I haven’t talked about it much but for the past year or so an epic struggle has been waging in the Soukup household. It is Mommy versus Kids in the War of the Tidy Room, and while there are still small battles being fought now and then, I can finally say with confidence that I am winning.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you it has been a long and arduous and, at times, downright painful campaign. It has involved tears, threats, bribes, rewards, games, countless trips to the naughty stool, and more reorganizing, reevaluating, relabeling, and retraining than I would care to admit. At one point it even meant taking all their stuff away. There were so many times I wanted to give up, so many times I was ready to wave the white flag of surrender.
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I lost track of how many times Husband–our own personal UN Peacekeeper–questioned whether it was really worth all the heartache, all the frustration, all the hassle. They’re just kids, he would say, they’re only 3 and 6. Don’t you think you’re expecting too much from them?
But I persisted. 3 and 6 is old enough to put things away! I’d snap back. If I don’t have high expectations of them, who will? Someday they’ll get it. Someday it will be worth it!
He would just look at me then, a mixture of pity and fear on his face, clearly torn between his cute-but-messy Daddy’s girls and his headstrong wife. He chose neutrality. I can’t say I blame him.
For months and months the battle raged. Some days I would literally spend hours getting them to follow through, and in the beginning cleaning their room would frequently consume our entire morning. But now, finally, after nearly a year of working at it every single day, I can actually say “go clean your room” and have it look like this a short time later:
The blood, sweat, & tears might not be visible in that picture, but I can tell you that they are most certainly there. This is not a struggle for the faint of heart. There are, however, a few battle strategies I have picked up along the way:
Set an Example
I couldn’t very well expect my kids to keep a tidy room if I wasn’t willing, able, and downright determined to keep a tidy house myself. No, my house is not perfect at all times, but I do spend a lot of time cleaning and organizing and sorting and folding. The girls see me speed cleaning almost every single day. Many times they even help with the process. We make a point to start our day with everything in order so that we be more productive. By evening we’ve usually messed it up again with projects and crafts and books and cooking and everything else that goes on in our day, but there is usually at least a few moments every morning where things are tidy.
We start our day by cleaning. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when we have a lot of other stuff to do. Even when pretty much everything in the world seems more important or more interesting or more fun. For better or for worse, it has become part of our daily routine. Hopefully someday they will do it without even thinking. We’re not there yet. But forcing it to be a habit now will hopefully stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Even more importantly, WE start our day by cleaning. Them AND me. This is key. I don’t do it for them. It would be far, far easier for me just to quickly clean the house and pick up their room myself while they played or watched TV. I truly don’t relish the daily battle of getting them to clean their room. Even now, after so many months of working on it, we still struggle with follow through. But the more they do it and the more often they do it, the better they become.
I simply don’t take no for an answer. I don’t plead or waver or back down. My kids are learning–because I reinforce the message every day–that their number one job as kids is to obey. My expectation is that if I tell them to do something, they do it the first time, without arguing, whining, or complaining, even if they don’t want to. There is no negotiation. Our home is not a democracy.
Get Rid of Excess Stuff
When I took away their toys last summer I realized how much happier they were with less, as well as how much easier it was for them to keep things tidy. But kids are like little stuff magnets, always bringing in a constant trail of toys and papers and clothes and shoes and who knows what else, and if I’m not careful, their room will fill up quickly.
I have to be vigilant–and slightly ruthless–about keeping excess stuff to a minimum. Clothes & shoes that are out of season or no longer fit get put in storage or brought to Goodwill. Toys are still kept to a minimum. Papers & junky party favors or prizes are usually tossed immediately (when the kids aren’t looking!) We also try to abide by a “one thing at a time” rule, where we don’t take out a new activity before cleaning up the last one.
Make it Easy to Put Stuff Away
My girls both know where things go because everything in their room has a home. Their clothing is hung low so they can reach it, and they both know how to hang things up. They’ve learned how to tell if something is clean, and they know where the dirty laundry goes. Likewise, toys and games each have their own shelf or bin.
Make it Fun
I will readily admit that I don’t always make it fun, but the days that I do are definitely far less painful then the days I don’t. Sometimes we will race to see if I can clean up the rest of the house before they can get their room clean. Often we will turn on music so they can dance while they clean or set the timer and try to beat it. Other days we simply just clean the whole house side by side–they help me and I help them.
If they are to learn how to do it on their own, I have to be willing to show them exactly what needs to be done. I’ve shown them the proper way to hang up their clothes, how to place their pants & PJs in the appropriate baskets, and how to look & smell things over to determine whether they are dirty. I’ve shown them how to scan the room to check for things on the floor, and how to crawl under the bed to retrieve any lost items. I’ve shown them where to bring garbage and dirty dishes and things that don’t belong in their room. They still struggle with making the bed, so every day I still show them how to pull the sheets tight and tuck them in, then fluff the pillows and put them in place.
I’ve found that I have to teach the same things over and over again before they finally get it, and I’ve also found that showing them something then making them do it themselves is what seems to sink in the most. Kids don’t have a natural ability to spot a mess, to see the things that are out of place. It has to be taught.
As harsh as all of this may seem, I truly don’t expect perfection from my kids. I expect them to listen and obey and to do their best, but I also offer them much love and praise and encouragement. I try hard to notice even the smallest achievements, and I am always quick to reward them for a job well done.
I have been pondering this post for a long time, wondering if I should actually share my experience, knowing the sort of backlash I will probably receive. I am frankly terrified to press the “publish” button. Even as I read over the first draft to Husband this morning he told me I sounded like a psycho drill sergeant running a sterile mental ward. I don’t quite see myself that way. My house is not always perfect. We make lots of messes. We really don’t spend all our time cleaning up.
Even so, I know that in today’s indulge-the-child society, I am an anomaly. I simply don’t believe that pampering my children will bring them happiness; instead, I want them to learn to live productive, orderly, disciplined, contented lives filled with JOY. I want them to grow up understanding to their core the things it has taken me 35 years to learn, the things I am still learning.
Yes, at times I am a strict, no-nonsense mom with extremely high expectations of my kids. I expect them to use their manners, to work hard, to be helpful and kind and considerate, and to keep their room clean. I am with them all day, every day. If I don’t teach them those things, I am the one who will suffer the most. I am also the one who benefits the most. Our days together are fun and interesting, filled with laughter and learning and love. The girls get plenty of time to play and just be kids and we genuinely enjoy each other’s company, not despite my expectations, but because of them.
So while this battle may not be worth the effort–or even feasible–for everyone, I can say without hesitation that it was most definitely worth it for us, not simply for the clean room, but for the character it is instilling in them….and in me.