A couple of months ago, I was so utterly sick of the state of The Boys’ Bedroom, that I was obliged to declare a State of Emergency. The Boys were banned from their room, they slept in my bedroom, while I slept on the sofa, and I went in with a digger I had borrowed from the Council. I will tell you now that this took one week. Eight and a half hours went into the tidying and cleaning of that room, after which I removed all their toys to the outhouse and left them with only books (which are a human right not a privilege), crayons and Leicestershire for their recreation.
They were then given the opportunity to win the boxes back through continued tidiness and good behaviour. I nailed a typed programme to the wall, which detailed in large simple words the 8 steps to tidying their room (which should have begun with “My name is Boy the Elder/Younger and I am a dirty, untidy boy” followed by a round of applause).
Within a week it looked as though I had never been in. I walked in at the end of a rainy afternoon which had necessitated indoor play and actually burst into tears. They had managed to trash the room with books, clothes, paper and things that they had salvaged from Outside which included sticks, leaves, jars full of insects, hub caps (my own fault), pieces of wood, wire netting, dirty cups and plates and a camouflage net.
I confess that at this point I absolutely lost it, and even though my remonstrations were verbal, they looked genuinely frightened. But it was still not enough. The problem is that my children are interesting and have vivid imaginations; they can make something out of the most unexpected things and see anything they find as a piece of glowing, shimmering potential.
I consulted my recently rediscovered cousins, Longlost 1 and Longlost 2, who both have grown up children and know a thing or two about the iniquities of revolting minors. They declared that I could not win and that there were no circumstances in which I could win. I feebly protested that surely it was my job to teach them to be tidy and clean or how would they learn? They sensibly argued that I have spent the last 12 years in this thankless task and so far nothing has worked.
Their advice was this:-
1. Let them live in whatever squalor they choose, but if their clothes don’t make it into the wash basket, they will not be washed. This will mean that they have to go to school in dirty clothes and there is nothing like the disapprobation of your peer group to persuade you to smarten up and change your pants.
2. If their room is untidy, they will not be allowed to have friends round to play/hang out.
3. Continue the rule of absolutely no toys downstairs without a chitty signed in triplicate with their own blood. Any that are not taken back upstairs after one warning will be thrown away.
I bit the bullet, although it felt fundamentally negligent. I have to admit that it has taken the pressure off with regard to constantly nagging to tidy their room and the threat of no friends gives an intermittent incentive to clear up. The dirty clothes thing is working, although the occasion when Boy the Elder left for school with no socks or pants was buttock clenchingly awful, but it only happened once. He had PE.
I have only returned two toy boxes to them and, other than one (ignored) plea for the Smalls Cars and Vehicles Box, it has made no difference to them whatsoever. Very telling – and my children have more toys than some, but a lot less than most.
One of the activities that they both love is Junk Modelling, and with an age difference of five and a half years, it is often hard to find things that they can do together. I keep a large bag behind the kitchen door into which I put any bits and pieces that I think are interesting and useful. Egg boxes, cardboard tubes, lolly sticks, foil cake cases, polystyrene shapes, match boxes etc and they can then help themselves.
They have a pot on the dining room table which has biros, pencils, scissors and sellotape and an Art Box under the stairs full of paints, crayons, felt pens and interesting paper. They do it for hours; spaceships, rockets, houses for creatures, robot limbs, masks, sculptures, you name it. Sometimes they are then thrown away and sometimes they are broken down and returned to the bag.
I’ve always tried really hard to find the balance between not giving in to the mountains of pre-formed plastic rubbish that are beamed into our homes from the television, but not isolating them from their peer group. They own a Nintendo DS and they are allowed restricted access to the computer. They get pocket money and they can spend it how they wish. But it has really brought home to me how little they actually need. I know someone who spends more than £500 on EACH of her children at Christmas. After about a year, those presents end up in black plastic bin liners. I just hope I live near her local tip.