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Should I Clean My Teen Son's Room?

It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it ... or do they?

Kate Hass
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Published on: December 19, 2019

I know I shouldn’t do it, but I can’t stop myself. On the way downstairs with a load of a laundry, I pause at the door of my 16-year-old son’s room. And then I open it and look inside.

The situation is drastic. Crumpled candy wrappers litter the floor, along with tangled cords from various devices, orthodontic rubber bands, old Spanish flash cards, math worksheets and two skateboards. Amid this detritus are three inside-out coats and discarded clothes heaped in sedimentary layers — yesterday’s atop the previous day’s, and so on. On the desk I spot a half-eaten apple, several crusty cereal bowls and a nearly empty bag of florescent orange corn chips (not purchased by me).

If Nate’s room were the nuclear clock, it would be well past midnight.

My fingers itch to clean up this mess, and today is the perfect opportunity: Nate is out with his friends, not expected home for hours. One swift commando raid, and presto: Tranquility and order will be restored. For a couple of days, anyway. But at least I’d feel better.

My husband comes up the stairs to find me gazing at the shambles that is our son’s room. After 22 years of marriage, he knows exactly what I’m thinking. “Don’t do it,” he says. “Seriously, don’t.”

“But how can he live like this?” I burst out. “No wonder he can never find anything. How can he expect to succeed if he can’t get organized? Besides, look at this. It’s disgusting.”

“Yup,” says my husband. “Totally gross. But it’s his room. His private place. Close the door if you don’t want to see it.”

It’s a familiar argument. And our positions never change. I favor the occasional lightning sweep through Nate’s room, retrieving old homework assignments, tossing dirty clothes in the hamper, giving our son the opportunity to experience his domain as the oasis of calm and order that it so seldom is.

The deeper mess is beyond my reach: questionable friends, poor choices, an astonishing disregard for the consequences of his actions. It’s all totally normal adolescent behavior — and I can’t do a thing to change it.

My husband will have none of it. To him, it’s an issue of respect: ours for our son’s privacy. At 16, Nate should be allowed to order his own space any way he wants, and I should simply back off.

Boston-based clinical and developmental psychologist Dr. Saul Rosenthal calls for a middle-ground approach. “Adolescence is a time when kids develop their own autonomous identities,” he explains. For many teens, their bedroom is the one place in the house where they can truly shape their own image, a laboratory for developing their own individual living style. (“Sometimes,” he adds, “it seems to serve as a laboratory for developing new and potentially lethal forms of life.”) However, what’s important is to balance the needs of an increasingly independent teen with those of parents who consider basic hygiene non-negotiable. The freedom of privacy must come with the responsibility of meeting household expectations — such as no dirty dishes. If they can’t do that, says Dr. Rosenthal, “Parents will have to pick up the slack.”

Nate’s whole room is slack, in my view, but my husband stands firm. “Besides,” he adds shrewdly, “how is he going to learn to clean up after himself if you do it?"
 
The last thing I want is to foist upon the world an entitled young man who expects some woman to clean up his mess. But to be honest, I’m not worried about that. I have every confidence that Nate will learn to tidy his living space eventually.

Unfortunately, I am also confident that this wondrous transformation will occur only after he has moved out, and the pressure to clean comes from peers, rather than parents. Until then, the mess will continue to accrue in the domain where I pay the mortgage.

I don’t expect gratitude for my efforts. Nate gets cranky when he sees that his floor is bare and his clothes have been put away. “Why can’t you leave my room alone?” he demands.

The answer to that question is something I keep to myself. But I recognize that my cleaning sprees are motivated by more than just the desire for tidiness. They’re a way of addressing one aspect of my teenager’s life that I can actually control. The deeper mess is beyond my reach: questionable friends, poor choices, an astonishing disregard for the consequences of his actions. It’s all totally normal adolescent behavior — and I can’t do a thing to change it.

So, yes, I can admit that my semi-regular cleaning sprees are less for my son’s benefit than for my own. But I can also admit that my husband is right, too. I need to give Nate the privacy he needs. Still, nothing can prevent me from wading in today.

I’m getting my dishes back.

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