Monday, July 22, 2013

My Creative Parenting Solution and How It Failed

My girls do not like to clean their room. Shocking, I know. But last week, when I sent them to their room to clean it, they were even worse than usual. After two hours of whining and "cleaning," their room still looked like this:

I particularly like the snow boots lying around in July. 

I had been warning them all summer that if they did not clean up when I asked them to, I was going to take away their stuff. This was the day I would follow through.

My sister had told me about a friend of hers who devised a creative punishment for her daughter's disrespectful behavior. She took away all the clothing from her fashion-loving girl except for a t-shirt and a pair of sweat pants. Her daughter could earn back her clothes piece by piece, with good behavior. It worked. 

The secret parenting grapevine has given me many good ideas. I thought this could be another one.

So I calmly (well, mostly calmly) informed the girls that refusing to clean their room yet again had triggered these draconian measures. I would pack up all their clothes and toys. They would be allowed one shirt, one pair of pants, one pair of shoes, and one toy for two weeks. (No restrictions on underpants. I am not crazy.)

This is the point where I should have heard ominous background music.

First of all, my kids have a lot of stuff. Four kids, even after I keep their clothes pared down to only the things they like to wear, still have piles of clothes. I knew it would take me days to pack it all away. But it was worse: to pack it all away, I would first have to make space in my storage areas.  So now I was into a task that would take days.

It would be worth it if it worked, and they learned to clean their room. The kids have actually improved this summer at keeping the common areas of the house clean.  We started a weekly Bible study at our house this summer, and are keeping things more orderly for it. Because cleaning the living room and dining room is a less difficult task, the kids have been cheerful and useful when it needs to be done. I wanted to see them master this for their bedroom too.

When the four-year-old saw her empty closet, she cried. She loves her pretty dresses, and sobbed because she believed I was giving them all away, like I do with the clothes she outgrows. I explained to her that she would get her dresses back when she shows me she can keep her room clean. At that, she stopped crying and stopped caring.

The other girls were a little upset at first, but quickly found the bright side. "We'll be just like cartoons!" exclaimed the six-year-old. "They wear the same outfit every day too!"

Uh-oh. This was not really working out as a punishment.

But the worst was the toys. I thought allowing them only one toy for two weeks would be the part they hated most. Instead, they spent a blissful hour as a group, discussing the finer points of their toys, and which one qualified as their one, true, best-beloved. They luxuriated in this. The kids seems to believe that the conditions I had set had finally allowed them to give their favorite toy the accolades it deserved. At last, their favorite would understand how much they really loved it. And it was all thanks to Mommy's great idea.

At bedtime the first night, the kids took off their one outfit and handed it to me in exchange for a nightgown. I had had the foresight to make sure their outfits could all be sorted in a single load of laundry. But this still meant I had to wash, dry and fold them each night before I went to bed. And this was on top of the big new task I had given myself of packing away everything else. More work for me, when I rarely keep up with all my regular work.

The next day went on much as the first. Their closets were cleaned out, but I still had a mound of dirty clothes I'd picked off their floor, and nowhere to put them once they were washed. At bedtime the second night, the kids cheerfully handed me their clothes. "I like this!" said the eight-year-old. "It's so much easier."


By day three, my commitment to this project was lagging. To make it work, I really needed to be supervising a brief cleaning of the bedroom each day, but I was too swamped. We planned to go swimming this day with grandma too, so now I had to find the swimsuits in the clothes I had folded. I was pulling out the swimsuits when the worst happened.

A stomach virus hit.

I will spare you the horrifying details. I will just say that with only one pair of pants, and all the others packed away, my children began to... uh... desperately need to change their clothes. The trip to the bathroom stretched to twenty-six miles long, and my girls were running that marathon several times an hour. Sometimes unsuccessfully. I dragged the top-bunk mattresses onto the bedroom floor (at least there was room now) so that precious seconds were not wasted climbing down the ladder on the way to the Room of Necessity.

My most loathed household task is unnecessary laundry. Washing clothes the children leave on the floor for days without ever having worn it makes me howl in frustration. Now I was in the world of frantically necessary laundry.  Those single favorite toys now needed the washing machine too ("he's going to the spa!").

Now here we are, one week into our experiment, and I think we can all pronounce it a failure. The little kids are running around in their underwear, and the big girls are fending for themselves with whatever they can find from the dryer. The virus appears to be done with us, but not all the children have had it, so I am nervous about taking them out of the house. There was very little warning last time it struck.

So my plan has not worked. They have not learned to keep order in their room. But I think they have learned that they don't need as much stuff as they thought they did. When I look at how they clean the common areas, I realize that they work more diligently at that because they have hope they can finish it. The task is accomplishable. Their room has so much junk, cleaning it feels overwhelming.

So when I throw in the towel this week and put all their stuff back, I am not putting it all back. They don't need as many clothes as they have. I am simplifying even more to something they can manage.

But until I find the time to do that, the only orderly kids' bedroom I have will be on Pinterest.
No one lives in this room.


  1. Wait a second. Are you saying you wash your children's clothing after each wearing? At the start of this post I was thinking of my parents' stories of how they grew up with two outfits: one for weekdays and one for Sunday. I'm not sure exactly how that worked for laundry - do you have some old grubbies you wear solely on laundry day? Do you wear your Sunday best when your week-day clothes are in the wash? In any case, what I'm saying is that I did a load of kids' laundry on Saturday and when I went to put the clothes away I realized I did not have single pair of shorts in that load for Colin - lots of socks, underwear and pajamas, plus a single t-shirt (that he had loaned to a visiting friend after a water-gun-fight), but other than that, no clothes at all. And I only do kids' laundry once every two or three weeks. And you know what? I'm not even worried about it ... his clothes are still passing the smell test, they show no visible stains, and it's the summer ... we're already treating the swimming pool as the substitute for bath-time anyway. (So while the original intent of this comment was to encourage you to do less laundry, I'm now thinking I've moved into cautionary tale territory.)

    1. I suppose I don't have to make them wear clean clothes every day. Some days I don't. But I generally let them make whatever sartorial choices they want, and somehow that means I want them to be clean. The kid in clean clashing patterns, unmatching socks, rain boots, a hat and a cape looks like a creative kid. The kid in the same outfit with paint dribbles, grass-stained knees, a torn collar and an ink smear looks unloved. But maybe that's only my insecurities speaking.

  2. Well, I throw clothes in the wash if there are visible stains. Grass stains, on the other hand, remain visible after SEVERAL washings.

  3. I went through something similar with my daughter (10 yo) this summer. I never ended up taking away all her stuff-- but I was sorely tempted! Eventually the solution was, I realized, to reduce the amount of stuff and re-organize the entire room to make it easier to keep everything in order. I know from my own experience that once I find An Order to an area, it's easier to KEEP it in order. If that makes any sense...

  4. Oh this made me laugh and groan at the same time! I've tried creative ways to get my daughter to keep her room clean--all to no avail. She's 16 now, and we've taken to keeping her permanently grounded if we can't see the floor! ;)

    I used to take toys away, but like you, it was always more bother than it was worth. Kids are smart.

  5. Blogger still has an insatiable appetite for comments, I see. It just ate mine. ;-)

    Are we ready to laugh at this yet? Technically it's too late, but I won't tell you how much I laughed if you're not ready to hear it.

    Also, Sharon's writing again! SHARON IS WRITING AGAIN! I knew all those months of stalking your blog would pay off!

    Good to hear your writing voice again!