The Dance We Do

by Gigi Ross on February 1, 2013

I sat in a turquoise saucer chair and stared indifferently at the kaleidoscope of colors that is my daughter’s room decor.

In a rare-for-me, think-before-you-speak moment, I contemplated what to do after I uttered the words downstairs twenty minutes prior:

Little CEO, I’m going upstairs to check on how you cleaned your room. Since you lied about cleaning it yesterday, trust me when I say that if it’s not clean now, I will be ruthless in my punishment.”

She saw that I meant business and had run upstairs a second time to check her own work before I could conduct my inspection.

I turned my focus from her fuzzy rainbow rug to the things that she missed in her quality control check; the same things she always misses: books strewn across the floor, stuff put haphazardly on a shelf (now falling off said shelf), 5 or 6 Things The Dog Will Chew not in their proper place.

My daily orders to her are few. Simple. Clear to understand: Make your bed. Organize your stuffed animals. Get everything off the floor and in or on the drawer/box/shelf/purse where they belong. Get dressed. Brush your hair.

These have been the orders every day for the last 3.5 years. I don’t ever forget to give them. I’m the quintessential scratched-up broken record.

Today’s attempts are good by her standards, but yesterday I asked her to  put away four things that she had left downstairs. I gave her specific instructions to not leave them on the bed or on the floor. She said, “Yes, ma’am” and went upstairs. When she came back down, I asked: “Did you put everything away where it belongs?” “Yes,” was her reply. It was only when I tucked her in that I saw that she had not put away the items and that she had lied to me about it.

I have grown weary of this dance we do, she and I. I am becoming less tolerant with each day. In fact, my expectations of her grow in inverse relation to the number of times she fails to do what I’ve asked. I cut her fewer and fewer breaks. I get angry, she cries. She says I’m sorry, and I believe that means she intends to change. She doesn’t change, or can’t, and I feel helpless and baffled.

I stare at her green polka-dotted quilt, the bed where she escapes into storyland each night, buried under a stack of books, and I have an internal Jekyl-and-Hyde with myself:

I’m too hard on her. But she should do what I ask.

How clean her room is should not be that important. It’s critical that she know how to clean up after herself and learn to take care of things responsibly. Besides, it’s not just about her room.

I don’t want to be ruthless in my punishment- who even says that. I have to follow up with the consequences that I threaten.

She is a creative free spirit and she’s thinking about other things. Focus on her strengths. She still needs to follow simple rules.

I decide if I died tomorrow, I wouldn’t want her to  remember me as ruthless. I come downstairs and ask her to come into my office. I shut the door. I tell her that I am disappointed. That I feel disrespected. That I feel like giving up. I exact no punishment today.

She cries and gives me a hug and says, “I’m sorry.”

Here comes the dance again. I think she is sorry – sorry that she got busted. I am sorry that I don’t trust her. I am sorry that I don’t think she’s sincere. I am sorry that I have no confidence that tomorrow’s outcome will be any different than today’s. I only rest my hopes on having spoken plainly to her instead of yelling or talking about reward charts or cancelling a play date: maybe she will surprise me.

Two hours later, I go upstairs. She has not returned to her room to fix any of the things that were wrong. This technique has not worked either. I add it to the list of Failed Strategies For Getting My Daughter To Respect Me.

My heart sinks as I sit back down on her saucer chair. I fear for my relationship with my daughter. I’m scared for what will happen as she ages and we have bigger things to face than “clean your room.”

And I wonder what to do.




Lea Ann February 1, 2013 at 4:17 am

That can be soooo frustrating! Because you don’t want them to grow up and live in a pit as an adult. Have her sit down and watch an episode of Hoarders with you. That did it for my oldest. Now he’s a neat freak. Not kidding.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 7:58 am

That would definitely have shock value. Most consequences we try to impose have zero impact on her….definitely a different alternative to what we’ve been doing.

Renee Schuls-Jacobson February 1, 2013 at 6:39 am

I went through this dance to with my son when he was about your daughter’s age. You know what my husband and I decided to do? We decided — less stuff.

If he couldn’t take care of the things that he had, we decided to remove one item at a time.

It worked.

After a short time, our son found he was able to get on top of his things. He developed systems to determine when it was time to let go of something. But until he was ready, we did not introduce any new items into his room.

One day, we found his room was clean. He’d cleaned it. And the next day too. And the day after. He asked if we could go to the library to get some new books. We did. They stayed neatly stacked on his bedside table. So we gave him a few of his things back. And then he earned more things back. And then he realized, some of the things, he didn’t even want back.

We let him have weekends off, do he doesn’t have to feel like a slave to his chores, but eliminating some of the stuff made a big difference.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 7:55 am

Love this idea. I often purge her stuff on my own, just to help simplify things for her, but she is a mini hoarder and places lots of attachments on things. She can accumulate quicker than I simplify.

So did you tell him what you were doing and why, or did you just take the stuff away and make him think it was gone forever, making his earned rewards a surprise? And where the hell did you keep it all? Last week she left something outid specifically asked her to put away, so I said I was getting rid of it. Discovered later she had dug it out of the trash ( in the laundry room, not kitchen…she’d be too grossed out) and hidden it back in her room.

Melissa B February 1, 2013 at 7:57 am

I am living (and feeling) this same situation right now and look forward to reading what others have to say about it. Just last night, I was venting to my husband about how I am just drained! Drained from saying/doing the SAME THINGS over and over and over every day…nothing changes. Insanity, I know! There has to be a better way……

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 8:01 am

It’s emotionally so draining! I’ve even said that to my daughter: “it’s exhausting to have to repeat myself.” On the other hand, have I made it a bigger deal than it should be because I am kind of over the top on not liking clutter? Maybe I’m the problem. This is what I ask myself every day.

Jester Queen February 1, 2013 at 8:01 am

I would argue – argue in the academic sense, not in the ‘here let me be a judgmental biatch sense – that there could be something else going on here. (The reward chart isn’t a bad idea.) Yesterday, for the six hundred forty fifth time, I sent Caroline off to change out of her ballet clothes, with explicit instructions about where the removed ballet clothes went. Yeah. Only those ballet clothes were strewn on the floor (as they always are) when I came to check. I’ve made her dance in street clothes before when she couldn’t find her leotard. (Your responsibility = your problem). But it doesn’t sink in.

In our case, the reason is Asperger’s combined with ADHD. The kid is a space cadet. If I give her more than one thing to do at once, only the first or last thing in the list gets done. If I want her to do more than one thing, I have to write them down and tell her to check off the items on the list as she does them. Room cleaning days look like this

Pick up all the books and stack them in front of your bookshelf
Straighten the bookshelf
Add new books
Straighten again.
Next, pick up all your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper
Put the hamper in the hall.
If the hamper gets full, you have permission to throw dirty clothes into the hall
Now pick up the trash and throw it away
Rescue your stuffed animals and put them in their spots (this one is hardest because she has too many and they go in a thousand VERY SPECIFIC places that only she knows, but she never remembers to put them there).
And now your room is clean.

And she has to check each item off one by one and call me when she’s through. And if she’s not really done, I erase her checkmarks, walk out of the room, and tell her to let me know when she’s finished.

I would say that there’s something underlying your daughter’s behavior, too. Obviously, not the same things as my kid. It could be anything from testing boundaries to feeling overwhelmed with a list you consider small but she may consider huge. If you can talk to her at a neutral time (like schedule a meeting) maybe you can get her to suggest some solutions? Sometimes if kids come up with the fix themselves (or the consequences) they are more likely to implement them.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 8:08 am

Reward charts have been a disastrous failure. But I agree, it’s larger than just room cleaning and there may be something under the surface. ADD has been discussed but I hesitate t rush too quickly into going down that road. Talked about it to her teacher (20 years teaching) and he said, “no way…she’s a little messy but I see no other issues.”

We haven’t tried te “you suggest a solution” in a while…maybe 2 years. Could be time to revisit. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. :)

julie gardner February 1, 2013 at 8:25 am

Oh how I know this dance of which you speak.

On literal level, the clean-up-your-room issue thrives between my daughter and me. But I finally realized two things with her:
A. She genuinely thinks she’s cleaned her room (it’s just not to my standards.)
B. Having her “stuff” strewn about makes her feel like the room is HERS (unlike the rest of our organized house she can’t control).
So I get it.
And I stopped asking her to clean it on weekdays. But she knows she can’t have any friends over from Friday through the weekend until she’s addressed it and if she’s waited all week, it’s a MESS and much more difficult to clean. Logic would dictate that she’d straighten more frequently to avoid this. But she doesn’t. So. There it is. And we never fight about it. Not worth it.

(P.S. I was a slob as a teenager and definitely figured out how to clean a room so I stopped worrying that I wasn’t training her how to keep a neat home.)

On a global issue, the dance is between my son and me. For 15 years. A struggle between my picking at him until he gets upset and I apologize.

And we get nowhere.
I think it’s just parenting. But I feel the same way you do about not wanting him to remember me being ruthless.

But I want to push him; it’s my job to have high expectations, right? Ugh. It’s so hard to do this motherhood thing right. I just trust that he knows that in the end, I’m doing my best.

Then I remind myself he might be doing that too.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 10:17 am

I always love your perspective.

Yes…I think there is an element with my daughter that she does think she’s done a complete job in her mind (however ridiculously incomplete it may look to me). And I’m less upset when she at least tries and gets most of the way there than when she says she’s done something and she’s clearly lied about it.

I also know that I always felt my mom was so nitpicky. There’d be a magazine on the table and she’d be all, “OMG THIS HOUSE IS
A WRECK!” Of course, despite my loathing of that high standard, I’ve inherited it. Gawd.

And you’re’s more than about the immediacy of whether she cleans her room. I struggled writing this post because while it’s about that, it’s also about how I parent generally: am I too hard, do I expect too much, do I expect not enough. It’s this push-pull I struggle with. I want to provide structure and discipline and teach them to be accountable, responsible, and of course, loving people. But I also don’t want to do it in such a way that they lose the message and remember how I am delivering it (usually with exasperation, yelling, whatever the over the top reaction is du jour) or that I delivered it too often, didn’t pick my battles, etc. I’m pretty hard core, because that’s how I was raised. As a teen, I resented my mom for not trusting me – and I truly deserved the trust, BTW, my most serious infraction ever being 10 minutes late from curfew and at least having called to say I’d be late. I wonder if God’s creating this opportunity with my own daughter so that I can avoid that same scenario. Sometimes I wonder if I need to loosen the reins a little. Of course, in this situation, I tried that and she didn’t rise to the occasion. And that’s where I get so disheartened.

What is evident from the super thoughtful comments I’ve gotten on this post so far is that there are a million ways to skin the cat, different ones being effective for different types of situations. All we can do is keep on trying. :)

Christina Berry February 1, 2013 at 8:33 am

I’ll just start by saying I’m the mother of a 22 year old who wishes she could do it all over again. Looking back, there’s so much I’d do differently, now that I’ve seen the results of my ways.

I always tell people you’ve absolutely got to get control of your kids when they’re young, or you’ll be utterly helpless when they become teenagers. I’m not exaggerating. If you can’t say no now, if you can’t make them behave now, the teen years will be torturous. Take it from someone who’s been there.

Are you too hard on her? No, I don’t believe so. You’re asking her to do simple, reasonable things. Today it’s cleaning her room, in 10 years it will be something bigger, something where the the stakes are higher. She has to learn to follow the rules now, or when she is older the consequences will be brutal and could have lifelong impact.

I also say, don’t negotiate with your kids. You’re the parent. You’ve lived a long time, and you know what’s best. When you negotiate with a 2 year old (or an 8 year old or an 11 year old), you’re setting a precedent for the future. If you want your kids to obey your rules, you’ve got to be firm. They have to learn that what you say, goes.

Even as a little boy, my son was always sorry when he disappointed us. And like you say about your daughter, I truly believe he was sorry. Sorry he got caught, that is. Sorry he might be punished and lose a privilege. But not sorry that he broke Mom’s heart. I think the same is true about your daughter. If she’d been truly sorry, she’d have gone right back to her room and fixed the things you talked about.

I wasn’t good at the follow-through when my boy was little. I’d threaten a punishment, but not always implement it. Or if I did implement it, such as a week’s grounding from video games, I’d cut the sentence short after a day or 2 of good behavior. I can’t tell you how badly I wish I’d stuck to those punishments from beginning to end.

Oh Gigi, I could go on for days but I’ll shut up. I just want to say that we have such a brief time to teach our kids the right way to do things and the right way to behave. Eventually they reach the point where they can no longer be taught and they start making their own decisions. It’ll come sooner than you think.

My advice is continue to be firm. Continue to have high expectations of her. Implement a consequence when she doesn’t meet expectations. Don’t negotiate. Always let her know that you love her dearly, but that disobeying and being disrespectful is not an option.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 10:22 am

I’d love to have cocktails over this topic with you, Christina. It sounds like you have had so much experience in this regard. It’s so true that the time we have to teach and influence is incredibly short. I’m already seeing with my son that outside influences are beginning to seep in ( of course, none of them good). I’ve taught them both the same way thus far; and yet, they respond completely differently. I think alot has to do with personality, too. My son is a rule-follower, a people pleaser, intuitive, does not like to disappoint people and has this powerful moral compass that blows me away. My daughter pushes the envelope and tends not to take accountability for what she’s done, she is clever and doesn’t care what people think. There’s a reasonshe’s called Little CEO on the blog. I believe that she has a million great qualities – many of which are the ones that are confounding right now but that I hope can be shaped into making her a confident adult who uses her powers for good :). It’s getting from the A to B that I’m finding the greatest challenge.

Thank you for all of your wisdom. It is truly appreciated. One thing about parenting is that I’m forever reminded of how much I still don’t know. :)

Diana February 1, 2013 at 8:38 am

I have the same issue with my 10 year old. My rule is that her room gets cleaned on Saturdays and picked up during the week (dirty clothes). She is also one the loves to read and gets easily distracted. I think she forgets what she is supposed to be doing as she is walking to her room. I honestly think she doesn’t “see” some of the junk that ends up in the corners of the room. One day after telling her yet again to pick up after herself she asked me (tears in her eyes) if I thought she had ADD because she is so forgetful. I told her no, she is just a little girl with other things on her mind. I know that it is frustrating to have to keep repeating ourselves, but I also realize (having 2 older kids) that she will grow out of it and start doing it on her own. I think I had to remind my son every day, twice a day to brush his teeth until he was 12! Then one day he changed and I didn’t have to remind him to do any of that kind of stuff. It will get better. Just love them and keep giving little reminders.

I do like the idea of getting rid of some of the stuff. I’m always saying “if it doesn’t have a home, you can’t keep it”. haha

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 10:26 am

Thanks, Diana! It’s encouraging to hear. It sounds like our girls are very similar. I, too, know that she forgets what she’s doing on the way up the stairs. And as another commenter said…in her eyes, she sometimes truly believes her room is clean and she’s done a great job. And I get stuck at that point: she’ll be so proud and stand there like, “look, Mom, it’s all done!” and in that moment I debate whether to say, “No it’s not, look at all the stuff you missed.” to “Great job!” I usually point out what she’s missed and sometimes I question whether I need to really worry about the 5 things in the corner. Maybe I should just be happy if she’s gotten 80% instead of demanding 100. It is difficult to strike the right balance!!!

Diana February 1, 2013 at 11:01 am

That is exactly Jolie. She comes and tells me her room is clean and there are literally small “items” along the wall and in the corners. I pointed them out to her and she actually seemed surprised that they were there. We swept those misc items up together so she could see just how much was still laying around, haha. I also told her that spiders like clutter and that I am trying to avoid her getting spiders in her room. I think that might have worked. We’ll see this weekend. lol

Sheila @ Pieces of a Mom February 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

I swear we are soul sisters. I am living in a parallel universe. Same issues but x2, having 2 little girls. I know my expectations are high, and my need for control and a clutter-free home are at the forefront of my daily nagging. Some days I am able to let go, and others I just cannot.
My words fall on deaf ears on so many days, but my fear is that my daughters will leave the nest and be incapable of keeping a clean apartment, dorm room, etc.
To children it seems like nagging. To us, it’s parenting. We see it as our job to give them the necessary skills to live a life independent of us. They, obviously, cannot see that right now. In 8 years, when my oldest is in college, perhaps she’ll realize what I was attempting to do for her.
Until then, I will continue on my path. There will be days when I compromise and days when I refuse to give in.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 10:28 am

Yes, it does sound like we are living parallel lives. It’s my strongest desire for my kids to be responsible adults. You keep reading all these news articles about this generation of children and how they’re entitled and so used to being rewarded for every last thing that they really have no ability to function independently because everything has been done for them. I want to avoid that. Yet I also know how I handle the teaching of those lessons is not always the best. I realize I focus on the negative ALL the time and I realize that I am probably way too uptight about how their rooms and the house generally look. I have such a hard time finding the right balance.

Jayme @Random Blogette February 1, 2013 at 10:30 am

This is so my life and it is so frustrating. I have it with my 7 yo and my 11 yo. I think it is harder for me with my daughter because we are so much alike. I lose my cool too easily with her and she cries. My son is also difficult but he pretty much keeps to himself. I constantly explain to both of them that we are not doing this stuff to be mean but we are doing it to prepare them for life as they grow up. It is just so frustrating saying the same things over and over again and it is like we are speaking another language to them.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Yep – my daughter and I are very much alike as well (of, except for one of us is a bit of a slob and the other is not!). I think that makes it all the more challenging.

Kristin February 1, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Oh, Gigi. This post totally speaks to my soul. My daughter and I have been doing the same dance for over a decade. My heart hurts and my spirit is weary. I worry about how she’ll ever manage in the world on her own when she can’t even fulfill the basic requirements if contributing to our family. I am planning to print this post for her to read. I pray that she can hear the love you have for your daughter in your words and in your dilemma and know that I feel the same way for her, and I only want to see her grow into a happy, healthy, successful woman.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Yes! This is the other point I’ve tried to drive home with my daughter: you have a responsibility to the family to do your share and generally speaking, she doesn’t pull her weight. Let me know how your conversation goes; I’ll be interested to hear. I”ll keep you in my thoughts :)

Meg {Phase Three of Life} February 1, 2013 at 3:20 pm

This must be incredibly frustrating. You’re doing everything right, a fact that is evident by the amount of care and thought you are putting into this. My first thought was – if you ask her to put it away, and it’s still on the floor, it becomes yours. Sort of along the same lines that Renee said. You have given her the choice, and she decides the fate of her stuff. It becomes yours until she proves she is trustworthy and responsible. You determine when that is – maybe it’s two weeks, maybe it’s two months.

My parents did something similar to that with my brother, and I remember it being very effective.

Another effective strategy from my parents that has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but which I totally plan to use: If they slam their bedroom doors, they lose their bedroom doors. After several “stop slamming the door!” arguments, they took that door right off its hinges. A teenage boy with no bedroom door! It was hilarious (for me, anyway). Totally freakin respected my parents when they did that.

Anyway, hang in there, mama. You’re doing the best you can.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Yes…I’ve seen a little thing on Pinterest where you put their stuff in a bin and its got a note on it that they need to do a chore to get it back.

Of course the last time I took something away from her she found it when I wasn’t home and put it back in her room. I had no idea how to even respond to that move.

Jennifer February 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Also? You are not alone. I have these exact same conversations with my eight year old. I just don’t understand why she cant’ so simple things I ask. Well, I know that she CAN do them. I don’t know why she WON’T do them. Even something as simple as brushing her teeth or properly cleaning her body. Who wants to have nasty teeth and a dirty body? But if I ask or try to enforce it just makes it worse, and I have NO ideas about what to do.

Gigi Ross February 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Yes, yes, yes. I have to beg mine to wash her hair and wiping her butt? Fuhgedaboutit.

I don’t want to devolve this into a bitchfest about my kid. But it’s soul sucking. I want our interactions to be more than “did you brush your hair, this is the third time I’ve asked?” And “did you clean your room?” But that’s what it is. I’ve become a giant nag.

Anastasia @ eco-babyz February 1, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Exactly the story of my day today. Every day. Ugh.

Chris Carter February 1, 2013 at 10:16 pm

What’s really important to her? Use that as your discipline. My kids (7 and 9) CONSTANTLY don’t do or FORGET to do the very things I ask them EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I have tried so many things and I end up yelling or freaking out saying how they are told EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. and it gets me no where. NOW- I realize that if I find their true deep love… which can change as they change and grow- I calmly take it away with a matter of fact words and it’s done. No yelling, no threats, just the consequence. Example:
“You didn’t put your back pack away like you are supposed to do every single day. You know this. You now have ten minutes taken off your tv time with me tonight.”
“You didn’t put away your ipod like I had asked. You have lost the privelege of playing with it for the rest of the day. I bet you will remember to put it away tomorrow. (as he whines and the day is agonizing for him)”
if your daughter is really young… I would go into her room and watch her clean it. Not say a thing. Just watch. And you will learn how she processes cleaning. If you think she knows all too well how to clean her room the way you ask… then set up the parameters for if she doesn’t do it then- “this” will be taken away.
I have taken so many toys away because they were not put away correctly!!! Next time you check her room- just take everything that wasn’t put away correctly- take it! it’s gone because she can’t treat it with respect. She’s going to learn real quick what respect means to both her belongings and her mom. :)

Kanelstrand February 3, 2013 at 4:10 am

After our Twitter chat the other day I woke up with this thought:

What if you tell your daughter that she’s done a great job with her room but point out the things she has forgotten and help her put them back in place.

Then I guess next time she will surprise you with just the same room and the same stuff left out. And then again, point out where she has fallen short but this time make her fix the things herself while you are still in the room, so you can monitor how work is done at the moment.

And next time again until she learns that there is no way out and she simply has to do it.

I see now a similar advice by Chris Carter. I guess it’s also a good idea to take the stuff away as she suggests.

Lady Jennie February 5, 2013 at 11:31 am

My friend throws away everything she finds out after the kids go to bed and they know it. There has been some heartbreak, but honestly, her kids are so sweet, disciplined, well-behaved. I hope my kids turn out like hers (but I’m more like little CEO).

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