Ever noticed the correspondence between a child’s growing independence and the amount of paper towels and cleaning supplies you use? It is wonderful when your 4-year-old takes the initiative to wash the dishes, right? I mean, who actually needs full sets of dishes anyway? Isn’t it chic now to have mismatched dinnerware? And the sink that was overflowing with soapy water — well, the floor needed mopped anyway. All of those thoughts and more fluttered through my head as my barely-turned-4-year-old beamed at me upon walking through that kitchen door. He raised his little hand in greeting, his fingers tightly gripping the soapy-sponge that dripped water down his arm onto his already visibly wet sweat shirt. “I’m helping you, Mommy!” he announced proudly.
“Oh, Bug!” the frustration at the huge mess came out sharper than I’d intended. His eyes clouded just a bit, and I surveyed the mess again. I took a deep breath and started again, “Oh, Bug, you did the dishes for me!”
“I love you, Mommy,” he grinned, splashing more water down the front of the cabinets. I pushed his stool closer to the sink. Anyone wanting to wash dishes should have proper lessons, right? The next half an hour was spent washing dishes that could have been done in half the time — with half the soap and water — but without any toddler independence. And independence is a good thing, right?
Later that week I was chatting with a friend, catching up on our respective holidays. Meanwhile her sons were in her kitchen making smoothies.
“Mom, can we use lemons?”
“Mom, can we use key lime juice?”
“What about white grape juice — and ginger?”
She finally just said, “You can put in anything you want. Just remember you have to drink it. Good or gross, it will have to be gone by midnight.”
Independence with a touch of consequences — I thought it was brilliant. I recalled that situation again, when my husband and I came in from the shop to find that our 4-year-old decided that he was old enough to take a turn making supper. Peanut butter and Parmesan sandwiches. He made enough for the whole family — and lots of guests. The words of my friend played through my head, “Good or gross, it will have to be gone by midnight.” There were more sandwiches than my son could eat by himself (seeing as how he’d “cooked” for all of us), and while my head doesn’t like food to go to waste and my heart supports 4-year-old independence, my stomach just can’t.
I’m not sure my friend would have approved, but technically, she said “Good or gross, it will have to be gone by midnight.” And it was definitely gone by midnight. The hound and the chickens seemed to really enjoy their gourmet PB and Parm meal that night.
Only days later, my little guy decided the dirt in one of my house plants was “too old,” and he took it upon himself to refresh it. He scooped it out of the plant, into a little toy cup, and then proceeded to wash it in the bathroom sink. While the rest of the family was intent on building roads and settlements in Catan, our 4-year-old walked back and forth from the plant to the bathroom several times — until the sink was filled to the brim with black, soupy, potting soil and water. “Aren’t you glad I made new dirt?” he asked us as we scooped muddy soil back to the plant. Truth be told, it’s a good thing he washed it, because I would never have gotten around to it — probably never even realized that the dirt was old and in need of a wash.
Every day, he becomes more helpful and independent. He fed the fish nearly the entire bottle of food — because the fish looked hungry. He trimmed the dog’s hair — because apparently short-haired dogs need haircuts too. He loves to make his own toast — with half a cup of Brewer’s yeast on top, on the sides, on the floor and usually down his shirt.
Recently he has been switching the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. It’s one of his favorite things to do now that he is “big and 4.” After another big water mess on the bathroom floor, we mopped it up with towels and he carried them down to the laundry room. I quickly forgot all about them until the next day when I opened the dryer to find those wet towels covered with laundry soap and baking soda.
My house is always filled with ridiculous and unbelievable messes. Like the day my son decided to “fix” the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the living room floor. Or the day he decided to strengthen the furniture in the house with a Costco-size replacement pack of scotch tape.
But I don’t mind too much, because in the end, our house is clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy, and sooner than I’ll be ready, he’ll be independently messy and buying his own cleaning supplies.