Here’s just a small smattering of the little treats I find around the house on a daily basis:

• A plate containing half a pancake. Precisely half a pancake, carefully nibbled across its diameter.

• Dirty socks that often exceed, in quantity, the amount of feet available at any given time.

• Wrappers from mail, food, or newly discovered school supplies, strewn about at the precise location where said items were opened. 

My 13-year-old daughter marks her territory like a cat, leaving a visible trail so we know exactly where she’s been. A bowl with leftover food on the coffee table, towels tossed into the sink or onto the floor in the bathroom, half a cookie…. it drives the rest of us—me, my husband, and my 17-year-old son—bonkers. None of us are neat freaks, but her inability to do the bare minimum when it comes to taking care of her own messes stymies us all. 

I’ve run out of ideas to turn things around. Not only do I want my own house to be cleaner, I want to arm my daughter with the ability to take care of herself and her home in the future, so when she moves out she won’t get evicted by disgusted roommates who can’t take it anymore. Here’s what I have tried so far:

Yelling at Her

Well, I AM human. Sometimes it gets her to take action at that moment, but more often than not it degenerates, starting with her indignance at being yelled at and ending in my refusal to hear a list of historical times in our house when someone else didn’t clean something up immediately. 

Having a Real Discussion When Things are Calm

These go really well on the surface. I tell her how it makes me feel when the house is a mess, I talk about hygiene. I ask her what she thinks would help and what would make things easier for her. It’s always a nice conversation, but that’s it – the next mess shows up within the hour. 

Texting Photos of the Mess

That worked for about two days (and made me laugh a lot), and then it lost its potency. It was fun while it lasted. 

Interrupting Her When She’s with Friends Online 

She hates it! I told her that if she doesn’t clean up, this is what will happen, and that if she cleaned up after herself I wouldn’t have to do it. I remind her that if she cleaned up regularly, and then forgot once, I wouldn’t pluck her from her activities so hastily. She agrees this is fair. It changes nothing. 

But none of these are working, so I’m left with the following options: 

1. Nag her in every single conversation we have until she picks up her stuff.

2. Pull her out of every online conversation with her friends no matter what she’s doing until she picks up her stuff.

3. Pick up her stuff myself.

Not good choices. Either I turn our relationship into a nightmare of resentment and relentless arguing, or I find a way to live with conditions the way they are. I find neither of these acceptable. 

And you know what’s more unpleasant than being followed around and nagged relentlessly every time you put something down for a minute? Being the nagger. I don’t see why I should have to punish MYSELF because she won’t tidy up. 

I ask myself the same questions over and over. Is winning the war worth having daily battles in a time of COVID and quarantine and confusion? Is having a peaceful home a higher priority than having a clean one, given all of that? 

So parents, I ask you… what is your trick? My son cleans up without the need for strategy on our part. He isn’t perfect, but he takes care of himself and when asked to step up, he steps up. But what do you do when your other kid thinks you’re a fussy weirdo for asking her to pick up her own dirty socks, food wrappers, dishes, and general detritus? Help a mother out.

About Laurie Ulster

A transplanted Canadian living in New York, Laurie Ulster is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She writes about pop culture, lifestyle topics, feminism, food, and other topics for print, digital, podcasts, and TV.

View all posts by Laurie Ulster

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