For months, my 7-year-old twin daughters’ room looked like a department store after a tornado. There was so much stuff–toys, books, clothes, art supplies–strewn across the floor that I could rarely get the vacuum cleaner through the door, much less vacuum. I attempted to pick up, only to have two chipper children distribute junk across the carpet in my wake. I nagged and cajoled to no effect.
Part of the problem is that I’m a lousy housekeeper myself. How could I ask my children to clean their room when there were papers strewn across the dining table and my kitchen was forever in the midst of reorganization? My requests that they clean were half-hearted, at best.
Over the course of two weeks, I did a major decluttering, tidying and deep clean of every corner of the house, except the girls’ room. I hired a new lawn care service. I still need to apply fresh contact paper to my kitchen shelves, but everything else feels livable. I’ve even shampooed my carpet. (Why, oh why, did I wait so long to buy a steam cleaner? I used to rent them from our local grocery store, but found that my Hoover brand one paid for itself in no time.)
I now had the moral high ground to demand that my daughters clean their room. There would be no screen time (TV, computer, tablets), I told them on Wednesday, until their room was clean enough that I could vacuum and steam clean the entirety of the carpet. We average 2 hours or less of screen time a week, but my kids consider it a premium treat.
I didn’t bring the cleaning thing up again. I figured that the next time they asked to watch a movie or look something up on their Samsung Galaxies, I’d remind them that they needed to clean their room first.
Imagine my surprise when I awoke this morning to find J diligently cleaning. I tried to stop feeling guilty about bribing my children to do their duty. After all, it was working, although I’d prefer that my kids do what I ask just because I ask.
It wasn’t long, of course, before there was conflict between the children. J complained that she’d asked M to help out with the cleaning, but that M had told her that she’d rather read. I need to find an approach that was fair to J but still stuck to the expectations I had already communicated. I told J that she could have screen time back as long as I could vacuum the entirety of her room with the exception of the area directly below her sister’s desk. Similarly, M would only get screen time once the entirety of the floor, except for the expanse under J’s desk, was available to the vacuum cleaner.
I asked J if she would like to communicate the adjusted expectations to her sister. She said she would, so I worked in the kitchen. Before too long, J came in to get me. “M needs you.”
I walked into the girls’ room, and M was up in her lofted bed, sobbing. “When I look under my desk, I feel too overwhelmed. I can’t do this, Mommy. I can’t do this.”
I told her to pick up and deal with the first 10 things she could reach. She cried and asked to be held. She was obviously completely defeated by the idea of cleaning up. We talked about how good she was at cleaning up at school. She said there wasn’t as much stuff. I said there wasn’t as much stuff because she took care of it daily. She cried some more, finally agreeing to climb down from her bed and picking up a sheet of paper.
J couldn’t understand it. “This is easy!” she told her sister, picking up more beads off the floor. “Look! Easy!” This just made M cry harder. I left her to pick up 9 more things and invited J to the dining room for a conversation.
Me: M’s having a hard time with this whole cleaning thing. Let’s be supportive.
J: It’s so easy, though. Why is it such a big deal?
Me: It’s a challenge for her. She feels overwhelmed.
J: It’s a challenge for me too! I like challenges!
Me: You have an easier time with challenges than M. She gets worried easily, so I need to help her contain her worries.
J: Challenges are good. Challenges are how I grow up. If I had no challenges in my life, I would still be a little baby.
Me: I agree. Facing challenges helps us learn. This is one way that you and your sister are different. Challenges frighten her, so it’s harder for her to learn from them. Let’s not make her feel worse than she already does.
For those of you with younger kids, you should know that J’s self-awareness is atypical for 7-year-olds. You can certainly have discussions of this sort with the average 7-year-old, but most of them will not look at cleaning their rooms as learning experience without some serious guidance.
I returned to M’s room, where she was back in her bed, crying.
M: I picked up 10 things, but I just can’t handle it. There’s no way I can finish.
Me: We’re similar in that we can both think too much. When I had to clean the dining room, I overwhelmed myself by trying too hard to plan. When I just started, without worrying about the end, it got all cleaned up. Does that sound familiar?
M: But I can’t just stop thinking.
Me: I know. Just think and do. Don’t just think. Go pick up 10 more things.
M: I can’t. I just can’t.
Me: You can.
M: This is a too big challenge.
Whoa. How’d she know what J and I had been talking about?
M: I’m not J. She’s better at challenges because she’s more used to challenges. She has more challenges than me.
Me: Like what?
M: This is too hard.
Me: What challenges does J face that you don’t?
M: Um. Uh. I don’t know. None.
Me: I know it feels overwhelming, but facing challenges now will make it easier to face challenges that come later on. Tell you what. Read a book chapter to calm yourself down. Then put away 10 things. Then read again. You can do this.
Thirty minutes later, she asked for my help again, but she’d made discernible progress. I helped her finish up. I praised her plenty, but refused to agree that her space was cleaner than J’s. I reminded her that J had cleaned the entire common area without help and deserved her thanks.
Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.