As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I’ve been tidying up and evaluating the things surrounding me to see if they bring me joy. I love the results, there is something so satisfying about walking into an organized closet. And while I am excited to tidy up more areas of my home, my kids don’t share the same enthusiasm.
Earlier this week, I looked around the living room to find an array of pajamas, socks, t-shirts and shoes. How had all of this stuff accumulated down here? How many times do I have to remind them?
My normal reaction is to teach/discipline the kids, so they take responsibility, and this doesn’t happen again. Usually that works for a day or two, but then we’re right back where we started. So, I go back again, teach/discipline the action and see little improvement. At this point I start to wonder, what am I doing wrong as a parent? Why isn’t this message sticking? Why is it so hard for my child to remember such an easy task? Is there something wrong with them? As you can see, once you start down this path you can quickly spin a simple situation into a crisis of character.
Instead of continuing this cycle that kept generating the same results, I took a step back to learn more about my reaction. In her book, The Awakened Family, Dr. Shefali has an entire chapter dedicated to “The Invisible Triggers of Our Reactivity”. She explains as a culture we accept the idea our children are meant to trigger or challenge us. This idea is so ingrained in our culture; we don’t question it. As a result, we end up react to them in “robotic ways”. In other words, we allow our reactions to happen without giving them much thought. Dr. Shefali goes on to say (on page 35):
“Our children are just being who they are. They aren’t interested in inciting us to fury or causing us guilt or anxiety. Quite the opposite: They function from their own internal state, which really has nothing to do with us. However, because we carry so much emotional pain, they inevitably ignite a firestorm within us at times. None of this is intentional, but is a result of our own lack of wholeness. We are triggered not by their behavior, but by our own unresolved emotional issues.”
At this point you may think I am a little crazy – how is my reaction to a few clothes left on the floor related to my “unresolved emotional issues”? Stay with me. Let’s follow the train of thought – Why does it make me so crazy to see clothes on the floor, don’t they see I am just trying to keep the house cleaned up? If they don’t clean up after themselves now, how will they live on their own? Their apartment is going to be a mess. I know I have asked for these clothes to be picked up – why don’t they listen to me? They don’t listen to me because they don’t appreciate all the things that I do for them. They’re so ungrateful – how can they be so insensitive? I want to raise them to be kind, nice people not insensitive monsters. I’m totally screwing this up. They are going to be completely unprepared for real life unless I can fix this now.
This inner dialogue may be slightly exaggerated to show how we often build on a simple situation and make it about something much more. Is it about listening, cleanliness or insensitivity? Or are you worried about their messy future apartment? As Dr. Shefali says in the quote above, children are in their own minds. The fact that they do/don’t do something is only related to where they are at in that exact moment, no more and no less. You are the one making this is a big deal. You are the one piling on additional emotion and unrelated issues to the scenario.
So where do you go from here? The clothes still need to be picked up and you don’t want to be the one to do it all the time. This is where expectations and boundaries come in. First, become really clear on what your expectation is. In this scenario, your expectation may be that the kids help pick up after themselves. Second, set a boundary. How often do you want this expectation to be met - daily, every other day, weekly? Communicate the boundary as a minimum requirement for living in the house, as something that needs to be done and strip all the emotion from the discussion. The hardest part may be in the enforcement of the boundary because you must remain both consistent and neutral. If you have decided it is a daily task, then you must enforce it as a daily task. As Dr. Shefali likes to say, don’t be “wishy-washy”. Along with consistency, you must be neutral/unemotional while enforcing the boundary. You will get resistance, when you do you need to hold the line and not let it bother you.
My friend’s son is a college freshman. The second week of school, he called his mom “You would not believe how messy my roommate is! His clothes are everywhere, he has dirty dishes on the counter, it’s disgusting!” Was this the same son she had battled with throughout his high school years? Your kids are listening, even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment and worrying today about their future living conditions is wasted energy. Somehow, they’ll figure it all out.
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I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.