Natalie and her ADHD friends were so proud of their efforts at cleaning, organizing, and decluttering her playroom. And so was I, until I looked in the trash can.
by Kay Marner
Last weekend Natalie had two of her friends over to play, but they couldn’t think of a thing to do. They were soooo bored. So I said what I always say after they pooh-pooh my every idea for entertaining themselves: "I can put you to work. There are plenty of chores to do.”
Miracle of miracles — perhaps because they talked me into paying them — they jumped at the chance to do chores. The girls — ages 10, 11, and 12 — two with ADHD and and one who is being tested for it, washed and dried dishes, carried the dirty laundry from the upstairs bedrooms to the basement, and emptied wastebaskets. Best of all, they cleaned up Natalie’s play area in the basement, which was a gargantuan task.
If you are parenting a child with ADHD, the mess in Natalie’s play area might sound familiar, whereas your typical civilian parent would be appalled. Picture Legos spread over every surface, the instruction books ripped apart and thrown every which way. The pieces from a couple of board games scattered about, boxes crushed or missing. Miscellaneous garbage hiding under piles of debris: fudge bar wrappers, papers from playing school, paper airplanes. And every book that Natalie owns, for no apparent reason, removed from the bookshelves in her room and relocated to the basement, where a few rubbed shoulders with random junk in the toy box while the rest littered the floor.
The questions the three girls asked me as they worked led me to believe that they were doing a great job with their clean-up task. They asked for, and filled, several garbage bags and carried them to the garage. When they weren’t sure what to keep and what to throw away, they asked me to sort through it. They asked where the books should be shelved, and seemed to get it when I said to put the age-appropriate books on one bookshelf in Nat’s bedroom, carry the second bookshelf to the basement, and put the books Natalie’s outgrown there. I watched the three girls maneuver the bookshelf down two flights of stairs. I heard words like “organize” and “sort” being bandied about. They were doing a great job, as far as I could tell. It would be well worth the money I had promised them. I was thrilled.
They finished just before it was time for the two girls to go home, and they proudly asked me to inspect their work area. It looked fabulous. I paid them, and knowing that Natalie was trying to save up to buy something special, both girls donated their wages to Natalie. What wonderful friends!
I would soon learn that the words “clean,” “sort,” and “organize” — and even the word “trash” — mean something vastly different to Natalie, with her ADHD brain, than they do to me.
My first clue that things weren't as they seemed was when I went to my closet to put some clean laundry away and found a big pile of dirty clothes there. Oh, well, I thought, R., Nat’s 10-year-old friend who also has ADHD, must have forgotten to come back up for another load. I should have known enough to give her one direction at a time, rather than expecting her to complete a multi-step process. That’s ADHD Parenting 101.
Next, I stepped into Natalie’s room, where I found two boxes full of books on the floor. Hmmm, I thought they said they’d finished. Well, at least they got them up here, even if they didn’t quite make it onto the shelves.
When I discovered the third problem, I was not so understanding. As I was putting something in the trash, I saw some of the stuff that the girls had thrown away. There was one piece of a Beyblade, a spinning top toy made up of multiple parts. Why would they throw away one part from a Beyblade? I flashed back to one of several trips to Target, with Nat fretting over what one Beyblade to buy with the money she’d earned from the latest behavior program, and repeating the process a few times over until she’d finally earned four Beyblades. And now she’s throwing a piece away? Dollar signs flashed in my head. If she’s outgrown the set, we should find all the parts and give them to someone, I thought, not just throw one random part away, rendering the rest of that Beyblade useless.
Looking further I found a handful of perfectly good pens, pencils and markers, an almost-new glue stick, and some of those paper clamps that I can never find when I need one, which Nat had apparently pilfered from my desk. I was irritated. I decided I had better keep looking, and see what else she’d thrown away. I opened a shoebox. Inside was an almost-complete Lego boat that had cost at least $40.
Now I was furious. The girls hadn’t sorted or organized after all. They hadn’t finished what they started. They’d simply thrown away anything they didn’t want to take the time to find a proper place for. They couldn’t delay gratification — getting paid — until the job was done. In other words, I was angry with them for acting exactly like who they were: kids with ADHD.
I piled four garbage bags at the back of the garage to sort through when I was calmer. Then I reclaimed the money Natalie and the girls had gotten for doing chores.
Was this an example of something Natalie can’t do because of her ADHD? Was I wrong to be frustrated and angry with her, or should I be angry with myself, because I didn’t actively help with the cleaning? Am I too picky, just wanting things done my way? Am I obsessive, because I don’t throw away small things like markers and glue sticks, or parts of toys that just need to be reunited with their set?
I’ll ponder these questions, and more, when I pick through the bags of garbage, sort and shelve the books, and consolidate all of those expensive Legos. It may be a while before I find the courage and patience to take on these tasks, though — I can’t help but be wary of what surprises I’ll find when I sort through the five plastic storage bins piled oh-so-neatly against the playroom wall.