Let’s be honest with ourselves: We’ve all heard it from our parents in one form or another. How many times did your mother tell you, “Clean up your mess”?
Remember the time when your mother was unhappy about the pile of dirty clothes in the corner of your bedroom? Though you might have been able to ignore the locker-room odor wafting from the heap, your mother’s highly sensitive sense of smell vectored in on the offending collection of sweaty socks and t-shirts. Or maybe you recall when you had a group of friends over to watch a movie and thought nothing of leaving the living room strewn with empty cups and remnants of popcorn and potato chips, assuming someone else would take care of it.
How many times have we, as parents, repeated the well-worn imperative, “Clean up your mess,” to our children? “Pick up your toys,” “Wash your dirty dishes,” “Put your socks in the clothes hamper”—these are the constant refrains of many parents. A worn-down, frustrated parent can begin to feel like a mindless recording, repeating the same words again and again to a child. And the child can seem not to care or understand why it matters that the toys, dishes, or dirty socks are picked up, washed, or put away.
But, parents, we must prevail! Don’t become weary in well doing! The life skills children learn when we continue to insist and expect that they “clean up their mess” will find application in many other areas of their lives.
For example, teaching kids to “clean up their mess” fosters a sense of responsibility.
From a very young age, children begin to make a personal connection to food, toys, and clothing, laying claim to what they believe is theirs. But the Bible teaches us that there is another aspect to ownership. Owning something also requires us to care for it. We take responsibility for it. We see this in the very first pages of our Bible. In Genesis, God introduced Adam and Eve to their home in the garden of Eden. “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:28). So, after settling our first parents in the home He created for them, God introduced Adam to responsibility in the garden of Eden, commanding him to “tend and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Care for it. Take responsibility for it.
But responsibility is not only a matter of taking care of what is ours. It also means ensuring that what is ours doesn’t make life worse for people around us. We first teach our little girl to care gently for her baby doll. But we also teach her not to leave her doll in the middle of the hallway where people walk, where they might trip over it and fall. We teach her that it is she who must put her doll away when she’s done playing with it.
This is a very grown-up principle, too. In Deuteronomy 22:8, we read, “When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring guilt of bloodshed on your household if anyone falls from it.” Israelite houses at that time were commonly built with a rooftop area to enjoy the coolness of the evening. So, to ensure that no one could accidentally fall off the roof, the owner was required to build a parapet, or low wall, to protect those who were up there. Our belongings—whether house, or car, or anything else—are a blessing to us, but we have a responsibility to ensure that our possessions don’t cause harm to other people.
Here’s another passage that speaks to this principle in very pointed terms: “Also you shall have a place outside the camp, where you may go out; and you shall have an implement among your equipment, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and turn and cover your refuse. For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and give your enemies over to you; therefore your camp shall be holy, that He may see no unclean thing among you, and turn away from you” (Deuteronomy 23:12–14).
God is not embarrassed to speak of our natural bodily functions. God told the Israelites to take responsibility for keeping the camp clean and sanitary by burying their excrement. This not only honored Him, but also prevented the spread of disease and showed courtesy and respect toward one’s neighbors. God taught the Israelites to take responsibility and clean up after themselves.
Another lesson that is learned when we teach our children to clean up after themselves is the lesson of consequences, or cause and effect. What we have and what we do are not merely our own, personal concerns: Our “mess” can affect other people.
In Exodus 22:6, we read, “If fire breaks out and catches in thorns, so that stacked grain, standing grain, or the field is consumed, he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution.” The principle is simple. If you kindle a fire, you must take responsibility for it. If the fire you started flares out of control, it could potentially destroy the crop that your neighbor has harvested and stored. If you don’t take care of your “mess,” you could harm someone else. The previous verse applies the same principle: “If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed, and lets loose his animal, and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard” (Exodus 22:5). Your decision to graze animals on your own property could cause damage to a neighbor’s field if your animals escape the confines of your property.
When we ask our children to wash the dishes they have dirtied, we have a reason. If they don’t, who will? Someone else will have to step in and do the work. When we neglect work, we create work for someone else. If our children leave schoolbooks strewn across the kitchen table, someone else must tidy the table before the next meal. Children need to learn that what they do or don’t do matters to those around them. Though these examples of good behavior may seem trivial, they teach a lesson that will become invaluable as they go through life.
Helping kids learn to “clean up their mess” and be responsible children is a powerful way to set them on a track to becoming mature adults, teaching them to be accountable for the things that are theirs. This is a stepping-stone to understanding that their actions and even their words are their responsibility. As helpless infants, everything is done for us. But as we grow up, it’s time to learn to “clean up our mess.” If we don’t, who will?