Neatness Counts

By Larry Bernstein

I’m a neat freak, and I’m raising an 11-year-old slob. Where did I go wrong?

I cringe at the heap that lies on the rug in my son’s room. It includes baseball cards, Lego pieces, balled up underwear, popsicle sticks, and the first 20 pages from a book that was read into oblivion. Add the half-eaten yogurt that’s turned sideways on the desk, and I feel uncomfortable.

More than uncomfortable.

At least the bed is made. Not well, but made. I insist on that. I have to draw the line against sloppiness somewhere.

My son thinks I’m crazy. He whines and protests and questions every time I ask him – okay fine, I tell him – to make the bed.

“Why? What’s the point?” he wants to know.

He also doesn’t get that leaving crumbs in a bed is just wrong. Apparently, the threat that he is inviting bugs to crawl on him in the middle of the night isn’t a deterrent.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe there is no point. After all, he’ll just wriggle under the covers within minutes of his arrival home from school. Then he’ll surf YouTube videos, play Minecraft, or read every baseball statistic he can find online. If there are crumbs on the sheets, he’ll brush them off onto the floor. His room and his mess are his happy place — just the way they are. If I could slide apple juice and rainbow cookies under the door, I think  he’d hardly ever leave.

I know this isn’t a tragedy. After all, my son is only 11, and plenty of children his age don’t care about neatness.

However, by the time I got to be his age, I did. I cared about neatness. Maybe I was the exception rather than the rule. Maybe it was circumstances. As the youngest of four boys growing up in a small house, I didn’t get my own room until I was older. I was thrilled not to have to share a room with my older brother and not because we had a million of those “shut up, no you shut up” sort of fights. The reason was that I was tired of cleaning up his mess.

My wife recalls the first time she came to my apartment. She was struck by how neat it was and she was impressed. She likes this quality in me. Now, I’m not saying that’s why we’re together, but I think it was a factor.

Yes, neatness counts.

So, how come my son could not care less?

It’s not for lack of talking, yelling, and lecturing him about it.

Threats work sometimes. He’ll clean up as quickly as possible and say, “Good enough.”

I am nurturing hope that maybe he’ll grow out of his sloppy ways. But, what if he doesn’t? What if this is part of who he is, and he retains this trait? Should it bother me that I, a neat freak, may have a son who’s a slob?

I suppose not. After all, it’s not my hope or job as a parent to raise a clone. I’m too keenly aware of my own issues to want either of my children to be just like me. Now, I’d be happy to see them inherit my strengths. And each of the children already demonstrates plenty of good traits, many of which I don’t share.

That 11-year-old? He retains information like it’s been attached to his brain with duct tape – usually baseball statistics, but it works for math, history, and anything else he decides to study.

My job as a parent is to raise a child who can be independent, make thoughtful decisions, and can recognize consequences. He needs to be allowed to act as he wants to act, to make decisions, and to have control. So, while the room will look better if my wife or I clean and answer the question of where the dishes are, it does not help my son in the long run. He’ll never learn responsibility. He’ll never understand independence. He’ll never learn the importance of decision making. He’ll never learn the importance of cleanliness and the effort it takes to make it happen. It will just be another thing that mom and dad do for him.

So, as much as I hate it, I let him leave his room messy. Well, at least I do till the cleaning lady comes. The house needs to be organized for the cleaning lady. Otherwise, she can’t clean.

I appreciate the irony.

Till that glorious day, I’m just happy for doors. I can shut the door to his room and have peace of mind.

© Larry Bernstein

Larry Bernstein is a freelance writer, professional tutor and dad blogger. He is a former English teacher, a Springsteen fan, and a devoted husband to one and dad to two. Visit his blog, Me, Myself and Kids. Follow him on Twitter at @LarryDBern and on Facebook here.