Recently, one of my children was being cocky and talking back to me. His unacceptable behavior had been progressing, so as a result of his disrespectful attitude, I asked that he rearrange the rocks in our back pond to correct the flow of water. My request fell upon deaf ears for too long, and though I was frustrated, I had a new idea.
Six of my kids were home from school for Fall Break. They had been at my house for 3 ½ weeks straight because their father was out of town for work and the usual one week on – one week off pattern was changed to accommodate his travel schedule. The kids’ rooms had been a disaster far too long and I was tired of jumping up and down to get them to do things around our house. They were fully capable of picking up after themselves. I felt I was being taken for granted and no one was listening to me or helping without a fight, so I stopped doing the usual things I do every day for each of them; the things they take for granted.
At dinner one night, I made an announcement that there were no longer rules in our house and that they were completely on their own. They were quiet and a little nervous as I told the kids they were free to do whatever they wanted to do. I explained they could eat anything and spill it all over their rooms, leave dishes all over the place and stay up all night. They could even walk to the store really late at night without asking me. My kids were free to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night if they wanted to, and to reiterate that I didn’t care, I asked that they lock the door behind them. I said they could each be their own adult and take care of everything themselves. One smart-alec rejoiced…
I went on to say that they had to make their own dinner, ride their bikes 3 1/2 miles (each way) to football practice and go buy groceries and carry them home. No one had to take out the garbage, get out of bed, take a shower or even brush their teeth. In return, I could do whatever I wanted to do. I could even leave without telling anyone where I was going or when I would be back.
As the week progressed, I didn’t answer my phone when they called needing something. Some of the kids actually came up with some creative ways to try to get information of their whereabouts across to me while putting a defiant, teenage spin on it. I knew they felt they couldn’t show weakness in the battle, but nevertheless it was inevitable because there was no other way to let me know where they were or when they would be home. Still, I pretended not to care and it was quite amazing to watch the dynamics. Some were quiet, some became annoyed and one or two were completely oblivious as to what was happening.
My kids usually retreat to their rooms by 9pm, but the first night of the experiment, my house was hopping at 1am. The girls were dancing in the kitchen to loud music and the boys had been playing video games downstairs for hours. I went to bed without telling anyone to wrap it up that night and no one cared.
My youngest ate BBQ potato chips for breakfast the next morning, he was implementing a new tradition. He asked me if he could eat them and I asked why he was asking my permission, so he ripped the bag open like he’d never eaten before. You could not even walk in my boys’ bedroom without tripping and it smelled like the hot yoga room at the gym. As the days continued, my coffee table migrated into the kitchen where it sat in front of the oven, blocking the traffic pattern. There were about 15 Jolly Rancher candy wrappers on the floor by the front door along with pine needles and caked mud balls. This mess had been there for about a week because I didn’t sweep it up. The Chicken Vindaloo I made, so my beloved family had a nice dinner to eat while I was out on a date one night, sat in the crockpot for 5 days before someone even put it in the sink. It then sat in the sink for a couple of days. I felt embarrassed and made dumb excuses to visitors as to why my dirty dishes were spilling out of the sink onto the counter.
My experiment was well under way when the kids started to suddenly show signs of being uncomfortable about 8 days in. It was going well for me, even though I was dreading the clean up I would have to do if no one caught on. I could see evidence that they were feeling unsure of things that were happening and kept telling me to “stop it”.
Did my children possibly miss having boundaries? Did they actually miss having a mother guiding them? The kid who was supposed to do the pond began asking, “When can we have rules back?” (Pardon me?)
All of a sudden there was a change. The dishes that were piled high all over the kitchen sink had been put into the dishwasher by my laziest son! I didn’t even have to ask him and though I ignored his effort, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My experiment was working! It takes an entire family, each doing their own part, to make a household run smoothly. It was evident they hadn’t understood that each one of them was being affected by the other’s actions in some way. They had been experiencing it first hand and it was an eye opener.
Update: Day 10
Lord have mercy ! The boys cleaned their room without being asked. They actually cleaned it the proper way it was supposed to be done. They even cleaned their bathroom and I never had to ask! The room smelled OK and the shoes were all lined up in the closet. The girls pre-treated their bedroom carpet to be steam cleaned, the dishwasher was being loaded and unloaded regularly and the laundry was in full motion. My daughter, who’s bedroom I call The Black Hole, was even seen carrying a basket of clean clothes out of the washroom. I thought I has seen Jesus Christ Himself when that happened.
When the experiment started, I began writing things on the foyer chalkboard like, “Rules Are Dumb”, only to see the word “dumb” erased and replaced to read, “Rules Are Great”. This type of playfulness had gone on a few times and was quite interesting to see. I was happy to witness that my kids were savvy enough to get the clues I was dropping and eager to change the upset in the house. I was surprised to see how uncomfortable my kids had become with not having the enforced parameters they were accustomed to. It opened their eyes to uncertain feelings they can experience and how things can go awry when there are no ground rules in place. I was grateful that they recognized this phenomenon.
What kid asks for rules?! I never thought it would work out like that, but it had. Using reverse psychology had been an effective way to get my message through to my brood that I would not to be unnecessarily overworked, ignored and taken advantage of with disrespectful behavior. My message that they must take care of their own business and work together to achieve a harmonious and orderly household was heard loud and clear.
The pond job finally began on the very last day of vacation- in the late afternoon. It was interesting to see the other kids pitch in to help their brother get through it. I’m thinking procrastination should be my family’s next lesson.
This mothering-by-myself thing is more difficult than I ever imagined. I take it one day at a time as I blindly navigate my way through it day by day, but it all seems to be falling into place naturally and in a way that feels right.