We Can Teach Kids This Important Life Lesson When They’re Babies

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It has been said that every life lesson we need to know, we learn in kindergarten: Keep your hands and feet to yourself. Be kind with your words and actions. Follow instructions. Wait your turn to speak.

But there is an even more important lesson that we teach — or should teach — our children long before they ever set foot in an elementary school. The moment our children’s sweet fumbling hands are able to grasp a toy and release it, we can begin instilling this lesson, the most important lesson of all, every bit as important as the other most important lesson of kindergarten, “Be kind.”

The lesson is: If you make a mess, you clean it.

For babies, this looks like putting toys back in the toy box. For little kids, it looks like helping to wipe up the spilled milk from the cup they just knocked over. For tweens, it looks like cleaning their own room and pitching in with household chores. For teens, it looks like paying for the overages on their phone or staying up late to complete extra credit for the algebra class they flaked in.

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It sounds simplistic and even obvious, but there is so much more than “cleaning a space” behind this critical message. The point is the “you” in the message. If you make a mess, you clean it. It is a message of accountability.

As adults, we must clean up the messes we make, be they literal or psychological or financial. If we break something, we must take steps to repair it. If we hurt someone, we must do what we can to heal that relationship. If we are careless and overdraw our bank accounts or go too far into debt, we must repay the balance. We must clean up the messes we make.

If we don’t, at worst we are punished for the messes we leave behind. We could be fined, loved ones may leave us, or we may have to live with the consequences of our lack of initiative. At best, our reputation could suffer — we could be seen as unreliable, flaky, careless, and lazy. Loved ones may not leave us, but they may only tolerate us. Who wants to hang around someone who doesn’t clean up after themselves, be it literal or figurative messes?

My teenage son still leaves a trail of detritus behind him everywhere he goes. He’s done it since toddlerhood, and since his toddlerhood I’ve been the nagging mother, refusing to wipe up his trail of crumbs. “I’m not your housekeeper,” I tell him, “but even if we had a housekeeper, I’d still make you clean your own mess.” He made the mess so he should clean it. I estimate the lesson has been received at about 25% at this point, but I’m not giving up. So help me god, this child will not leave my house believing a magic fairy tidies up when he can’t be bothered to pick up after himself.

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My real fear with my kids’ leaving a mess is that it can stem from, imply, or foster a sense of entitlement. It’s like being late — it puts others in a position of having to adapt to your lack of concern for others. I don’t want my kids to bring that subtle sense of entitlement with them into adulthood. I want them to know that if they were capable of making a mess, they are damn well capable of cleaning it too.

Because the clean your mess rule isn’t about things, not really. It’s not always to do with trash or an abandoned sink full of dishes or a room that doesn’t have all its contents in their proper place. It’s about leaving a space better than you found it. Yes, sometimes this even means cleaning up messes you didn’t make to help others out. Sometimes it is necessary to recognize our privilege and help others who are unable or still learning to help themselves. It may mean putting in the extra effort to model this behavior for those willing to learn. Or it may mean picking up a mess made by someone with physical, emotional, or mental challenges. The point is, we all must take responsibility for our environments, and sometimes that means teaching or helping others to do the same. Sometimes it means doing more than our share because it is the right thing to do.

So we will pick up litter we find on the ground at the park even though someone else made that mess. But if my son neglects to check whether he had homework for the week and misses an important assignment and freaks the hell out about his grade, that’s his mess, and he must clean it up himself. I will not be emailing his teacher. The only emotional labor I’m willing to do in this scenario is to ensure he sends the email asking for a redo or extra credit himself. And if the teacher isn’t willing to put in extra labor on their part to help my son fix his mistake, we have to respect their right not to have to clean up my son’s mess.

But though kids are seen as the messiest of humans, no one makes bigger messes than adults, and too many adults can’t be bothered to clean up the messes they’ve made. But imagine if everyone who made a mess took the responsibility for cleaning it up. Imagine how good the world could be if we could clean up our environment, fix the gun problem in this country, repair our broken healthcare system, admit that institutionalized racism exists and clean that up.

If you make a mess, you clean it. It is the life lesson of all life lessons. It’s about taking accountability for one’s actions, big and small. And it’s a lesson we can and should teach our children from the moment they have the capacity to drop a toy in a box.