I went into my 17-year-old son’s room to collect the accumulated dishes from his nightstand. I looked around and sighed. Mountains of clothes, discarded food wrappers and empty sparkling-water cans littered the space. I thought about the parent I’d recently read about who decided to clean her teen’s room but felt conflicted and overwhelmed at such a prospect. Maybe I should follow suit, I thought, but is cleaning a teenager’s room out of line?
Conventional parenting wisdom says that teens should be taught to be self-sufficient and care for themselves or they’ll grow into inept and selfish adults. There are so many “rules” for preparing them for adulthood: Don’t help with their laundry, stay out of their room and make cleaning it their responsibility, and for heaven’s sake, have them make their own lunch. Over the years, I did all of this, reminding myself that I was encouraging my son to become a healthy, independent young adult. But instead of watching my teen grow into himself with a sense of accomplishment and pride, these tasks were piling up and felt like yet another thing in his life where he couldn’t meet the mark.
One-size-fits-all advice can seem like a great life raft for parents, especially while navigating the rocky waters of the teen years. But the problem is that it doesn’t account for the vast differences among kids. Their experiences, their personalities and the roadblocks they face shape not only who they are, but also what capacity they might have for managing additional tasks.
From a very young age, my son struggled with organization and task management — things that were later confirmed as symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Years of crying over homework, finally completing it, then misplacing it resulted in a why-even-bother-I’m-not-going-to-succeed-anyway attitude. The room, the clothes, the lunch were all just a few more ways he was repeatedly asked to step it up, to do better.
I thought about how demoralizing it is to feel like you can never win and for the next few days, while he was at work, I chipped away at a few things. I did his laundry, I picked up the trash in his room, I vacuumed. On Monday morning, as I stood in the kitchen, making my 8-year-old’s lunch, I thought about how everything had become a standoff and wondered why something as simple as making a lunch had also become so complicated in my brain. So I made my son some sandwiches and tossed in some fruit. I brewed him a to-go cup of tea.
He came home with an empty bag and empty cup so I continued doing it. Each day I added more things to his lunch and each time I walked by his room I took a minute to grab a few things or straighten an area. It didn’t take long for his room to become mostly orderly. Now, when I ask him to grab some items off his floor or take his dishes downstairs, it’s a manageable task, one in which he can easily succeed.
Over the course of a few weeks, my son — who had previously rarely left his room and who’d stopped coming downstairs for dinner or hanging out with us — began eating dinner with us every night. He lingered in the common areas more, he played Slapjack and Catch Phrase with his sister and me, he piled onto the couch after school to share TikToks or tell me something about his day, he stopped me at the stairs and in the hallway for hugs. He thanked me.
I don’t mean to take the credit; I didn’t “fix” him. The reality is that helping him out has simply reduced the risk that our interactions will be laced with conflict. It has allowed us to be more present and to enjoy each other’s company. It has allowed me to more consistently appreciate him for who he is — a kind sibling who will take his sister out for ice cream and to the comic book store and the museum; a dedicated employee who never misses a day, who covers for his co-workers and jump-starts their cars; a compassionate human who offers half of his Christmas money to people panhandling on the sidewalk.
When my son was young, we’d work as a team to clean his room. I’d collect random school papers, doodles and snack wrappers and toss them in the trash, and I would quickly and methodically sort his toys while he’d get caught up examining a long-lost Lego or trying to master the Rubik’s Cube. “Focus. Let’s get this done,” I’d say on a loop.
Once, when he was around 10 years old, days after we’d cleaned his room and after the garbage truck had long gone, he started ruminating on the papers that I’d thrown out. He ran into the kitchen where his stepdad and I were prepping dinner, wailing that he was sure I’d thrown out the last things he’d had from the city we lived in before his dad and I got divorced.
In reality, there was no way paper trash would have made the journey from our pre-divorce home through the span of three years and as many moves. To him, though, those papers existed in his mind as the scraps of his former life. And I was the person who was responsible for all of it. For leaving, for taking him with me, for throwing it all away.
Now, folding his laundry, I hold up shirts I haven’t seen in a while — T-shirts from summer jobs, high school band and cross-country, ultimate Frisbee jerseys, and even a middle-school track straggler. He is sitting on the precipice of adulthood, a third of the way into his senior year, and I consider how his entire childhood seemed at once endless and fleeting, his clothes in my hands like a fabric scrapbook.
It's possible that helping my son is, in part, redemptive for me. I can't undo the pain that the divorce caused him, I can't turn back time and get him the school supports he needed sooner. But collecting his things, folding his clothes, making his lunch feels attentive and healing, like placing stitches over the torn and rough spots.
It’s not just about me, though. There are also important lessons for my teen about being helped. In a society in which independence is so relentlessly pushed, where accepting help is considered a sign of weakness or ineptitude, I want my son to understand that life isn’t prescriptive and that it’s okay to need help. I want him to know that he is more than just a pile of potential waiting to be molded, that he’s also valued as the young person who exists in the present. I need him to know that needing help doesn’t make him weak or a failure; it doesn’t mean he’s lazy or entitled. It means he’s dimensional, he’s colorful, he’s human.
Kathi Valeii is a writer in southwest Michigan. Find her online at kathivaleii.com.