Neat-freak kids: Nature or nurture?

Sometimes even parents can learn a lesson in cleanliness from their neat-freak kids.

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Photo: iStockphoto

As I write this, my eight-year-old, Anna, is upstairs cleaning her room. Not as a consequence, not even because I asked her, but because she has a “plan.” It hatched about a month ago and involves cleaning excess clothing out of her drawers, organizing her desk, paring down her collection of prized possessions on her dresser, removing books deemed “babyish” from her overflowing shelves, and getting ruthless about that stuffie collection that resides on the floor of her closet. She’s currently finished all of these tasks except the stuffies, which she’s working on right now. This cleansing process gives her a giddy sense of joy that she definitely didn’t inherit from her mother.

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Anna’s tidy bedroom.

No one would ever accuse me of being a clean freak. In fact, people who know me well would likely choke on their coffee if that question were even posed to me. I’m comfortable with clutter, though I do (or try to do) a weekly clean sweep of the build-up on tables, counters, etc. But in my world, items often don’t have proper homes, so they just hang out, staring me down until I figure out what to do with them. Sometimes, that takes a very long time (like until we’re having people over and I have to find a place to cram everything). The truth is, I don’t find cleaning cathartic or relaxing. It’s a necessary evil that gets in the way of all the other things I’d rather be doing.

Read more: How to clean your house in 10 minutes or less>

Meanwhile, my six-year-old, Avery, may very well be evolving into a hoarder. The girl’s room is overfull of toys and trinkets and rocks and papers and books and seemingly thousands of little what-nots. She finds boxes to store her boxes, and fills her closets to the brim with her stuff. Her dresser is practically toppling over with “special” things, and she sleeps with a collection of stuffies so huge that she basically has to wedge herself between them. She also likes to play on her bed (probably because she can’t find any space elsewhere), so it’s not unusual when I lie down with her at bedtime (balancing precariously on the edge) to find a box of crayons or a princess shoe or a jewellery box poking into my ribcage. And she loves it. She is perfectly happy there, with all her lovely things at arm’s length should she need them. Every once in a while, I devote a day to cleaning it out (without her, because she’d never let me get rid of anything) and setting up some kind of organization system (that is unrecognizable within a week), but honestly, it’s such an excruciating, futile undertaking that I often just let it go, making sure there is a path through the middle we can use without hurting ourselves.

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Avery’s… less tidy bedroom.

I know I’m probably doing her a great disservice by not helping her understand the importance of keeping a general level of tidiness in her room—in all of our rooms. I need to show her by example so she doesn’t grow up so at home in the land of clutter (imagine what her roommates will think of her!). But I have to wonder why Anna has a dominant clean gene that Avery’s body does not seem possess. Even when Avery does think she’s done a good job cleaning her room, I have to paste on a smile and say, “Well, it’s a good start…”

Read more: Reasons to let your child’s bedroom stay messy>

It’s funny—when I plunk a pile of Anna’s folded clothes on her floor for her to put away, it will drive her crazy (she won’t want to do the chore, but just must to appease her inner clean freak). Avery won’t even notice when I do this in her room. If Anna comes home and I’ve done a big house cleaning (or even a little one), she’ll joyfully exclaim how amazing the house looks. Avery will cry, “Where is all my stuff?”

Is it nature or nurture? I can’t be sure. I understand from his mother that Sean grew up quite the Mr. Clean. He always made his bed (still does, actually) and even asked her to show him how to do laundry when he was young. And I remember when we were dating that his apartment was always so tidy. I was impressed (and scrambled to clean up my mess when he was coming to my place so he didn’t think he was dating a total slob). But, sadly, I may have broken him of this habit. After this many years of living with me (plus, of course, the time crunch of jobs and kids and what have you), I’ve noticed that he’s able to overlook things he never used to, in terms of general house cleanliness. Though I’d never call him on it.

So, I put all my hope in Anna, and praise her to the sky for her conscientiousness with her room, letting her know how much I appreciate her efforts to stay organized (she’s great with her papers from school, schedule, agenda, etc., too), even though I know she’s not doing it for me. I tell her I could learn a lot from her, and that makes her feel good. Now, if only I were a better student.

Read more: Organization: 10 helpful tips to transform your home >

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005. Read more of her Tracy’s mama memoir posts and tweet her @T_Chappell.

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