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Clean House this Summer!

Wipe Out Privilege in 5 Steps

Fighting the entitlement mentality is an increasingly common battle for twenty-first century parents. Consequently, what used to be the typical outcome of parenting – independent kids – is rapidly becoming a novelty. If your kids are numb to the daily responsibilities of family life, recruit them for a summer intensive on taking initiative.

In her book, Cleaning House, Kay Wyma lets readers in on her year-long attempt to purge her kids of the self-absorbed mind set. Her experiment is not complex: Sort basic life skills into twelve essentials and see to it that her kids own a new one each month. Wyma’s approach is doable, digestible, and humorously disagreeable to her five kids. But she doesn’t just talk the talk, for what impressed me the most is that this mom actually has the tenacity to see the process through to completion.

I got my hands on Cleaning House over a year ago, and like other ventures, I set it aside, quickly concluding that the school year has enough intensity of its own. But the long, empty schedule of summer is glaring, forcing me to find both the motivation and the time to implement. If you’re constantly nagging your kids, picking up after them, or flying in to rescue them, this book is a tangible map that will help your family discover the treasure of self-sufficiency.

Step One: Start with Incentive

If you’re wondering where to start, take Wyma’s advice and “Just start!” Choose any category or concept. My greatest point of irritation was first on Wyma’s list, too. Getting the kids’ bedrooms in shape was my focus of attack for week one. Remembering my trusty Cleaning House guidebook directs me to provide incentive, I know I must come up with an alternative to Wyma’s suggestion, jars jammed full of dollar bills. With eight kids still at home, it’s simply not in the budget.

Though extra effort is required to ready the rewards, Wyma insists it gives traction to the experiment. “Keeping the financial incentive going wasn’t easy for me. I am not organized. I forget things,” she says, adding that she was tempted to let that unmade bed slide more than once. “I had to constantly keep in mind that without the consequences, I wouldn’t get the results I was looking for.”

Each family is different, and Wyma encourages parents to find what works for them. Younger kids, for instance, may need an alternative to money (one mom used marshmallows because her young daughter was so crazy for them). Other inexpensive options include a trip to the dollar movies at the theater this summer or shopping at the local thrift store. “For us, though, the financial incentives also presented a great opportunity to teach them about managing money,” says Wyma, “as we often topped the week off with a shopping trip that allowed the kids to spend their earnings.” For Room Week at my house, I decided on tally marks for unmade beds or other infractions, and rewarded those who stayed within my limits with an affordable outing on Friday.

Admittedly, I have resorted to cleaning bedrooms while the kids are at school. It is, after all, a great time to throw out things that will never be missed. And though they always thank me very sincerely, disorder predictably returns within forty-eight hours. Then I get angry.

Wyma can identify. “I really never intended to write a book. I just got mad, and when you get a mad mother involved, watch out!” Most parents know the scene well: The kids hover over their screens of choice while we collapse under our workload. “The realization hit me that my kids were looking to me to serve them everything, and that I was grooming them to be needy.” Wyma emphasizes that parents who do everything for their kids send the glaring message you can’t, which counters the true goal of parenting – converting them to the conviction that they can do anything they put their minds to. “When kids start believing that, it equips them to overcome the inevitable obstacles they will encounter in life.”

Step Two: Give Clear Instructions

Once incentives are settled, hold a family meeting to unveil the new summer strategy. Talk about what your kids need to know before they leave the nest. Can they function in a kitchen? Wash their own clothes? Manage their finances? You name the goals and then let them in on deciding how they will get there.

And what about the whines, the sighs, the rolling of eyes? I asked Wyma, curious to know if even she had to deal with the pushback. “Oh, yes, and plenty of it.” Her answer was, in some small way, a relief. Here is, after all, a real mom who encountered the same struggles along the way.

Wyma urges parents not to give in to the griping. “A friend gave me some great advice: Do not engage. So, I don’t,” she says, adding that while she might acknowledge the complaints with a nod, she then tunes out the whining by grabbing her earphones or sending the protesters to their room. “I decided I was not going to let the grumbling stop me; instead I became determined to get my kids to a new mantra – ‘Yes, you can!’”

When I am met with sighs and whines, I give a brief reminder to my kids that work is part of growing up – and part of being in a family. If they persist, I inform them that the conversation is over.

My long-standing “no screens before lunch” rule enables me to designate the morning as training time without too much hassle, though my seventh grader says he would rather be in school than learn all this stuff. One thing I do know: I tremble at the thought of summer slipping by while we all sit in front of our personal screens. It is a Constant challenge for today’s parents, and this picture in my head stirs a new resolve.

“Don’t let them look to social media to feel like they belong,” Wyma implores. “Everyone is looking to belong somewhere; summer is a terrific time to reinforce to your kids that they belong to your home.” She adds that the biggest surprise of the experiment has been how much they now look to each other instead of to her. “Their reflex used to be to run to me; they don’t do that anymore. It is every parent’s dream, or should be – that our kids will try to figure things out on their own – and they often ask each other! To watch this play out has been fascinating; watching them leaning into each other and looking to belong.”

With fresh energy, I make it clear to the kids: If you want the reward, make the beds, put the dirty clothes in the laundry, and put the toys and books away, Monday through Friday. I leave no room for misinterpretation of my expectations. And I add that the same goes for keeping clean clothes out of the hamper. I have enough laundry to do already with eleven people in the house, thank you.

I’m glad we have happened upon the topic of laundry, because week two is Laundry Week.

With so many under our roof, dirty clothes can be daunting. While Grandma and I do the laundry during the school year, this summer I have resolved to pair the kids up and assign each team a day to wash their own wardrobes from start to finish. That being said, a group laundry lesson is necessary: darks in cold; whites together, hot water; and don’t splash the bleach. In the back of my mind floats the thought that these are the things a parent is supposed to teach you. Our grandparents knew this; we have forgotten.

“Why do we parents cripple our kids with the entitlement mentality when most of us know better?” I ask Wyma. Her answer is telling.

“You know, I grew up privileged. Much of my young life consisted of tennis, laying poolside, and a brand new car when I turned sixteen,” she says, “yet my father instilled two principles in me: the value of hard work and that I could do anything I set my mind to. He wasn’t afraid to let me try and let me fail.”

Wyma labels it parenting peer pressure, fueled by competitiveness, and says that the answer to why we do it is simple. “Because most parents are afraid of letting their kids fail; consequently, we do way too much for them. The irony is that we warn kids about their peer pressure while denying our own, forgetting to ask, ‘What about me?’’’

Step Three: Be Present

Step three is a tough one for me, for it requires, well, me. I have to fight the urge to say, “Okay kids, make sure your rooms are clean, keep the laundry moving, and look through some cookbooks for what to have for dinner. I will check on you later.” But I am only fooling myself, as I know barking out orders from the sideline is not going to bring about the result I have in mind. To help keep me in the moment, I am visualizing this summer as Life Skills Boot Camp with me as the drill sergeant, only nicer. Monday mornings are blocked out as teaching time where I introduce the new skill, then roll up my sleeves to spend the morning helping them own it.

I liked the feeling I got, for example, from the simple act of teaching my ten-year-old how to slice a loaf of French bread. When I spotted her reaching for the wrong knife, I pointed out that a serrated blade is more effective. “Turn the loaf on its side and use a gentle touch,” I said as I guided her hand. I preserve this image in my head as I attempt to expand my kids’ horizons with greater, more challenging skills. It is the mindset I want to keep this summer: a present mom who equipped her kids with what they needed to thrive, not merely to survive.

Step Four: Keep Going

I have not yet touched week three, but I have a hunch that by the time it begins I will get tired and forget the whole thing. Again, I turn to the handbook, and ask the mentor in this experiment for advice on what a weary mother should do. I am encouraged when she says she keeps pictures in her mind, too.

The film Wall-E, to be exact, plays over and over in her head. “My kids, lying around, barely able to lift a finger; that is the picture I get if I don’t help them learn life,” confesses Wyma, who then goes a step further to tell me she has actually been intentional about apologizing to her children when she does too much for them. “It cripples them when we take everything upon ourselves.”

Prepare yourself for kids to howl that their friends don’t have to do it, their cousins don’t have to do it, and they’re mad because they have to do it. “It is draining, until they learn they can do it,” agrees Wyma. And what parent could deny that though kids may at first resist learning a new life skill, it makes them feel so good after they master it. “Every time you equip them with a new ability, you give them confidence,” she says, “and that is worth whatever time you put into it, because confidence helps kids know their purpose, that each is a necessary cog.”

And what about the extra challenges of the single parent or the parent whose spouse is not on board? Wyma, who says her own spouse wasn’t on board much of the time, insists it can still work. “I informed my spouse about the experiment, and while he is a very intentional dad, I am the one home with the kids so it is mostly my world.” Wyma says single parents and moms and dads of many may have an odd advantage in that they especially cannot do it all because they’re outnumbered. “Good things can still come from not so great situations. The results of this experiment took my shackles off so I could actually parent.”

Step Five: Step Away from the Children

“What was the hardest part of implementing the concept?” I asked. Her answer surprised me at first. “The hardest part was me – getting my grubby hands off!” she said, adding that she’s a recovering procrastinator and enabler. “And I am not good at some of the things I set out to teach my children, like gardening, for example, so it was also a chance to model for them how to learn new things.”

I, too, was dreading Yard Week, as I haven’t attempted a garden since my first failed effort over twenty-five years ago. Soon after I put seed and soil in my kids’ hands, however, we all learned that not only are they capable, but a few of them even had a real aptitude for gardening. Once again, Wyma’s words rang true: They may have never realized their ability if the opportunity hadn’t been put in front of them.

Kids thrive on solid opportunities just like adults do. Wyma paints another picture for us of teaching kids how to ride a bike: first training wheels, then holding them with both hands, then one hand, and finally letting go and getting out of the way. “Parents should ask themselves, ‘At what point does it become uncomfortable for me to let go and allow them do it?’ That is the point where you need to widen the boundary.”

Wyma offers one final gentle nudge to parents: Even if your effort isn’t perfect, keep going, be authentic, and be honest. I need the nudge, for while I hope my kids have mastered twelve new life skills by summer’s end, I will feel accomplished if I transfer half that many. This parenting thing is hard. But I have learned that while it is difficult to be consistently intentional, the consequences of negligence are even more challenging.

Even before I reach the end of the experiment, I have come to a conclusion: While loving your kids might look like doing everything for them, nothing could be further from the truth.

Kay Wills Wyma is the author of Cleaning House, a mother of five, and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. You may have seen her on Today, Fox & Friends, or CNN.
Kay Wills Wyma is the author of Cleaning House, a mother of five, and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. You may have seen her on Today, Fox & Friends, or CNN.


Twelve Essentials in Twelve Weeks

Here’s Wyma’s dirty dozen – just the right number for the twelve weeks of summer, as opposed to the 12-month strategy she details in Cleaning House. Forget self-esteem and soccer practice. Here it is, at last! What we should really be teaching our kids.
• How to make a bed and keep the bedroom clean.
• Meal preparation: from shopping to clean up.
• How to do yard work.
• How to clean the bathrooms
• How to get a job.
• How to do the laundry.
• How to host a party
• How to do simple home repairs
• How to work together
• How to run errands
• Putting others first through service
• Remembering manners

A freelance writer and mother of ten, Margie Sims has contributed to a variety of regional magazines during her twenty years of writing about parenting. She moved to the area in 2012 and lives in Moseley with her family.
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