Ask Maxwell: Should I Pick Up After My Children or Make Them Do It?

published Jan 10, 2022
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Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Ursula's room last week on a particularly GOOD day.

My father always hounded me to pick up after myself and I developed a real resistance to it. Now, with my own children, I don’t want to spoil them, but I don’t want to hound them all the time either!

Anthony, father of three

Dear Anthony,

First of all, I wanted to add in what you sent to me — that you are a father of three — because I think it lends color to how much picking up you might be dealing with. Not to take away from folks, like myself, who have one child, who can certainly make a big mess in a very short time!

I will say that I also experienced growing up in a house where my father and mother made us do everything by ourselves and guilted us into carrying things and would get in the car and start to drive away if we weren’t in it already. I always felt like I was coming up short and, while I totally understand the idea of being independent, there was a lot of friction in our house. Plus, there was the fact that my father, in particular, was hard to keep up with at times. He could be very Spartan.

As I’ve tried to figure that out with my daughter, I was going down the same road — telling her to do it by herself or making her carry all our bags when in fact we were running late and I really wanted to get everything in the car …

… cut to spending time with a good friend of mine and his three children and watching him operate. He has a boy and two girls and they go skiing every weekend at Hunter Mountain. We’ve spent many weekends there toting our stuff in and out from the car to the lodge to the hill and back again. Unlike me, he never raises his voice or haggles with his kids, when the time comes he grabs what he can to help them and they carry on together to the next point. Instead of worrying about setting an example where his kids will be “spoiled,” he models a can-do attitude which is more “we get this done as a team,” and I’ve noticed that they then are far more willing (and less mopey) about picking up their stuff and following after. I think this is the way to go. Instead of “pushing” them, “suck” them into following your actions.

When we are children we learn mainly from role models — from copying what we see. This is far more effective than being told what to do. For example, my mother used to get into bed every night down the hall from my room and say in a loud voice, “Oooooh … It’s so NICE to be in bed!” I have no idea WHY she said this, but she did know that I didn’t like to go to bed. The strange thing is that now, as an adult, I find myself longing for going to bed and saying the same thing out loud, almost involuntarily. I wish my mother was around to hear me! She’d be very happy.

SO, rather than trying to direct your children to be better domestic citizens and haranguing them when they don’t something like making their bed in the morning, first make sure you’ve made YOUR bed and tell them how beautiful it is. They will certainly smile. NEXT, when they don’t make their bed, and it bothers you, instead of haggling with them or waiting all day, while the bed is unmade, to make them do it, just slip into their room and do it quickly for them and for you. They WILL notice.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for following around and picking up for your kids all the time, but I am advocating for role modeling more and surprising them quietly with how things like to be done in your house. I think you’ll find, as I have, that tension goes way down, humor pops up, and — eventually — they WILL do it by themselves because, in the end of the day, they will model their behavior on their parents for sure.

Best, M

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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