Your Kids Are More Competent Than You Think

Photo by Lars Plougmann via Flickr

Mere hours after my oldest son left, his brothers had dismantled his bed, carried the cedar chest up to the attic, un-stacked the bunk beds and moved one of the formerly-bunked beds into what was quickly becoming my oldest son’s former bedroom.

My son attends college in Nashville and has announced that he plans to stay there for the summer. I’d insisted on keeping his room “his” after he moved out, but when he was home on Spring Break, his brothers asked him if they could take over his turf.

He said yes, and they wasted no time in getting to work.

I knew the change was afoot, but I never could have anticipated the speed and intensity with which my children would attack this project!  They started while I was down in my office, working. When I went back upstairs an hour or so later — to check on the kids, because it so quiet that I actually wondered if they’d left for their dad’s house without saying good-bye — I found the boys  working together to move rooms. They’d made major progress already and showed no signs of slowing down. And they weren’t fighting!

Mind you, these are the same children that throw a fit when I ask them to empty the dishwasher. The same ones who try to pawn dishwasher-emptying off onto another brother — often, by offering cash. These are the kids whose dirty clothes and wet towels frequently grace my bathroom floor, who leave food and plates and cups in my living room and everywhere else, and who quite literally let their trash pile up in my van. Children who need to be reminded after every single meal to PUT THEIR DISHES IN THE DISHWASHER, despite the fact that’s been the rule and routine from day one.

My boys are 19, 16, 14 and 11, and for the most part, they’re competent kids. They get their school work done, and each of them works for money as well. And for the most part, I am the antithesis of a helicopter parent; I let my kids do and try things, and draw a pretty clear line between their responsibilities and mine.

But this bedroom switcheroo made me realize that I may have mistakenly put too many things under “my responsibilities,” and entrusted them with too few.

Like most moms everywhere,  I tell my boys that they’re responsible for cleaning up their own messes — but when they don’t do it, I often clean up after them.  I get sick of looking at the food wrappers in the living room, and because I know that dried on oatmeal is hard to scrub off, I soak the oatmeal bowls that have been left on the counter (on top of the dishwasher!), rinse them out and load them in the dishwasher. I hang the wet towels up to dry in the bathroom and put the dirty boxers in the laundry hamper.

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but all of those activities take time out of my day — time I could use to work and make money, to learn and create or to nurture relationships.

Plus, I HATE cleaning up, and the fact that I was spending minutes each day — which adds up to hours each week — cleaning up after them while they relax, text and play games gets on my nerves and creates resentment. But until the Great Bedroom Switcheroo of 2017, I never realized that my propensity to pick up the slack was actually short-changing my kids. See, the Switcheroo  taught me two important, related things:

#1: My boys are far more capable than I thought. If you had asked me, a week or even days before the Switcheroo, if my kids could accomplish it independently, I would have said no. I would have predicted that they’d fight and argue, that the task at hand would require hours of my help and that the boys would eventually lose interest, leaving me with a mess to clean up.

It’s now been two weeks since the Switcheroo started. In that time, my 14 and 11 year old have seriously deep cleaned their rooms — they threw out trash, swept up mouse droppings and scrubbed floors.  They dusted and vacuumed, and carefully packed up their older brothers’ belongings and stored them neatly in the attic. They’ve taken down and re-hung shelves, and spent hours rearranging furniture. I haven’t done a thing other than admire their efforts. They haven’t asked me to either.

Trying to understand this phenomenon led me to realization #2: If something is important to them, they’ll find a way to get it done.

At 11, 14 and 16, my boys each have a deep need for privacy and a desire for a personal sanctuary. They are very different people and each is looking forward to maintaining and decorating his room in the way that fits his personality, lifestyle and interests. They’re pouring hours of effort into this projects because it’s important to them.

Now, there’s obviously a big difference between setting up a bedroom that will soon be yours and daily drudgery, such as emptying the dishwasher. Yet as many times as I’ve told my children, “Dishes don’t clean up themselves!”, thetruth is the dirty dishes they left scattered around the house did eventually disappear, and reappear in the cupboard, all clean & shiny. The laundry and towels they left laying on the bathroom floor in the morning were almost never there when they returned home from school. Neither were the empty oatmeal packets still on the counter, where they’re left them.

The Great Bedroom Switcheroo was visible evidence of my kids’ competence, strength and ability to persevere– and led me to wonder if perhaps I hadn’t been doing them (and me!) a disservice by simply taking on so much responsibility for the house and family. So when the toilet overflowed, I let the wet towels remain on the floor. 

My 16-year-old had tossed the towels into the mess and headed out to dinner, as planned, with his girlfriend. I discovered the wet towels when I tried to use the bathroom. Every single bathoom towel was on the floor, sopping wet.

I let the towels lay.

When my son returned home, I told him he had to put the towels in the washing machine and start it. In typical teenager fashion, he told me that’s exactly what he was going to do — except now that I’d told him to, he wasn’t going to.

I let the towels lay. I knew that we had no clean towels in the house and that my 16-year-old has a habit of showering before school.

I stepped over toilet-water soaked towels and went on about my day.

By the end of the night, the towels were in the washing machine, washed. By morning, they were dry.

I know it’s not easy for most moms – who were raised in a culture that equates cleanliness with goodliness, and still places the bulk of responsibility for the home on women’s shoulders — to leave messes alone for an extended period of time. It’s not easy to step back long enough to let our sons take responsibility. But that’s exactly what our sons need us to do. Boys like to feel confident and capable. They like doing real things, like moving furniture and hanging shelves. And while no one really likes cleaning up toilet water-soaked towels, how can we expect our children to confidently handle toilet explosions as adults if we clean up the mess every single time? If we want to raise children who know how to problem-solve as adults, we need to let them solve problems while they’re still at home.

Want to do your boys –and yourselves — a favor? Back off. Let them do more than you think they can. Stop rescuing them. Let them struggle and problem-solve on their own, before you offer help. (How long you wait will depend on your child and his age.) Allow them to tackle real-world projects that are important to them. Provide them with the necessary tools and time and space to learn, experiment and make mistakes.

All of this “doing nothing” is harder than it looks, for it requires you to step back from a lifetime of social programming. It’s so much easier for most of us to swoop in  — but that’s not what our kids need.

The next time you’re tempted to step in, stop. Pause. Step back. Come over here and re-read this post, or head over to our BuildingBoys Facebook group for encouragement. Share your dilemma; we’ll cheer you on and provide support. Together, we can raise strong, competent boys.

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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