My oldest son is three and half years old and seems to have entered into a new phase. The last few days it would seem his greatest joy is making a mess. He would dump out a bucket of toys kick them all over the room, toss some at the windows and call proudly out to me, “Look, Mommy, a BIG mess!” Once dumped he doesn’t want to play with the toys – dumping seems to be the joy he was going for. He hasn’t seemed satisfied with just one bucket of toys but procedes to find every possible dump-able container to add to the BIG mess.
Last night he made his biggest mess yet. After nap time it started. My other two children were happily playing with a small set of toys and my eldest began the dumping. Instead of my normal freaking out I decided to allow him to “take responsibility” for his mess and that he would be required to clean it up before his dinner. He would dump something and proudly call out as he does and I would respond with my new found empowerment, “No Problem!”
At dinner time I said, “Feel free to join us after you’ve cleaned up the toys.”
He would respond with, “Not right now.” (A phrase I am certain he picked up from me.) He dumped the bucket of action figures, the bucket of Hotwheels, two huge boxes of books, the train set, the shape sorter box of blocks and threw the toddler chairs in front of the door. The mess grew and grew and grew. The two younger ones ate dinner – and the mess maker showed no interest in one of his favorite pasta meals.
Our dinner guests arrived and the adults all enjoyed dinner, still he stated no interest in joining us. He would occasionally start to put books back into the box but by the second or third book he would get distracted and start “reading”. My middle child ate a huge dinner and he was able to get dessert. Sugar cookies! This was slightly motivating to the mess maker – he would poke is head out of the playroom and politely ask, “Excuse me, could I have a cookie or something?” The “or something” is an interesting little phrase he’s begun tacking onto many of his sentences. And I’d call back,
“Feel free to join us after you pick up the toys.” and he’d run back into the playroom without a word.
Dinner came and went, Video time came and went.
I went to put our little lady to bed and our middle child was starting his “bedtime routine” with daddy. I came down the stairs and into the playroom. What a disaster. I could hardly walk. It had now been over two and half hours and he had become destructive. He had started ripping book covers and taking my things off the walls. He even climbed up on a little table and turned the heater off. He sat in the middle of his mess distracted, looking at or playing with whatever happened to be in front of him. I had started to wonder if the mess was too much for a three year old. I know when my sink gets more and more full of dirty dishes I sometimes keep putting it off because I don’t know where to start. Perhaps, he kept making a bigger mess because it was all he could think to do. He didn’t know how to start cleaning up.
So I said, “Hey bud, how you doin’?”
“Look, Mommy, I ripped this book! Here you go” and he tries to hand me the broken pieces of paper. I ignored them.
“Do you want to clean up the books?”
“Would like some help cleaning up?”
“Yea” So I put a couple of books in the box and he started putting books in the box. As long as he kept moving I kept helping (just a little – I still wanted him to feel the weight of the mess he had to clean.) When he would stop and get distracted I would say, “Do you want to finish up on your own, or do you want my help?” And he would quickly regain focus and continue cleaning. Occasionally I would offer direction like, “Do you want to do the cars now or the train tracks?” And he would choose one. Surprisingly, once he got going he cleaned up very quickly and even took the time to make sure misplaced items were back in their proper bucket. He did a great job. I offered him my hand and he gave me a proud “high-five” and I told him he did a good job. I provided him a small bowl of pasta which he willingly ate and he went up to join the bedtime routine with his Dad and brother.
I am certain I didn’t follow the parenting techniques we ascribe to perfectly. We do our best to adhere to the wonderful wisdom from Loving our Kids on Purpose by Danny Silk and Love and Logic, Inc. After the children were down I put parenting psychology aside and had a revelation.
Making good choices is often a challenge for many of us. And it’s not uncommon to find ourselves in the midst of a really big mess. Be it failed or troubled relationships, debt, the misuse of drugs, joblessness or even jail. Sometimes we’re in such a mess we don’t even recognize it and we just keep dumping more mess into our lives with more poor choices even to the point of self destruction. This seems easier than cleaning up our mess, it reinforces what we believe about ourselves that mess is all we are capable of, or we just get distracted from how awesome we are and the dreams we have. Maybe we don’t know where to start.
It’s possible all we need is a little help. Expert mess makers are great at building their lives around people who will clean up their messes for them. Asking for help isn’t that difficult for them – it’s part of their messiness. With a toddler it’s usually easier and faster to just pick up the mess ourselves – but then they are always looking for us to clean it up for them. What we really need is someone who will come encourage us to clean up.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Psalm 46:1
Our God is always with us and willing to help but He will not help us continue to be destructive. When we choose to continue destroying our lives he stands by and waits patiently for us to turn to him. I wasn’t going to help my son make more mess but I did come along side him and ask if he wanted help – I showed him how to start. As soon as we take one step towards cleaning up our mess God is there with the strength and encouraging presence we need. He is continually speaking to us words of wisdom and revelation but we must tune in to listen. He is always there asking, “Would you like some help?” and ready to provide some.
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Psalm 103:8
If you find yourself in a “big mess” seek God’s guidance and help to clean it up. Coming to Him and admitting you made a mess is your first step. Own your mess, take responsibility for what you made. Then receive the strength and grace He provides. Feel free to seek the help of others but make sure you are the one doing most of the “cleaning.” Once you get started you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get back on track.
Of course, I recommend the book and website included above.
Loving our Kids on Purpose by Danny Silk