My daughter's room is a mess.
I mean, at the moment, it's actually not. But only because I cleaned it when I could no longer find a spot on the floor to place a pile of clean laundry. Every square inch of carpet was covered in books and half-finished sewing projects and socks and paper and headbands and socks and Lego pieces and more socks.
It will stay neat for a day or two and then it will go back to its natural state: a mess.
I have consulted parenting manuals and parenting experts and actual parents about this: She's 8. Is it OK for her room to be this messy? Should I ignore it? Should I make her clean it? Should I clean it for her?
I've gotten dozens of conflicting answers. (Except on that last one — no one ever says, "Yes. You should clean it for her." And yet, clean it I do.)
I decided to bring in the big gun: Wendy Mogel is an internationally acclaimed clinical psychologist, lecturer and author. She serves on the scientific advisory board of Parents Magazine and is a research and policy adviser for a child advocacy program at Stanford University.
I've turned to her with a handful of parenting conundrums, usually while researching a story, and she knocks every one out of the park, always with a sense of humor.
I called her yesterday with my confession, vowing to take her advice as gospel. Once and for all, the bedroom question will be settled.
Every month, I told her, we travel through the five steps of bedroom theatrics.
Step 1: I pretend it doesn't bother me. Not my room, not my problem.
Step 2: She can't find something critical (a leotard, a book). She asks for my help.
Step 3: I help her look and try my hardest not to say things we both already know to be true, like, "You know, if you kept your room clean …"
Step 4: I start worrying. She'll never learn to take care of her things. She'll forever expect other people to clean up her messes. She has too much stuff. She doesn't respect my time or my directives. I'll never, ever, as long as I live, have time to read a novel because I'll be cleaning this bedroom for the rest of my days. I lose the ability to pretend it doesn't bother me. I go ahead and say the things we both already know to be true. She shuts down.
Step 5: I clean her room.
Go ahead, I told Mogel. Tell me everything I'm doing wrong and what to do instead.
"Does your daughter sing?" Mogel asked me.
"Does she laugh? Does she dance? Does she have friendships? What do her teachers say about her? How does she do at school?"
Yes. Yes. Many. They adore her. She excels. She's a perfectionist, in fact. She sobbed for hours about her one and only B. I worry about the standards she holds herself to. She wants to be the best of the best at every endeavor: academics, gymnastics, swimming, Go Fish.
"She's exhausted," Mogel said. "She's near compulsive about her work and reading her teachers' minds and her coaches' minds and she holds herself to the highest of standards. Her room is where she lets go. The one place she lets herself be unfettered and relaxed."
"The reason I ask about her friendships and her mood and what her teachers say is because, absolutely, a room can be a sign of a child's low mood," Mogel said. "But when I'm sizing up a family, I want the child's room to be the worst. I'm a little nervous when a room is extremely neat because it can indicate that the child doesn't have any private space to call her own."
My child's room would not make Mogel nervous.
"It gets better," she said. "At her age they're like little birds making nests out of twigs and little pieces of fabric and berries. It's their first dab at individuality and self-expression that no adult grades, the way they grade even their art projects and what they do in gym, which is half play."
This will self-correct, Mogel assured me. As she gets older, she'll likely want a little more order.
So I should stick with step 1? Not my room, not my problem?
"If she would like your help cleaning or finding something and you don't mind, absolutely help her," Mogel says. "But only if you don't do the passive-aggressive rhetorical questions: 'Don't you see how nice it is now? Wouldn't you like it to be like this all the time? Can't you see how easy it is to find things now?' All of which you interpret as wonderful, motherly, helpful suggestions and she interprets as invective."
I can do this. I can honor her room as her own, private space. I can stop interpreting it as a sign of all my parental failures. I can drop the passive-aggressive questions.
And, best of all, I can read a novel.