How to Clean a Room with a Ten Year Old Boy


Blogs are a nifty forum for dispensing advice.  Expertise, success, a rudimentary understanding of grammar and/or having something remotely worthwhile to say appear not to be prerequisites.  So once again, I find myself completely qualified if not superiorly equipped.

Imagine me with a contemplative face.  Leaning back on the balls of my feet and looking upward, attempting (but not succeeding) at stifling a self assured expression.  No one has broached the subject of room cleaning with any sort of clarity since Dr. Dobson dared to discipline.  As parents, it is our duty, our mission, our quest in life, to nurture and mold our offspring into quality individuals.  Amazing mother that I am, I seek to capitalize every opportunity to imprint my values, standards and addiction to caffeinated beverages on my beloved offspring.

So with much care and contemplation, I provide this detailed instructional account of cleaning a bedroom with my son, keeping in mind that all the while the experience was designed to shape my mollycoddled halfling into a MAN.

Step ONE:  Consistency is the Key

As with all mundane domestic tasks, self-discipline and regular maintenance keeps the dragons at bay.  Strict adherence to cleaning regimens is a must for success in life as it distinctly increases the odds you will keep roommates capable of paying their portion of the rent.  Dutiful attention to excess clutter frees up the brain for tackling bigger life issues, like deciding what to watch on television.  After all, the house is only so big.  (My husband refuses to buy us a bigger one – something about outflow exceeding income.  If you ask me, it’s a rather flimsy excuse for not wanting to move my 70 boxes of Christmas collectables).  So no matter how busy we are around here, we make tidiness a priority and rigorously clean the bedrooms.  Once per year.

I know.  Obsessive, right?  Well, my accountability group at church feels the exact opposite.  And they have spent much time and energy cajoling me to double my efforts and clean twice per year.  “Something, something organized something, something good steward.”  To make them happy, I have agreed.  (However, I have found feigning major illness usually takes one of the dates off the calendar.)

So, by this point in my parenting, I have perfected the once a year room clean-out to the level of efficiency and finesse only matched in nature by a Tsunami wave.  But unlike killer waves from the deep, we know when cleaning day is going to happen.  For months.

As a parent, one needs to remember that “surprising” kids with cleaning is just rude in addition to the fact that not since the little peeps figured out the Santa thing, have we wielded such a powerful parenting motivator.  To gain the upper hand for the summer months, gather the children around you in June, put on a serious “I’m the parent face” and mark off a Saturday in August with a giant scrawling “X”.  Make it in red or black ink with rather spidery legs so that it literally glows with doom on the calendar.  Then all vacation long when the little guy steps out of line, wag your finger in the air and state “Don’t make me move that date up, son.”  Show him the “X” on your google calendar (tech savvy wonder-mom that you are) so that even as he unrealistically whines about hiking in the BADLANDS on a 100 degree day, Armageddon  advancement is just a click away.

Here is a tip thrown in for free.  If your spouse is one of those loving, compassionate types, with a weak stomach for frothy mouthed ranting or possible bloodshed, you may want to send him hiking for the weekend.  It just makes things easier.  As eliminating the voice of reason usually does.

Step Two: Gather the right tools for the Job

God bless Martha Stewart.  And I quote, “The correct tools [referencing an antique bone paper creaser] make staying on top of household chores, or what have you, so much easier.”  Oh, how true, Martha.  How true.  Over the years, I have discovered that before catching my son and heading up the stairs in our own version of the Bataan Death March, it is very important to collect the appropriate supplies for the day ahead.  In addition to our normal cleaning staples, industrial strength vacuum (thank goodness we only crate that puppy upstairs once every 365!), gloves and goggles (see step 5), we take a few other necessities.  Namely, an entire box of “Hefty, Hefty, Hefty” garbage bags, first aid kit, two seasons of Adventures in Odyssey (oh the irony), my cell phone, sharpie pens, and 36 cans of Mountain Dew.

Step Three:  Debriding

Before stepping across the threshold, drink an entire can.  Trust me, there is simply not enough adrenaline in the body to take on this task until your resting heart rate is up to 110.  Upon entering the bedroom, steal yourself.   Every single parenting insecurity, real or imagined, will now jump on your psyche like Rugby players in the playoffs.  Take a deep breath.  Remember, today is about your child’s failings.  Not yours.

Expect that you will have a smooth beginning.  You will start separating the flotsam and jetsam into rational piles like the black shirted muscle guys on the Clean Sweep Crew.  Using the sharpie, clearly label hefty bags: “keep”, “donate” and “Oh my word how many times do I have to tell you not to keep food wrappers in your room unless you want to use your allowance to pay the exterminator.”  Write small.

When you start having a panic attack after seven minutes of cleaning, stop and recall that this is two minutes better than last year.   This might be the time to employ some of the self soothing mantras you’ve picked up over the years.  “Every day, in little ways, I am getting better and better.”  If this doesn’t work, loudly announce the need for a break and rock cross legged in the corner while your son wiggles like a sausage into a Superman t-shirt you bought when he was in preschool.  “Hey look, Mom.  It still fits.”

Step Four:  Clarify Cleanliness Standards

Periodically during the day use teachable moments to “refresh” your child’s understanding of how the world works.  Use extremely brilliant, philosophical questions.  “Do you think I do laundry for fun?” or “Do you know how a hanger is supposed to work?”  It’s good to demand rationales for incredibly bonehead discoveries, like “Why didn’t you tell me the fish died in March?”   And when your own thinking becomes muddled, don’t be afraid to come up with your own mixture of the tried and true, “Do you think your Dad is made of trees for money and stuff?”  Demand answers knowing that no possible response from your offspring could be remotely satisfactory.

Once you have decided what clothes are in the “keep” pile, take the opportunity to remind your little pumpkin that all of the laundry comes “folded” and not scrunched into golf ball sized wads in the back of a drawer.  It’s helpful to visibly demonstrate, as some sort of yearly mothering ritual, how to fold a t-shirt and place it in a stack knowing that given his “Y” chromosome, it probably won’t stick.  (Remember to clearly label all piles with your sharpie pen as you go because after the third can of Dew, you will be tempted to heft everything into one big mass labeled “stuff to get out of this house before I lose what’s left of my blooming mind”.)

Step Five:  Expect the Unexpected

When you do come across the failed science experiment under the bed or the ant farm that has branched out into risky real-estate schemes, it’s good to have a plan.  Made in advance.  When you still appeared sane, at least from a distance. Now is the time to don your homemade Hazmat suits including swim goggles and rubber gloves and get to work scraping the residue off the wood floor.  Since you’re on your knees anyway, pray for perspective.  Sigh with relief when you realize that you won’t be back here for another 12 months.

When you find strange divot marks across one wall and down the other, be prepared.  “It’s okay, Mom.  That happened BEFORE you told me not to swing the bat in the house.”  Take out your phone and text a friend.  Make elaborate plans to run away to a PTA meeting where they have the good sense not to allow anyone under 18.

Vacuum and dust.  Suck up the debris like a domestic tornado in search of “simplicity”.  Press on to the finish.  Reclaim the territory.  Firm up the boundaries.  Thus proving your worth as a parent and ward off the Super Nanny for one more year.

You can do it.  I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again.  Parenting isn’t for the lily-livered.

That was the plan.

That’s how it was supposed to go.  All summer long cleaning day hung over our heads like a grumpy cloud.  But like death and taxes, it can only be avoided so long.  Today is the day.

Cleaning day is here.

I am ready.  With the supplies in one hand and vacuum in the other, I head up to the bedrooms with the determination of General Patton.  Half way up the stairs, we stop.  My little camper is feeling down.  Perceptive as I am, I pick up on subtle signs like open whimpering.

“How about we pray and ask for God’s help today?”  I look down into his face.

My son blinks at me with a suspicion belying wisdom beyond his years.  His mother has a peculiar habit of evoking loud, rambling prayers as a last ditch effort to avoid going super-nova in Walmart.  “Okay,” he says.  “I’m going to ask God for you not to yell so much.”

I swallow hard.  Smart, smart boy becoming a man.  I agree to pray for patience for me and a good attitude for him.   Sitting together on the stairs, I pray and we decide that we can open some soda to “fuel up”.  Just this one time.  He laughs because I can “crack open” a can with one hand.  I love his laugh.

Half way up the stairs, we have picked up the right tools.

In his room, the normal panic and guilt consume me.  Threaten to pull me under.  When I find evidence of a visiting mouse, the room starts to spin.  “Good job not yelling, Mom.”  I look down into his friendly, brave face.  He is crouching next to me.  When was the last time we spent a day together?  Just me and him?  I smile back.

Encouraged, he races out into the hallway and reappears with a can of Mountain Dew.  “You drink this and I’ll put the sucker thing on the vacuum.”  I try to laugh but my face is stiff.  We sift through the remnants of a year.  The program to his Christmas play, his basketball metal, a funny note of apology from his sister.

“I have music for you, Mom.” he smiles plugging in his ipod.  “Rock music!”  He has planned ahead.  “It’s from that commercial with the dancing hamsters that makes you laugh.”

My son has paid 99 cents of his own money to download “Party Rock Anthem”.  I don’t know how to download anything.  I am dumbfounded.  We take a break and dance between the hefty bags.   The music is good but some of the lyrics are sketchy.  Ignoring, I dance with abandon.  The bedrooms of Rome weren’t cleaned in a day.

My little man works hard.  And I steal glances at him from the corner of my eye.  We laugh more.  Trying on shirts becomes a sport.  I fling with amazing precision.  One wraps completely around his head like a turban.  “That’s the money shot, Mom!”  This time I laugh for real.  A few minutes later, I make an elaborate show of vacuuming a foul smell from the air.  It sends us both into fits of giggles.  A sacrifice of time as no ten year old boy can recover from gastrointestinal humor in less than 20 minutes.

We haul the bags down the stairs.  I polish his small desk and line up his books.  He talks about the year ahead.  He wants to save for a computer.  He’d like to go to Texas.  I love the sound of his voice.  Today we have our own Odyssey and the CD’s remain in the hallway.  We make his bed and finish the vacuuming.  I turn on his lamp as the shadows begin to fall.  “This looks so amazing Mom.”  I look full in his face and agree.

At bedtime, he races up to his room rattling the windows of our old house.  Since Dad is still hiking, I come up to tuck him in.  He beams at me from under the covers.  I want to pick him up and hold him close.  But he’s ten.  Halfway to man.

In my own room, I fall into bed and pray.  I thank God for not using a stringent list of rules with me.  For not setting a standard I can never reach.  For befriending me in the midst of my messy life.  For grace that meets me coming up the stairs.  For his amazing love that dances around my garbage piles and reminds me that “what is ahead” is worth the effort.

Too hopped up on caffeine to sleep, I count my blessings.  One Christmas program folded in half.  A basketball medal found under the dresser.  A letter of apology from one sibling to the other.  A full life.  A slightly less full house. The unfathomable freedom to be found in Jesus who set me free from the law of sin and death.

I’m so thankful for a God who dances with joy when a boy half grown plans ahead for cleaning day with 99 cents of hamster dancing rock music.

And for bags so “hefty, hefty, hefty” they don’t leak disgusting fish water down the stairs.


Love Hollylu  7 < 8

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August is Lying to You!

There is a restlessness that comes over me this time of year.  Like a flea infestation in the dog days of summer.  I hear thoughts whispering gently, convincingly, into my consciousness.  “This is the year.  This is the year you will climb that mountain.”

Most people have these thoughts in January.  But let’s face it.  In January, I’m too hung over on a disabling combo of unmet Christmas expectations and processed white sugar to even consider making resolutions.  Although, I must admit to lying prostrate for hours in the living room watching football because the remote has gone missing again, envisioning myself at Weight Watchers or organizing closets.  But, it’s a lot like penguins thinking about flying.  It sure would be nice.  Not going to happen.

In August, it’s different.  As the back-to-school ads crank up and the shops are filled with perfect boxes of crayons and crisp white shirts for boys, I sort of get swept up in the whole concept of a fresh start.  This is the year.  I’m going to be THAT mom.

You know the one.  The one at the bus stop who looks like she just stepped out of the salon.  What is that glittering on her ears?  Earrings?  Egad.  I forgot I had pierced ears.  Somewhere in July I remember the last one falling off as I wrestled a comatose kid out of a sleeping bag and attempted to convince him to pee in the freezing blackness outside the tent, like a sensible person.   During the mad dash through summer, I forgot about jewelry.  Sparkly things are distracting.  I was focused on not losing one of my dusty, sweaty, popsicle covered offspring in a National Park.  Priorities, people.

But as summer excitement winds down, August sings to me.  Fall is coming.  See that family in the back-to-school Target ad?  See them casually flopped in a pile of leaves, all wearing color coordinated outfits , heads thrown back in laughter with amazingly white teeth?   That could be your family!  What with a little extra effort and some serious dentistry, you could have the year you’ve always dreamed of as a mother!  This is your time, woman!  You will be organized.  Your kids will be well coifed and studious.  Your dog will trot obediently behind you to the bus stop.  This is the year.  You will be THAT mom.

All I need is some sort of organizational tool and I will have preplanned, simmered to perfection meals on the table when my husband walks through the door.  I will convince the children that not all food is handed through a window or packaged in the shape of a “bar”.  I will stop spending the college fund on coffee at five bucks a crack because I left the filter in the coffee pot to the point of green mold again.  I will shop the sales, stock my cupboards like that Proverbs 31 gal, and not laugh hysterically at the thought of cooking one month of meals at a time to “pop out” of the freezer “when life gets busy”.  I will not buy food thinking, “How easy will this be to eat with one hand?”   We will sit around the table holding hands to say grace before dinner.  The children will have to learn.  Saying grace is not just for Thanksgiving.

August blows through my soul.  This is the year I will do laundry like a sane person.  I will say things like “Let me just get a load started before we dig into that book report due in two weeks, sweetie.”  I will not wait until every item of clothing we own is piled above the level of the window in the washroom.  We will not make jokes about “Mt. Laundry” as we drive to Walmart to buy new undies in a crunch.  We will banish the words “triage load” from our vocabulary and the 13 year old will not believe that a maximum capacity washer could be filled with only socks.  No way.

This the year I will wash and fold like a monk.   We will not leave piles of clothes on the stairs to be jumped over like an Olympic event because our home owners insurance is just not all that great.   I promise to not swear like a sailor when I find entire piles of already washed and folded laundry dumped into the hamper by my precious children.  I will sympathize with how hard it is for able bodied children to open a drawer.  Indeed, I will be so understanding that I will not launch into 45 minute tirades regarding Laura Ingalls Wilder washing clothes in the creek.  Even if I have the props and perfect sound effects for wet clothes on stone.  Instead, I will smile.  And I will pray.

This is the year we will not over schedule.  We will commit to a reasonable amount of activities.  “No you can’t go to soccer, basketball, Boy Scouts and honors band on the same evening, darling.”  I will be mature and not ruled  by my parenting insecurity that tells me fourteen sports and Japanese lessons will give my kid the “edge” in life.  Instead, I will dig out the chore chart I made in 2004.  I will motivate the children will peppy family mottos.  “Team Clean is Keen!”  This is the year my kids will develop character scrubbing out the toilet and clipping coupons for the family shopping trip.  It will happen.  Because I have an open square on a chart and hundreds of star shaped stickers.

And when we do head out for  “wholesome family activites” we will arrive on time.  I will not make the children cry because we are LATE and I have ratcheted up to 120 decibels to get the little pumpkins moving with sufficient urgency toward the minivan.   I will not careen into the church parking lot on two wheels shouting loudly, “Hurry up!  For crying out loud, how long does it take to eat a granola bar?”  This is the year we will walk, like a mother duck with her ducklings, into the building 15 minutes early and graciously greet others.  We will not straggle across parking lots with our tutus around one calf and over the other shoulder, sniveling, “Mom, did you even wash this?  It smells funny.”  We will not.

This is the year.  The sun will shine.  We will be organized.  Backpacks will hang on pegs.   We will not request the same permission slip 5 times only to phone desperately on the day of the event to give “verbal permission.”  Encouraging notes will be slipped into lunch bags filled with nutritious sandwiches prepared with love.  We will go to bed early.  We will get up on time.  We will discover something called “breakfast“ to be eaten at something called “kitchen table”.

August, how you whisper sweet nothings into my ear.  Paint a picture of perfection so beautiful, I am willing to get excited all over again.  Because every year, in August, I look at their long brown legs covered with picked over scabs.  Wild summer hair bleached by the sun hanging in their faces.  How have they grown so much since stepping off the bus in June?  So fast, too fast, their childhoods are passing.  Ankles poking out of jeans.  Shirts grabbing across the shoulders.   How can I want anything less than perfection for these hearts of my heart?

I really want to be THAT mom.  I hold the advertisements in my lap and sit cross legged  in the broken chair at the dusty picnic table.  And I pray.  And honesty steels across the scene like a sudden frost.  I know the truth.  My perfection quest is for me, not them.  To be the perfect parent would alleviate my guilt-a-thon filled nights.  I would be free from desperately wondering, “What if my shortcomings are stunting their growth?”  Like a flower, root bound in a tiny pot.   What if my disorganized, frenetic parenting style is keeping them from full bloom?

And sitting on the sundrenched patio, I hear God laughing.  Not a condemning laugh.  A welcoming, pulling, beckoning laugh.  The sun is so bright, I close my eyes and feel the warmth on my neck.  His call was never to perfection.  His call is to love.   “Be holy as I am holy.”  Moses had to take off his sandals because the ground before him was holy.  What can earth do?  Molecules of dirt cannot achieve perfection.  It was the presence of God.  He makes the vessels holy.  Holiness is God’s standard of perfection.

Holiness might not be a perfect meal.  Arriving on time.  Getting the “edge”.  Wearing socks that match… or are even clean.

Holiness might be sitting down to eat our 99 cent gas station tacos with grateful hearts.  It might be eye contact before talking.  Laughing for no good reason.  It might be listening with interest to a 55 minute explanation of Ninjago.  Or painting her nails even though her room is still messy and might remain that way until 2026.   Holiness might be allowing grace to trickle into the hurried moment.  “Can I help you find your shoes?”  How hard is that to say?  How hard is that to do?

I sit and listen as God’s laughter melts into song.  He is singing over me.  That’s what my Bible says.  I allow Zephaniah’s words to erase the Back to School chalkboard of expectations.

The siren call of August must be tempered and tamed.  My goal is not to climb the mountain.  Just one hill.  One day.  My call is to love.  Love freely.  Love here in the confusing, messy moment.  Love these kids.  Love this day.  Teach them that life is not about perfection.  It’s about holiness.  God’s standard.  The goal is more and more of Him.  Not just more and more.   Childhood is so short.  Life is too short to care about a standard achievable only in the world of photo shoots.

This fall, I will love with abandon.  And stack the laundry on the stairs because why mess with a system that works.


Hollylu  7 < 8

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