Norah, my five-year-old, was face down on the floor, hand over her stomach, telling me that her “tummy hurts real bad.” On her dresser was a tablet playing Princess Things Radio on Pandora, a sad attempt I always make at getting her to “work to the music.” Most of the time, though, it just makes her dance with stuffed animals, or bitch about the song that’s playing (Monkeys Jumping On The Bed or Can You Feel The Love Tonight) and how it’s “not very princessey”
I was sitting on the edge of Norah’s bed supervising as she cleaned her room. Basically this means I point at things that Norah needs to pick up, tell her where it should go… keep her on task. Cleaning her small room really should’ve only taken about 20 minutes, but we’d been at it for more than an hour.
It was always like this.
“Ohhh…my tummy. I can’t clean anymore,” she said.
This was how I spent most Saturday mornings. Kids cleaning a bedroom is 10% productive, and 90% discovering old toys, fighting to keep garbage, thirst, bitching, and sudden illness. It’s probably the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done. What’s truly remarkable is how quickly my children can make a mess. I knew that before the day was through, Norah’s room would, once again, be well on its way to being a pink mess of toys and clothing. But I suppose what I hated the most about cleaning was how much it made me regurgitate the same crap my parents said. The lines I hated so much, but now seem so appropriate.
“Norah,” I said. “Isn’t that convenient. We start cleaning and suddenly you’re dying. I don’t buy it. Get up.”
She went on about how it was true. How her tummy hurt really bad, and how if I made her clean, I would be the meanest dad in the history of meanness.
After about three minutes of this crap, I picked her up, set her on her feet, and pointed to a pile of random papers. “Pick those up and put them in the trash.” I said.
She let out a long, agonizing, moan. She was still in her blue Elsa Princess nightgown, but as she sulked over to the pile of papers she didn’t look very royal, rather more like one of Cinderella’s whiny stepsisters.
As Norah made her way to the garbage can with her papers, Tristan, my 7-year-old, came in with a limp. “Dad. I hurt my knee really bad at school yesterday, and now I can’t walk.”
“Really,” I said. “This is the first I’ve heard about it. Why wasn’t it bothering you yesterday?”
It seemed like so much of cleaning bedrooms with children came down to a match of wits. My kids present me with an issue they have with cleaning, illness, sleepiness, thirst, bowel movements, and then I get the pleasure of arguing with them for a good ten minutes about how they still have the power to clean. I always tell them, in my dad voice, that if they spent as much time trying to get out of cleaning as they did actually cleaning, they would be done in a few minutes. And every time I say that, both kids look at me like I’m an old father type with out dated pointless answers about things that don’t really concern them. And the really sad part is, I did the same thing when I was a kid, and my parents told me the same lines, and I always swore that I’d never say stuff like that to my kids. But sure enough, there I was, sharing my wisdom.
“Walk it off,” I said.
He went to take a step, and then fell to the floor, a poor attempt at showing me just how much “pain” he was in.
I’m not sure why cleaning with children has to be this difficult. We’ve tried timers, negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, threats, praise, it doesn’t matter. Every time I say, “It’s clean up time” the kids look at me like an approaching train.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s because Mel and I don’t set the greatest example. I wouldn’t say that we are slobs, but we are not all that clean, either. We are mighty leavers of clutter. We often have piles of random papers on desks and counters, and toys don’t always make it back into cubbies. There are always at least a few dishes in the sink. A spotless house isn’t a huge priority to us, and I think our kids know that. So when I get pissed off about them not cleaning, they probably wonder what the big deal is.
But at the same time, I want my children to know how to work.
When I think about where I learned to work, I think about my grandfather’s farm. We lived next door to it. I spent a lot of time herding cattle and feeding animals. But we don’t have anything like that. I don’t have a list of morning chores for my children that are essential for survival. So I make them clean their rooms, and nag them to do their homework, or pull weeds, or sweep something. I have a strong feeling that most of this seems completely arbitrary to a small child. Working on Grandpa’s farm meant producing food. It was easy to see how practical that was. But my kids don’t understand why a clean room will teach them work ethic, or what that even is. But I know how important hard work is, so I keep up this fight every Saturday. And Mel, my wife keeps it up during the week.
I picked Tristan up from the floor, dragged him back into his room, and pointed at his dresser. Each drawer was open, and clothing was spilling out. “Fix that,” I said.
Then I went back into the kitchen to find Norah sitting at the table sipping on a glass of water.
“I’m just really, really, really thirsty.”
I told her that she’d had enough. She dragged herself back to her room. I nagged Tristan some more. Every couple minutes he’d ask me to check his room, and I’d tell him to pick up this or that, then he’d slump his shoulders, and tell me he needed to poo really bad, or had a headache. After over an hour of this, both kids rooms were not immaculate, but acceptable.
I was too tired to fight them more, so I stood them side by side in the hallway and said something my mother would’ve said, “Doesn’t it feel good to have a clean room?”
Both kids rolled their eyes.
“Thank you for cleaning.”
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.