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Coexisting With Kids in an Untidy World

June 03, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

"Whose mess is that?"

On the television screen, brownish-black glop laps against the rocky Alaska shore.

On the floor in front of the set, there's a sea of cut-up magazines.

My two children, mesmerized by the images of devastation on the screen, ignore my question.

"Whose mess is that?" I repeat, trying my best to bellow.

They look up, obviously wondering whether I've lost my mind.

"It's Exxon's, Mom," says my son.

"Not that mess," I say. "That mess!" I point toward the paper scraps at my feet.

"Oh," says my daughter, scrambling to tidy up. "I was going to pick it up in just a few minutes."

"That's funny. I know of an oil company that said the same thing."

No birds or fish or sea lions will ever die because of a messy house--ours or anyone else's. But I want my children to grow up understanding that in any shared living area, indoors or out, rented, owned or just passing through, we all must be responsible for picking up after ourselves.

Some places are better than others for teaching that lesson. At the beach, for example, the kids have spent whole afternoons picking up not only their trash but all the stray cans and bottles they could find, not because of my prompting but simply out of respect for the natural wonder of the place. But at Disneyland, where white-uniformed workers with brooms and dustpans stand ready to catch every crumb and wrapper, we all tend to feel a little less responsible.

But home is the best place to make the point. It's possible, if not always easy, to walk away from messes made elsewhere. At home, however, somebody has to clean it up or everybody has to live with the consequences.

Some moms I'm acquainted with are just like those guys at Disneyland, swooping in to clear away toys and books and dirty socks almost the moment they're abandoned. Not me. From the time my children were in preschool, I've insisted that they pick up after themselves, even if it meant guiding their tiny hands with my own.

Even with emergencies such as milk spills, when I had to rush and couldn't take time for teaching, I made them get involved, fetching towels, wiping a few strokes even after all traces of the spill were gone, just so they could see the results of their actions, even when it was "just an accident."

Back then, that was more work than doing the job myself, but nearly a decade later--the kids are 13 and 11 now--my investment is paying off.

My house still isn't as immaculate as those other mothers' homes; I wouldn't feel comfortable without at least a little clutter. But most of the time, the kids pick up after themselves without prompting, whether it's the dinner dishes or the flotsam from an arts-and-crafts project.

Even when someone does need a reminder, it's as likely to come from one of them as it is from me. "Mom? Are you finished with this pizza? Then would you please pick up your dish? Thank you."

And they've learned that preventing messes is much easier than cleaning them up. They open soup cans over the sink. Last week, they learned that the same principle applies to the pencil sharpener as well.

Some messes, however, can't be blamed on a single individual. The stove gets grimy, the carpet needs vacuuming, the bathroom sink has to be scrubbed. For those, the group approach seems to work best, at least for our family.

With the areas of the house that aren't shared, however, it's a different story. One of the best handy hints I ever got from one of those parent instruction manuals was about cleaning children's rooms. "If your child's messy room bothers you, close the door," the book said.

Still, there are parents who go into their children's rooms daily to tidy up.

But don't tell the kids that because the most effective method I've found to get them to clean their rooms--better than bribery or cajoling--is to threaten to do it for them.

Then there's my own room, possibly the world's best example of the "do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do" school of parenting. It's in perfect order at least once a week. But the rest of the time . . . well, I'm grateful that the kids are so busy with homework that they can't seriously threaten to clean it for me.

At least I know where everything is. It's in that pile over there. Or maybe that one over there. . . .

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