Kids are not Little Adults
Updated: Jun 23
In my young years as a parent, I took on my parent’s attitudes and demeanor without much question of their effectiveness. Sure, for some things, I thought I’m not going to THAT to my kids; but the general underlying delivery through my words—oh my words—which produced the long-familiar sting that pierced through my tone, the glare and probably a pointing finger. I don’t think I pointed at them, but I know I pointed at something. (I remember my mom pointing and shaking her finger at my sister and me.) When it came to chores, I was overly critical of my children's performance and had general expectations that once a child is shown how to do something a few times, they can execute it as well as I could.
Sixteen years ago, my then fifteen-year-old was cleaning the bathroom. It had double sinks and basic 4 x 4 ceramic tile (white with golden-brown speckles) on the bottom-half of the walls with the typical round towel holder containing a plush-green hand towel that matched the green and burgundy rugs, shower curtain and wallpaper on the upper half above the tile. My method, which I had shown her a couple times, was to use cleaning products, which happen to contain bleach, with an old washcloth on the faucet, sink and counter; rinse and then use the green towel hanging there to dry and polish the sinks and faucets; then, toss it into the hamper and put a new towel in the holder. Not sure how others do it, but this seemed reasonable to me. Except, I have a little more background knowledge about this situation.
I experienced a shock-wave of anger when I retrieved a towel from the laundry that had bleach streaks on it. To be sure that I maintained control over the situation, I asked her to show me how she cleaned the sinks. As it turns out, she missed a simple step--rinsing. Apparently she did not know what bleach does to fabric (or even that bleach was an ingredient) which caused a towel to be ruined. I failed to see anything simple here nor felt anything resembling empathy within me. I corrected her with a harsh tone, when I could have just said, "You know, we are going to keep some cleaning and drying cloths under the sink to use instead of the fancy towel hanging on the wall."
Another day, I happened upon the bathroom where she had just cleaned. She opened the door just beaming, pleased with her accomplishment. Naturally, I looked around, and noticed a spot that she had missed which was probably either behind the door or someplace that wasn’t jumping out saying wash me! I reflect on this moment in horror—not because of the minutely dusty tile, but because that spot was the only place in that room which I paid attention to. My words about this spot poked into her—deflating her pride and confidence. I wasn’t paying attention to her; and that is where my focus should have been.
When children perform a task, they are viewing it from a different perspective. Even if they miss the mark a little, they often don't even see it. We are the ones that see it, and we don't need to share that information with them at this time. I now know that after years of practice, a teen will learn enough cleaning skills and be proficient enough to manage their own place someday. Teaching housework isn’t about the results at the moment, but of the efforts and mini-successes that build feelings of accomplishments. It only takes a minute (when they are not looking, of course) to tidy up the spots if it really is that important to me the picky adult. Heck, this was the upstairs family bathroom that wouldn’t even be seen by guests. I am so glad that I have now grown and evolved in my thinking.
This week, my eldest daughter’s family moved into their new home with lots of cleaning to be done. I gave my teen grandchild a choice: either clean the bathroom on her own, or she could help the rest of us (her mom, me, and her two younger brothers) wash walls, blinds and windows in the living room. She chose the bathroom. Her mom said to clean it top to bottom and I chimed with agreement. She did a decent job on the typical things that are done when cleaning a bathroom. However, she missed a few things, like scrubbing every inch of the cabinets, including the glides of the drawers—metal rails with small wheels—and taking a toothbrush to the hinges and corners, even in the way back. The floor tile grout was stained and needed intense scrubbing with a brush instead of a wipe of a mop. So, I praised her, and we all moved on to other rooms.
Then another day, she was busy doing something else, so I finished up the cabinets and the floor, and that was that. This time my poking words were only within my mind as a remembrance of a lesson that I had learned when her mom was her age. I later used humor with my granddaughter to make a point of cleaning in general. I had wiped the walls in the hallway, I thought I got everything, but I looked at the trim around the bathroom door that still had cobwebs and said to her, I took the opportunity to say, “Just so you know, that someday, when you get your own place, if I see lots of cobwebs, I am going to tell you, 'come on, let’s do some cleaning.'" This had a much better effect than saying my first thought based on what my mom might have said years ago: I better not see this kind of dirt in your house when you grow up. She looked at the dusty cobweb, and we both laughed; then I wiped down the spot, I mean cobwebs, and I was quite pleased with myself.
I notice that my eldest daughter picked up on some of my unhealthy habits from my younger parenting years when dealing with her teen. I want to say to her that its okay if what her kids do isn’t perfect. I want to say, do chores with them if they aren’t moving quite as fast to get started. I want to say, speak to them as you talk to your friends with kindness and empathy; there is no need for threats of punishment. Instead turn it around to a positive: tell them what they will be able to do when it is finished. For example: After you clean the dishes, we can spend some time together, you can play your video-game, or you can have a piece of gum. I also recommend a token board reward system as described in an earlier blog-post, Token Board Basics which helps motivate kids—primarily those with special needs.
My other children had their own timetable of when they learned how to clean things around the house, and that’s okay. When I see younger kids in my friend’s families doing more at earlier ages, I must remind myself that each family is different, and each child is different. Just because I did a bunch of chores at an early age, doesn’t mean my kids are going to follow the same path. One thing that I know is, eventually, when they are on their own, they will figure out that if something is dirty and they don't want it to be dirty anymore, they can google it to see what to do about it. Or they can call me, and I will be happy to talk them through it. And if by chance that call comes,
instead of putting holes in their confidence,
I will be sure to only poke a little fun
with some corny mom jokes.
--Nancy Roop received a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Oakland University in April 2020. She researched developmental psychology, linguistics and reading education while studying creative non-fiction writing. She supported students who have autism for nearly ten years. She founded Developmental Texts and is currently writing her first book, The Aquarium with Alex the Storyteller. Its about a fifth-grade student who is passionate about writing stories for peers on the autism spectrum: real world, relatable and relevant.