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Why I Finally Stopped Nagging My Son to Clean His Room

I no longer sweat the small stuff.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Alisa Schindler

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It’s barely dawn. Everyone is still asleep and my house almost sighs with contentment. I, of course, have been up for almost an hour already, making lunches, putting in a load of laundry, and happily sipping my first cup of coffee while catching up on email. I relish this early morning calm—the time to myself when everything is quiet and orderly. But now it’s 6:45am, which means it’s time to change all that.

I pad quietly up the stairs and enter my middle son’s room. It is reasonably clean, and I can make my way to his bed without tripping over anything. It takes only a gentle shake before he stirs and wakes. I tousle his head and walk out. Easy peasy.

My older son’s wake-up call will be far more challenging, and before turning the knob to enter, I take a deep, meditative breath. Light is just beginning to stream through his blinds and I truly wish it wasn’t. What I see makes me automatically cringe, but I cannot look away. Inside out, twisted up dirty clothes litter the floor mingling with the clean ones. Dresser drawers are half open, limp clothes dangling out. There are empty water bottles strewn about, granola bar wrappers, and a bowl with the remnants of the popcorn that he snacked on, maybe last night, but possibly last week. Books and papers are everywhere and I almost step on his laptop laying half hidden under the mess.  

My 15-year-old son is the center of it all, blending in with his surroundings, just a lump under tangled sheets and covers. “Hey there, good morning,” I say to the pile which doesn’t stir, so I give him a shake.

“I’m up!” he snaps, in his new man voice that I’m still getting used to. But I know better. He is not up and the minute I walk out he will be snoozing like a baby again.

“Up, up, up,” I sing, knowing full well it’s annoying. “Come on,” I encourage but I can tell I’ve already lost him to REM. I jostle him again more gruffly till he is forced to rise. “Get up now,” I order, shake my head, and bite my tongue as I sidestep out through the disaster.

“It’s just a messy room. Better than messing up our time together.”

For years, I’ve fought with him, applying all different tactics to get him to clean up after himself. I started out as “Reasonable Mom” who made general polite requests, while encouraging him to respect himself and his space. Of course, Reasonable Mom quickly dissolved into “Annoying Mom” who nagged and nagged until finally exploding into “Crazy Mom.” She yelled a lot and made all sorts of empty threats. Occasionally, against my better judgment, “Enabling Mom” emerged, where, although I’m not proud to admit it, I just gave up and did it for him—and my own sanity.

Honestly, none of it worked. We were continuously frustrated with each other, and our time together was reduced to me being annoyed and him avoiding me. But then a month or so ago, I read child psychiatrist Dr. Victor Fornari’s article How Do I Deal With a Stubborn Teen. In essence, his advice basically boiled down to one thing: Choose your battles. With school, sports, and friends, there’s a limited amount of quality time we get with our teens these days. None of us wants to spend it arguing over inconsequential matters.

That simple truth struck a chord. My son is finishing up 10th grade. Next year we will be discussing college. It’s all happening so quickly. Soon he will be gone and there won’t be a messy room to fight over. Then I’ll really be sad.

“With school, sports and friends, there’s a limited amount of quality time we get with our teens these days. None of us wants to spend it arguing over inconsequential matters.”

So, I’m learning to keep it all in perspective. I’m not going to nag if his hair is too long, or he doesn’t tie his shoes, or if he continually forgets to shut the light off. As long as my son is safe and healthy, is doing well at school, and is overall a good, sweet boy, I’m going to do my best to leave the little things alone. Believe me, it’s not always easy, and of course there are times when I do insist. But overall, I take an extra breath or two to control myself and quietly shut the door.

It’s OK. It’s just a messy room. Better than messing up our limited time together. As Dr. Fornari says, some things aren’t worth the fight.

Deep breath. Deep breath.

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Published October 23rd, 2018

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