Q: "Our flock is 7, 10 and 12 -- great kids, BUT --
"I have a part-time job, three days a week, but this summer they've added another part-time job to it. It's called Cleaning Up After Children. I can't see how they can make so much mess so fast.
"The children are well taken care of between 9-4:30, when I'm at work, with the little ones going to Vacation Bible School, the eldest taking photography and all three taking some classes in swimming and gymnastics. I also swap time with a friend, taking her two children for one long weekend a month in exchange for her watching mine 11 hours a week.
"Still, the 12-year-old leaves a little later than I do and all of them come home about a half-hour before I do and no matter how much they promise to clean up after themselves, it looks like a tornado has gone through."
"Everything is topsy-turvy."
"Today I brought a friend home and was mortified. There were two wet swimsuits and some towels on the sofa; an empty bag of cookies on the floor; two sodas and a ring on the coffee table; three apple cores, a banana peel and about 50 cherry pits scattered everywhere (there was a war apparently); a bowl of dried-up cereal; 5 shoes and 7 socks -- and I won't even tell you what the kitchen looked like.
"As usual it took ages to put the house back together and as usual, I seethed the whole time. Do other parents live with such slobs? What do they do about it?"
A. Seethe. Occasionally explode. And eventually do some serious problem-solving. No artist ever had to be more creative than a parent trying to keep one step ahead of a child.
Over the years we've collected some tricks that work reasonably well, although nothing works so well as time. We think you'll find a child almost never leaves his apple cores around by the time he finishes college. If nothing else, he's learned to eat them.
What your great kids need right now is more responsibility -- and less nagging. And the only way you can nag less is by having the responsibilities typed and posted, so your bulletin board speaks for you.
Write simple rules for your children (and their overnight houseguests), which restrict eating to the kitchen, and call for the kitchen table to be left clean, the dishes washed or rinsed and in the dishwasher and the food put away. The bedrooms are to be tidied before going to sleep and the beds made before breakfast. The children are to help with the kitchen work at dinner. With some variations, these are the family's regular rules and, once posted, there isn't any reason for a child to say, "I didn't know" or "I forgot."
Nevertheless, they will forget, and that's why you have the final rule:
There will be a 15-minute Blitz every day.
And every work day you call home and say, "I'll be home in 20 minutes," which gives them enough warning to start the Blitz. And that's when they'll whirl around like dervishes to make the beds, wash the dishes, and get the cereal bowl out of the living room and many of the cherry pits, too.
We also think children do well with a Job Jar. Yours are old enough, surely kind enough and smart enough to do some extra work, but again, they'll do it better if they're told indirectly. That's why you and your husband -- and the children, too, if they'd like -- write down any job that needs doing in the house, the yard or the car that can be done in about 20 minutes and can't be undone by another day's dust or consumed in another meal.
It might be "Polish the copper pitcher (the polish is on the shelf with the cleaning supplies)" or "Wash the fingerprints off the living room doors with soapy water and rinse them" or "Pull the weeds under the two pink rosebushes." The jobs are written clearly on small pieces of paper, folded once and put in, what else, a jar.
The Job Jar can be assigned every day or whenever you're at home, with the parents participating or not, but each person can pull as many as three slips a day, to pick a preference. He also can do the work anytime between breakfast and dinner. Since you want your children to be independent, it's important to give them as many options as you can.
It's also important to treat this work as you would want your own housework to be treated.
That's why a child isn't punished or nagged if he misses a day nor is he paid for doing the work, any more than you're punished when you're too tired to cook or paid to make the meal. In a family, everyone is expected to chip in for nothing more than a "What a great job!"
By treating your children as capable people, you are giving them the respect they need to do their share. And that's about the only way they will.