cleaning up and preparing food as boys the same age do. I’m not mentioning this because I believe that we should abandon cleaning up altogether just because the patriarchy made it a women’s job. Living in filth is not my idea of women’s liberation.
Instead, I want parents to make sure that the sons out there are being held to the same tidiness standards as the daughters. Also, dads should be equally involved in getting kids to clean up as moms. This way, the next generation won’t see tidying up as exclusively a women’s concern.
Ultimately, cleaning up after your kids doesn’t make you a bad parent. It’s the failing to teach them responsibility, or only teaching the girls responsibility, that will get you in trouble. Pick the chores that work for you and your kids and stop worrying about the thing or things that don’t. You’re probably too tired for all that.