It’s 6 p.m., and my house is covered end to end in toys. Most of the havoc was wreaked by my 4-year-old, who decided it was the perfect day to spill out all his superhero figures, take out his magic set, play “52 pick-up” with a deck of cards, and unload all the art supplies onto the kitchen floor.
And even though he’s been bouncing around like a madman for 45 minutes, at the very moment I ask him to please start cleaning up, he decides he’s exhausted and collapses in a heap on the floor, whining, “Mommy, I’ve never been this tired in my whole entire wife!”
He means “life,” of course. And he’s almost cute enough for me to totally excuse him and just pick up his toys myself. But I stop myself from doing that, because I’ve been under that spell before.
I totally spoiled his older brother, now 9. Luckily, he’s grown up relatively unscathed and (most of the time) the opposite of a spoiled brat. But that’s partly because I’ve had to put my foot down and whip him into shape a little these past few years.
There is a five-year age gap between my kids, so I had the luxury of giving my everything to my first son. It wasn’t that I waited on him hand and foot. I always told him to clean up his toys, take responsibility for his stuff, and generally be as disciplined and obedient as a young child could be expected to be. But at the same time, I let him get away with way too much junk.
For instance, if we’d been in the situation my younger son and I were in this afternoon, I might have begged and pleaded with him to pick up his toys, but when he resisted (he was always a much more strong-willed kid than my second child), I would have come up with some half-assed compromise like, “OK, just pick up three toys, and I’ll do the rest.”
Honestly, a lot of it had to do with the fact that putting away toys and doing other chores is much faster and more efficient when done by a grown-up instead of a slow-as-molasses 5-year-old.
I made up a ton of excuses for my son, too. “Maybe he’s too young for that level of responsibility,” I’d say to myself. Other times I couldn’t listen to his cries and protests, because I was so dang tired and cranky myself, and I just wanted silence and a clean house.
I also believed (incorrectly, I know) that eventually my son would just assume the responsibility on his own, without all my nagging, and actually want a clean and organized house as much as I did.
I was wrong, of course, and a few years ago I started the painful process of making it clear to my son that pitching in at home is not a choice. It’s not something he can do when he feels rested and willing; it’s something that is part of his responsibility as a contributing member of our household.
It was a rude awakening for both of us, and we had to wade through a lot of protests, meltdowns, and unraveling of bad habits. We’re past that stage now, thankfully.
I blame myself more than anyone else for letting him get away with murder for his first few years. So I decided early on that I wasn’t going down that crooked path with my younger son.
As soon as my younger son was able to understand simple directions, I made it clear that I expected him to walk his sticky, yogurt-laden napkin to the trash bin, open up the lid, and put the damn thing inside. And while I helped him clean up his toys to some extent when he was very little, he had to do most of the cleaning himself. “I’m tired” was definitely not a legit excuse.
I’ve had to wade through some protests. For instance, I’ve plugged my ears as he sits in a heap, crying his eyes out while trying to make some complicated case about why he absolutely can’t pick his train tracks off the carpet. But I have not backed down.
When you have more than one kid, you simply don’t have time to clean up all their shit day in and day out. Second kids — and especially third and fourth kids — have absolutely no choice but to pitch in.
But even if you have only one child and all the time in the world to tend to their needs, I urge you not to fall into the trap of leniency when it comes to chores.
Kids absolutely need flexibility sometimes. They should only do chores that are developmentally appropriate for them. And what might feel like a necessary chore to one family may not feel important at all to another. (I sure as hell will not allow LEGOs to cover my living room floor for more than 30 minutes, but I also don’t give a crap if my sink is piled high with dirty dishes.)
But however you do it, don’t make excuses. Don’t try to justify it or take the easy way out. I know it often feels easier to just let them get away with stuff, but think good and hard about the kind of men and women you want your kids to be when they grow up.
I know I want my sons to be good men and partners, and that means they need to know their way around a kitchen, take out the trash without being asked, and make sure they don’t leave their dirty socks all over the bathroom floor.
Believe me, it can sometimes feel 10 times easier to give up or just do it all yourself. But then you risk raising the next generation of spoiled, entitled brats.
So do us all a favor and avoid that at all costs, mkay?