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Can't You Guys Tidy Up?!

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Isn't there some way we can imbue our children with a neatness gene?

When my children were younger they used to love listening to a music tape that was all about improving various character traits (humorously done of course). There were songs about jealousy, being satisfied with what you have, not making fun of others and cleaning the house. My children knew all the words to all the songs and happily sang along -- very loudly.

After a particularly rousing version of the song about cleanliness, I decided to ask them a question (grown-ups are always spoiling the fun!). "Does this song affect your desire to clean your room?"

A Martian would not have been met by more puzzled stares. "Of course not," they chorused.

Which brought me to an important discovery. All the songs, charts, and rewards, and conversely ? the yelling, screaming and punishments, do not imbue our children with a neatness gene. In general (as with most things) all we can do is set an example and hope (and pray) for the best.

While we may out of necessity assign certain chores, the doing of said tasks does not extrapolate to a generalized desire to sweep and straighten every room in the house. But the time does come (although it may be far down the road) when they take responsibility because it's important to them (or their roommates), because they want to.

I've learned a few lessons about neatness and organization in children as I've traversed this parenting journey.

1. Some children are just naturally neat. They are incapable of functioning in a messy environment and may even be compulsive about their need for order. It's not something they were taught (I can teach them strategy but not desire); it's who they are. These children may have frequent conflicts with their messier siblings.

2. Some children are just naturally messy. Neatness is not a trait they value. As long as it doesn't impinge on their ability to get something done or find what they need, there is little point in struggling with them.

3. Most children will rise to the occasion. If a parent is under the weather, if cleaning help is out sick, if a special guest is arriving imminently, everyone with pitch in (often without being asked) to clean up.

4. Housecleaning is not a sophisticated skill. When the time comes (college, seminary, marriage), most of our children will master the basic tasks of doing laundry, bed making and perhaps even branch out to vacuuming and cooking. We have not let them down by not spending hours inspecting their hospital corners.

Kids need to participate in household chores because we need help and because it's good for their character. But busy parents can relax. Even if the songs don't inspire them, when the need is there, we discover they've actually learned more than we realized.

There are big issues to fight over, and cleaning the house is not one of them. Besides, fighting about it won't make a difference anyway. So let's remove that issue from the battlefield, and instead make sure you have one closet where you can dump the mess when guests or in-laws are due.

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