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“My House Will Never Be Clean”

A mom can dream, but when raising three children with ADHD, a “little bit less messy” is the ultimate goal in her house.

I have three sons, ages eight, six, and four. We know the older two have ADHD, and we suspect the younger one does based on various markers: a horrific screen obsession, episodes of hyperfocus, forgetfulness beyond the norm, choice paralysis. Also genetics. Since everyone else in the family has it, his chances of having it are pretty high. That means I have three ADHD children. Three of them.

A non-ADHD child can wreak on a playroom in 10 minutes. Multiply it by three, and add ADHD. My house, regularly, looks like Hurricane Small People blew through, leaving errant LEGO shards, scattered books and costumes, and cut-up paper and scissors in its wake.

By sheer force of will, and whittling the number of items down to almost nothing, I force them to keep their room clean. As for the rest of the house? There’s a half-finished dino dig kit on my kitchen table, open scissors, and shredded construction paper in my hall. Someone decided to start a plastic soldier battle, complete with wooden block breastworks, and abandoned it, because, well, of their ADHD.

It drives me bonkers. That is a nice way of saying it. I have ADHD and require order to operate at full capacity. Otherwise, I am distracted by the mess, the toys everywhere. Mess makes me feel angry and stressed out. But I can’t clean it all up. I have a life, and, as my mother always said, I am not a maid.

So they have to clean.

They do not want to clean.

Part of ADHD means having low motivation to do things that you don’t really want to do. Cleaning, of course, falls under this description for my children. They hate cleaning. It bores them. “The playroom is a mess,” I’ll tell them. “You need to pick it up.” And they lose it, because they utterly hate cleaning.

[Free Resource: 10 Ways to Get Organized This Weekend]

Unlike other kids, they have trouble motivating themselves to plow past the hate. I offer to pay them. It doesn’t help — and they are as avaricious as other small children. I threaten to take away their toys. They will cross their arms and ask, “Which ones?” I threaten to take away their privileges, their TV, or the video game they’re allowed to play. They shrug. Extrinsic motivation, positive or negative, doesn’t work.

Sometimes, I can get them cleaning, usually at the behest of my oldest, who’s the most eager to please. But then there’s the distraction factor: I ask them to handle their toys, but not to play with them. To pick them up, but not to mess around with them. They’ll start picking up. But five minutes later, they’re playing. “If you start playing, I will take a toy away!” I’ll tell them. They will gleefully say their brother was playing and offer up one of his favorites. It doesn’t work that way, I say.

Even if I get them cleaning, even if I stand over them and stop them from playing, there’s the whole omg-the-mess-is-big-and-so-tall-Cat-in-the-Hat conundrum. Normal people, and medicated children with ADHD, look at a mess and divide the room into quadrants, or into items, or into categories. My kids can’t do that. They are at sea in a vast ocean of stuff, and the idea of cleaning it is so overwhelming they don’t know where to begin.

So I have lowered my goals. I accept that my house will never be clean. Instead of “Clean up the playroom,” I have to say, “Pick up the costumes.” Then in a few hours, I say, “I need you to put the LEGO away.” When they’re having real trouble, I have to stand there with them, get down and help, sing a clean-up song.

It’s not the cleaning I envisioned when I had kids. It’s not what I wanted. It’s not what I want. But my sons have ADHD. They are the sons I have, and they are perfect. So we do what we can. In the end, it has to be enough.

[The Messy Bedroom (and Backpack and Locker) Cure for Kids with ADHD]

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  1. I laughed at the memories your comment enlisted, that came cascading through my mind, of Saturday mornings in my house full of kids (8) and the Saturday morning clean up.. Boys Toys were not part of it as they never made it up from the basement , too dangerous with two sets of stairs. Each of us were allowed one toy in our shared room as there were only 4 bedrooms. Toys found elsewhere disappeared for months at a time.
    Youngest, my job at age four began with dusting the upper stairs which had picket railings and each picket had to be individually cleaned. Competition at least among the boys was used repeatedly to motivate, that and praise. Finish first and subject to inspection there were always rewards if nothing more than going outside to play and a pat on the ego. As soon as I aced the raillings, dusting my mom and dads dresser and makeup table and mirror set were added. As we aged, sweeping the kitchen, dusting the tables in the other rooms, vacuuming the stairs, wiping down the lamps, and light switches, and scores of other chores were added. At least 2 or 3 of the others were ADHD as I was.
    The girls would be gathering the bed linens for wash day and remaking the beds with fresh linen. They were also washing down everything in the kitchen and bathroom. My next older sister had died in 1944 of Scarlet fever as it was known then (strep throat ) In an age of no effective anti biotics or vaccines, that was the real consequence of communicable diseases like Measles, Tuberculosis, Polio, etc. Mom was driven to make sure it didnt take another one of us.
    Breakfast for all of us included coffee which I was constantly told would stunt my growth. Apparently it helped us concentrate. Dad was 5’9’ and I ended up tallest 6’1. Mom, who organized this, had learned a thing or two in her youth on the farm caring for three different hard to corral groups of chickens, pigs, and cows and two younger brothers.
    We numbered 12 in total and i am sure each one had added something to the routine. Corporal punishment was still a reward 65 years ago and the distractions of TV, internet, video games and cell phones didnt exist. Dad, who at one time was a semi-professional baseball pitcher in his youth, while working at anything that paid in the depression and mom were quick to box our ears if we sassed . Believe me it was something we learned quickly to avoid.
    As I look back I cant imagine any of these focus and concentrate routines would work in todays world . BUT we were known in the neighborhood as maintaining a pristine house .

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