Whenever the subject of kids’ messy rooms and bathrooms comes up in conversations among parents, I am surprised by the popularity of what is apparently a common solution: Just close the door on it.
Parents say they allow their tweens and teens to have their rooms and bathrooms however they want them. Dirty and clean laundry piled in a heap on the floor, school books and papers strewn about, perhaps a petrifying slice of pepperoni pizza stashed under the bed. They say it’s their kid’s space, so it’s their kid’s responsibility. They say their teens will eventually figure it out, that, as parents, they need to “choose their battles.” I feel that last one pretty hard, honestly. Parenting is exhausting in every possible way, so I get choosing to focus on other issues that feel more pressing. Parents will admit their kids’ messy rooms do stress them out, but they just… can’t. So they simply close the door and don’t look at it.
In theory, this seems fairly reasonable. I didn’t teach either of my kids to tie their shoes, but they did eventually learn from their friends. And I definitely don’t harp on my kids constantly about the state of their spaces. But I will never let either one of their rooms get to the point where I feel the need to close the door on the mess. Call me strict, but I expect my kids to keep a more-or-less tidy space a majority of the time—especially my son. In fact, the main reason I’m strict about my kids keeping their rooms tidy is because I have a son.
Odds are good that someday my son will be someone’s partner. I don’t want him to contribute to the continuing stereotype that men are incapable of seeing or cleaning messes. I don’t want my parental exhaustion to result in his future partner giving me side-eye because it’s abundantly clear my son was not taught how not to be a pig. Many heterosexual married women reading this have probably harbored a negative thought or two about her mother-in-law’s obvious neglect as pertains to having taught her son how to vacuum or properly clean a bathroom or place dirty clothes in a hamper. Too many boys make it to adulthood without the slightest idea of what goes into running a household.
To be clear, the conversations I’ve had with other parents about teens and tweens and their messy rooms aren’t just targeted at boys. Obviously any kid, regardless of gender, can dirty up a room. But when they reach adulthood, when they marry—especially in heterosexual marriages—the burden of maintaining the house too often falls on the woman. Even in marriages where both partners work full-time, statistically, women do the majority of housework and childcare.
I don’t want either my daughter or my son to have to figure out how to clean a space. Sure, they could YouTube how to do it just like I taught myself how to change a ceiling fan with YouTube, but keeping a reasonably clean space isn’t something you learn to do; it’s a habit you cultivate. And if I want both of my kids to cultivate this habit, I can’t just close the door on their messes.
I have to supervise and encourage and offer logical consequences when they don’t do the shit they’re supposed to do. For me, reminding my kids to pick up their rooms has become the same as reminding them to brush their teeth, shower, and do their homework.
I’m not suggesting parents just shout at their kids to clean their rooms and expect it to magically get done. For some kids, cleaning is not an intuitive process. They need to be shown how, often numerous times. My son is like this—he needed to be shown how over and over again. My 10-year-old daughter is one of those anomaly kids who keeps her room clean without prompting. My 14-year-old son would live in a literal pigsty as long as it had WiFi, and he gets overwhelmed when faced with a multi-step task like cleaning a messy room.
So, over the years, I’ve taught him a few different methods for cleaning up his room. I’ve joined him in making his bed and dusting his furniture, taught him how to sort piles of toys into “put away,” “give away,” and “throw away,” and helped him purge the outgrown clothes from his closets. Now, all I have to say is, “No gaming until your room is clean.”
And I don’t make him clean only his own room and the bathroom he shares with his sister. I also make both kids clean up after others. They both fold the family laundry, wash the family dishes, vacuum common areas, and wash the windows. This kind of group work is part of living in a home with others, and I want both my kids, but especially my son, to learn this now, not later from his poor future partner who will fantasize about killing him in his sleep because he’s a lazy shit who doesn’t pitch in.
Clearly, I have an ax to grind here. I’ll own that. I’ve read too many statistics and heard too many complaints from married women about their husbands whose moms never taught or required them to clean. Maybe it’s something I need to discuss with my therapist, or maybe I’m onto something and all parents need to be this vigilant in ensuring their sons develop the habit of participating in the keeping of a house.
I never want my son to be viewed with the same disdain with which I view husbands who don’t do their share of the housework. I never want him to be one of those statistics, or to have his future spouse sneer to a friend about how lazy he is since his mother never made him lift a finger. I want him to develop the habit now of keeping a reasonably clean space. Let his future spouse get annoyed with him for another reason that doesn’t involve latent sexism.