Her bedroom looked as if it had had its lid removed and its contents stirred with a spoon. A giant, preschooler-shaped spoon.
Every toy she owned peppered the carpeted landscape and she stood in the middle of it all, staring with worry at my bulging eyes and gaping mouth.
The massive destruction she’d caused made my insides curl up and whimper. Cleaning up the mess would require painful amounts of effort on my part, I was sure. Because this was no random occurrence in our home. This was a repeat performance.
For weeks, my preschooler and I had been in an ongoing battle of wills. She made messes so large that they could reasonably be called disasters, while I stood by dictating the cleanup of each wayward item and she firmly refused every direction. But weeks of fighting had yielded few results other than anger and frustration.
I considered the idea that we simply had too many toys, and while that may be true, it’s also true that I should be able to expect my daughter to learn how to pick up after herself.
I’d tried simple explanations like, “If you put back one toy before you get another one, you’ll have less work to do later.” She had nodded her head as if she understood the wisdom exactly, but at the end of playtime, the room would be in upheaval.
I’d tried confiscating the toys she refused to clean up: she simply did not care. The box I’d allocated for ‘lost toys’ was overflowing and I still ended up being the one to pick them up off the floor. It felt like a step backwards. Like I was cleaning her room for her.
I’d tried watching over her as she played, making sure to remind her about putting away one toy before choosing another, but after several days of this, she still wouldn’t do it without immediate supervision. I had daydreams of following her through her adult life, telling her exactly what to do at each crossroads.
Although the sight of a disastrous bedroom drives a little piece of my brain towards insanity, the situation will only be temporarily solved if I keep resorting to controlling each of her actions while she either plays or cleans. And since my forcing her into it with anger was only making our afternoons miserable, I made the choice to back off.
No, she doesn’t get off the hook for the messes she makes. She is still responsible for her actions just as I am responsible for my reactions. I can choose not to stand over her, becoming more and more frustrated with the mess-making or room-cleaning process.
Instead, after I replaced my bulging eyes into their sockets, I smiled benignly and said, “Wow, it looks like you had a wonderful playtime today! As soon as this is all put back neatly, you can come out and have a snack with us.” Then I turned around and went about my business. Without demands or force or anger.
And two hours later, after much whining and grumpiness on her part, she came out for snack time. Which had turned into dinner time.
With any luck, she’ll learn to understand the wisdom behind not making giant messes in the first place, or start cleaning up peacefully without refusals and tantrums.
Either way, I won’t let her messy room steal my serenity; I need all I can get.