Archived Opinion

Learning to live with the mess

Learning to live with the mess

Maybe it was one more box of Cheez-Its left open on the table, the box surrounded by crumbs, that pushed a father to post the following on his Facebook page: “Is there an age when kids stop leaving a room looking like raccoons got in?” 

I am not that man, but not so many years ago I was, those days when I wondered whether we might ever again see the floor in either of our children’s rooms. Days when we pondered whether there existed any enticement delicious enough or punishment severe enough to motivate them to bring their plates to the kitchen and scrape or saw off the remains of the unimaginably moldy food that had, over time, become indistinguishable from the plate itself. 

Days when we had to buy cheap silverware sets every couple of months because forks and spoons vanished with alarming regularity in the deep, disturbing layers of “stuff” in their rooms. If an archeological dig were performed in our son’s room, I am convinced they would recover no fewer than 200 pieces of silverware, the remnants of a primitive, but more or less thriving, civilization. 

I am not sure when we gave up, or even if we gave up. Maybe we haven’t, not entirely, even though our “children” are now 20 and 17. Our daughter doesn’t live at home anymore, but when our son’s room reaches a certain density of sheer chaos, we will gather our will, conceive a strategy, and armor ourselves for the battle that is sure to ensue. 

“It’s not THAT bad!” 

“It’s a health hazard.” 

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“I feel fine!” 

“One of the dogs is missing.” 

Eventually, we prevail, and for one glorious afternoon, some things are put away, the bed is not covered with half-eaten bags of Doritos, various kinds of remote controls, textbooks and notebooks, dirty dishes, and laundry, some clean and some not. The floor is mostly visible and mostly clean, give or take a ketchup stain. The drawers and closet doors are reasonably close to being closed. Of course, we don’t inspect under the bed. We’re not crazy. But for one day — or part of a day — this room is nearly bearable, nearly recognizable as a room. 

There was a time when we took all of this very personally, feeling that we had failed our children in some fundamental way, that other parents were raising children who kept their rooms in pristine condition at all times, without so much as a sweater neatly draped over a chair or a lonely tangerine waiting on a night table to be eaten later. 

I pictured the rooms of our friends’ children as being just like the rooms of the Von Trapp family children in “The Sound of Music,” bright, cheerful, and perfect. For all I knew, maybe these families were having regular family sing-a-longs for guests in the parlor. Maybe their fathers called them to dinner with a police whistle. Maybe they wore matching outfits to the park. 

Over time, we discovered that most of our friends had their own disaster stories every bit as harrowing as ours. It turns out that they were just as mystified as we were over the borderline criminal negligence of their own children in all matters pertaining to bedroom maintenance and basic hygiene. 

“Why does my son insist on wearing the same shirt 11 days in a row? He has a whole closet filled with shirts, nice ones, shirts I bought him at Target, damn it! But no, he won’t take it off. He won’t even let me wash it!” 

“Mine will only brush his teeth at gunpoint.” 

“Mine won’t wear his retainer, even though we could have gone to Europe for what we paid for his braces.” 

“I’m going to Europe if he doesn’t wear a different shirt tomorrow. Is it wrong to steal your son’s clothes when he’s asleep?” 

My friend gets a string of responses to his question of whether there is an age when children start keeping a tidy room. The first woman — who should be hauled in for questioning — claims that her child stopped being messy at the age of 10. Another woman says, “Thirty-seven,” which sounds about right. 

Of course, we have no answer. Our daughter has shown encouraging signs of improvement, but there have been times when her apartment is about as hopeless as her room used to be. Several months ago, we loaned her some tools that will most likely never be seen again. 

It would be fun to find out what becomes of that hammer. Maybe it will wind up in Europe.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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3 comments

  • As I read this my living room has been converted to a fort using all the furniture in the room, every blanket and pillow we own, and an army of stuffed animals. Glad it’s not just my kids.

    posted by Tyler Beamer

    Thursday, 03/03/2022

  • Excellent description of the maturation process during the teen to early adult years. The transformation from disorganized dishevelment to normalcy, or what passes for normalcy with each new generation, begins with leaving the comfortable confines of mom and dad's home. "Adult responsibility" usually appears suddenly engendered by having to earn money to pay for things like rent, clothes, furniture, cleaning of one's own mess plus the added incentive of judgement by one's more mature peers.

    posted by Barry Aycock

    Thursday, 03/03/2022

  • its typical room for teenager and you did it too. they somwhow grow out of it when girls start visiting or they get older and move or go off to college .they will make better effort if Mom and Dad stop cleaning for them

    posted by theresa hawn

    Wednesday, 03/02/2022

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