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It’s not about the room

We don’t want our kids to clean their rooms so that their rooms will be clean.

We want our kids to clean their rooms so that they learn how to be responsible for the things they are in charge of…so they may grow to be responsible for greater things down the road.

We don’t want our kids to clean up after dinner so that we have a clean kitchen in the morning. We want our kids to learn that it is better to tie up loose ends here and now while we have the time to spare, instead of waiting until we’re overwhelmed tomorrow.

Being prepared for the future, sacrificing the present moment for something better down the road, in short, responsibility is why we want to see kids take up chores with spirit and enthusiasm.

A child’s resentment for chores is in large part the result of seeing their parent’s attention placed on things that are lifeless–the rug, the table, the bed, the floor, the dishes–while the child, who’s dearly in love with that very attention, feels to have lost the spotlight to a handful of inanimate objects. Ever wonder why your kids will resist what you value? It’s because when you put your attention on something, your child perceives it as a competitor for your attention. It’s a simple reaction for your child to oppose this thing because by apposing it he re-asserts himself. It has nothing to do with external ‘values’ per-say, it’s about self-valuation, attention, and subconscious mechanisms that make sure this primal value is met.

For most parents, there’s nothing more valuable to them than their children, and they would laugh if someone tried to suggest otherwise. Yet, without the slightest hint of joking, parents treat their child’s disregard for their values with contempt, thus making the values more important than the child. Of course the parent wouldn’t see it this way, but the child sees it precisely this way, especially the younger-aged child.

Sadly, in the attempt to instill important values, parents walk precariously close to awakening resentment for those values instead, because they don’t see another way outside of contempt, negative feedback, judgement. Or rather, they don’t see a way outside of reward and punishment.

What is needed is a slight shift in perception. Let’s take the value of responsibility. Your child has a messy room that you want him to clean, or there’s a mess on the kitchen counter from his hobby, or perhaps you want him to help you clean the living room. Perhaps the sheer asking of it makes you anxious because you know he will give you kickback in the form of resentment. You know he doesn’t want to…he doesn’t value a clean room.

You can enforce the task upon him with punishment or reward and perhaps this will work to “get the job done.” But there’s so much more to a clean room, as discussed above, than simply a “clean room.” To re-iterate, there’s the hope that responsibility itself will become a value for the child, which will serve him for the rest of his life.

Responsibility is a value inherent to all individuals; it’s the desire to grow in usefulness to the larger community. We don’t need to instill this value. We just need to not mess it up to begin with.

Like most values, they exist in the child by virtue of the human environment itself. It’s built into our social living. All the child needs is to witness how it’s valuable for himself, and sure enough, responsibility would prove to be valuable no doubt. But we bury this value, and others, when we learn to pit ourselves against it for the sake of maintaining the nurturing attention of our primary caregivers. When our primary cargivers are the ones attempting to instill the value of responsibility, especially through degradation or scorn, but even through reward, a child cannot help but pit himself against that value and the things connected with it, for it represents a minimization of attention toward him.

In the absence of a larger community to instill values, parents have to divide themselves, and children don’t know how to take this in without fearing and quickly resenting it. After all, no installation of value matters so long as the nurturing attention vital to pass through infancy and pre-adolescnece is absent, or even divided.

This is where resentment comes from. Perniciously, it can take the place of self improving values, so long as it appears successful at maintaining parental attention, regardless of whether that attention is positive or negative.



It is precisely this attention that is the supreme value in the child’s eyes.



Nevertheless, most people agree that certain values are important for children to observe and learn; cleaning up after oneself, respecting other children’s toys, refraining from the use of aggressive force, as well as many others, all represent values that are increasingly important for a child to learn in order to be successful in the social setting.

Take cleaning. The value of cleaning lies in responsibility. At a young age, we train our kids to be responsible when we say “don’t wipe your hands on your shirt,” or “put your plate in the dishwasher” and “pick the clothes up off your bedroom floor.” What kid jumps gleefully to such an injunction? Usually, it’s the impulse of resentment, followed by damage control lest the parents get angrier than they are now, which drives a child to comply.

Sadly, the child believes the parent, even though the parent wouldn’t believe himself if he could see the situation from the third person.


Yes, children are selfish, and rightfully so. They need to learn to understand for themselves what to value in life, and why. They require lots of attention to do this. So when parents place their attention on the external chore that “needs to be done” as though it were more important than the child learning the value of responsibility, an inborn mechanism for correction surfaces in the form of resentment.

Because children inherently know that implicated in the injunction to clean their room there’s something much more at stake. This is why kids look at procrastination negatively. It’s a diminished sense of self.

Knowing this, what would parents be willing to sacrifice to see that their children acquire these values? Would they sacrifice their use of external punishments that ensure the “job gets done?” Would they sacrifice anything and everything for the higher goal that responsibility becomes expressly valued? lest they incubate disdain in the child for all responsibilities? Would parents continue to risk using condemnation if they realized that it was their child’s growing responsibility that might take the hit? How often is it the impulsive anxiety of a mess that motivates the injunction to clean? And should we not reconsider this for the sake of the real purpose behind the endeavor?

Of course none of this is explicitly named by the child. And making it explicit by putting it into words is likely to fail, regardless of whether your dealing with toddlers or teenagers.

What is needed is a slight shift in perception.  When you see your child’s development–his or her future possibilities at stake–implicated in the chore at hand, then you will begin to value patience, calm persistence, and tactics aimed at improving your child’s enthusiasm for the chore, rather than the completion of the chore itself. The chore becomes an opportunity, not an anxiety. Your child will feel the difference, seeing now that he’s under the spotlight, which is where he wants to be. Resentment (in this case the feeling of losing status to material objects and conditions in the eyes of one’s parents), will no longer be an issue, for it will be replaced with motivation to succeed at the two-fold task of 1) cleaning the room and 2) growing into a force the world will have to reckon with as a result of culturing responsibility.

Once the parent has expanded his or her values to factor in the child’s fundamental growth of responsibility, that parent will be making use of a universal desire inherent to all individuals, the desire to become a person who’s deemed valuable to the larger community.