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Why I Stopped Asking My Messy Kid to Clean Up After Himself

Photograph by Twenty20

It’s inevitable that every parent, at some point in his or her parenting career, will be referred to as a nag. The term will never be used as a compliment and will almost always, actually will definitely always, be uttered from the mouth of a child who has not done what he or she was asked to do.

Me, I’ve tried every trick in the book—and may have even written the book—to get my son to pick up after himself. There were the weekly charts and allowance for doing those seemingly simple chores. I tried taking things away that mattered to him, like TV or video games, and then finally surrendered to nagging.

Annoyed that I felt like I only had two choices, nag or do it myself, I decided to do an experiment. I decided to see what would happen if I took charge. No, I couldn’t make my child pick after himself, but that didn’t mean I had to do it myself.

“What’s the worst-case scenario here?” I asked myself. “Worst-case scenario, his clothes don’t get put away and he has to live in a messy room.”

It wasn’t an ideal solution, but at least I didn’t feel like I was being bullied into being my kid’s personal housekeeper.

Just because he wants to make a mess doesn’t mean I have to clean it up.

So, for a week, I did just that: I stopped reminding him to pick up his shoes, but I also didn’t put them away myself. I might put them aside, out of the "break my ankle, middle of the floor" spot he favored as his go-to for leaving his shoes. But, I didn’t do the job for him.

For that entire week, I didn’t make his bed. I didn’t pick up clothes off of his floor. I didn’t put his toys and books away. I also didn’t nag or remind him to do it himself. When he couldn’t find his shoes, the shoes he had left under the couch, I let him search for them himself. It took him half an hour to find them, but he found them. When the only clean clothes he had left were from the pile he’d neglected to put away that were now a pile in the corner of the room, he put on a wrinkly shirt and went about his day.

While it killed me to have his room unkempt or his socks all over the house, I noticed I was much happier not nagging him to do things he was never going to do. And he was happier not having every sentence that came from my mouth be a reminder of what he hadn’t done.

He still doesn’t make his bed, but he now puts away his shoes and clothes. It turns out that spending all that time looking for them was the best incentive for him to be a bit more organized. I don’t know if he’ll ever be motivated to make his bed or pick up his clothes, but that’s fine. I just close the door and go on about my day.

I’m his mother, not his maid. Just because he wants to make a mess doesn’t mean I have to clean it up.

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