It’s funny how you can have a little “aha!” moment while reading a children’s book. It happened to me the other day. I picked up a picture book at my mother’s house that I hadn’t seen before. It was titled The Tidy Fairy by Sally Hewitt. He’s a quick plot summary: The children always leave the house in a mess when they go to school, but the tidy-up fairy appears magically every day and makes sure the house is neat when they get back home in the afternoon.
Then one day Mom has to go and help Granny who is sick and the children’s aunt stays with them. And guess what? No more tidy-up fairy. The children realise if their room is left messy in the morning, it will still be messy when they get home in the afternoon. They learn the hard lesson of consequences – you reap what you sow, as the Bible puts it. So unless they want their room to always be messy, they need to learn to pack away and keep it tidy.
It’s a well-told tale and worth reading to your children. What it made me realise is that learning to tidy up is not something that comes naturally to kids – it’s something that needs to be taught. And you as the parent need to take the time out of your day to enforce it. Yes, I know they will complain. I know it can be unpleasant. But “no discipline seems pleasant at the time but rather painful. Later on, however, it yields a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11). What you’re doing by saying, “Hang on, kids – we’re not going to the park until you’ve packed away your Lego,” is highlighting the fact that tidying up is part of their daily routine. It’s their responsibility.
When I was younger, we called them chores (not a very nice word, I know, but there it is). Chores were what you were expected to do as members of a family. Chores were non-negotiable. My chores were to lay the table for dinner (which I quite enjoyed), drying up the dishes after supper (okay), feeding the dog (not fabulous), taking out the rubbish (fairly gross) and watering the garden (fine – I just ended up day-dreaming anyway). We got pocket money every week – not a lot, but enough to make us feel like our labours were worthwhile – and that was the package.
I think parents do their children a disservice by not allowing them to take on more responsibility. Children are not yet able to shoulder the weight of their own lives, but they can gradually start to learn how responsibility works. At my youngest son’s pre-school, for instance, the teachers encourage parents to let their children carry their own backpacks and unpack their snack and juice bottle. I am trying to reinforce the idea that my boys need to carry their own shoes, hats and backpacks out of the car when we get home. (Of course, getting them to put their shoes in their cupboards is another battle!) We’re not there yet, not by a long shot, but we are slowly moving in the right direction.
The other night the boys were squabbling before suppertime while Mom and Dad scrambled to get the food dished up. Suddenly I hit on an idea. “Why don’t you two lay the table?” I said. Before you knew it, the tablecloth was pulled out the drawer, the placemats laid out, the cutlery carefully selected. It was amazing to see how the scene changed when the boys had something constructive to do, something that was helping the family. That’s when I realised that far from being a burden, responsibility is actually good for children – in the right dose, of course.
And – joy of joys – Little Master M has decided to start wiping his own bum now. Yes, I know it’s not something you are meant to discuss in polite company, but I am thrilled that after six long years of wiping two little people’s bottoms (often simultaneously!), that task has finally fallen away from me. “You don’t have to wipe my bum any more,” Master M proudly proclaimed this week and my heart leaped and did the happy dance.
What about the tidy-up fairy? Is she still making sure that everything is spick and span in your home? Does she fuss around the house tidying up after everybody? I hope not. Take the time to instill good habits in your children so that the burden of looking after a household doesn’t fall squarely onto you. You’ll be so glad you did.