The other day, my 9-year-old son had a playdate after school. This meant three boys locked in our den, playing video games, tossing a ball around, eating snacks, and acting like jackasses (cute ones, but still). After everyone left, I walked into the den and almost had a heart attack. The room smelled like dirty socks and Cheez Doodles. Couch cushions were sticking out, pillows were on the rug, a cup of water was overturned on the coffee table, and snack bags littered the floor.
“Hey, you,” I said to my son, “you can’t leave the den like this!”
“Uh,” he said, “I’m tiiiiired.”
“Tired from playing video games for two hours with your friends?”
“Yeah?” he said, flashing me that winning smile that usually turns me into a puddle of mommy-goo.
I knew he was tired. School days are long, and he still had homework ahead of him. And I know that his playdates are important and give him immense joy. Even if the boys are playing video games for most of the time, they’re chatting, bonding, making jokes, letting loose in a way they can’t during the school day. And the messes they make are normal and expected of young boys.
But I realized, too, that all I was doing was making a million excuses for my son. And, at 9 years old, it is damn well time for him to grow up and take responsibility around the house, especially for the messes he himself creates.
It is not that he does nothing around here. He has a list of responsibilities, and he takes care of them. Well, mostly. Sometimes I have to ask him a million times to put his clothes in the laundry, to clear the table, or straighten up his room. Sometimes we fight about it. Usually he’ll eventually follow through, but sometimes—more often than I would like to admit—I just end up cleaning up after him.
The things I ask him to do aren’t very hard, but often it’s a lot faster and more efficient for me to just do them myself. I know this is a bad habit. I should win the “Worst Mother of the Year Award” for it.
I wonder if I would act this way if I was the mom of girls, not boys. As liberated as I am, am I giving my boys a free pass because somewhere buried in my psyche is the notion that boys just aren’t expected help out at home? I mean, I don’t believe this for one second intellectually, but I wonder if I would treat a daughter differently—or if she would have gotten the message from society at an early age that pitching in is to be expected of her.
Whatever the case, I’m done. I’m done making excuses for my boys. I’m done picking up the slack. Yes, it may be quicker and easier just to pick their crap up off the floor for them. If might be easier to place their breakfast dishes in the sink instead of fighting with them at 8:05 a.m. when we’re already late for school.
But I’ve got to start being consistent and unwavering—because it’s not just about now. It’s about how my boys will grow up. It’s about teaching them how to be good men, the kind who will help their partners at home without being asked. The kind who will take equal responsibility and make their partners feel supported and strong. I’m glad to have a husband who is this way, and I’ll be damned if I don’t raise my boys to be the same.
Most importantly, if I stay in the role that I’ve been in—frankly, of being their servant—this is how they will view motherhood; this is how they will view women. I want them to feel nurtured and loved, but I want them to see me—and women in general—as strong, badass people who ask for what they want, and don’t bend or break under the slightest pressure.
It ended up not taking much for my son to listen to me and clean up the den. As soon as I saw those moans of protest, I told him the straight-up truth. Instead of threatening to take away his screen time the next day if he didn’t comply (or some other empty threat), I looked him right in the eye and told him that this wasn’t just about the cluttered, smelly den. This was about him growing up to be a good man, one who doesn’t leave all the housework to his partner.
“You’ve got to man up,” I told him, playfully punching him in the shoulder. And somehow—maybe it was the fist-pumping or the fire beaming out of my eyes—he listened. He cleaned up the den without putting up a fight. And when I checked afterwards and found an empty bag of chips he hadn’t seen tucked behind the TV, I stopped myself from just throwing it away. I made him march right back in and pick it up.
Then, because I couldn’t help myself and I really am a mush, I covered him in mommy-kisses and thanked him for being such a good boy.
I’m hoping (no, I’m insisting!) that I will consistently make my boys take responsibility around here. It’s not enough to raise smart, sweet, or kind boys. It’s not enough to raise boys who understand in theory that they are supposed to help. No, what we need to do is raise boys who make it a practice to pitch in at home, who do so without asking, and who view themselves as equal parts of the household.
We owe it to ourselves, our boys, their future partners—and of course, our messy houses.
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