Care and Feeding

I Love My Daughter’s Creativity, but Her Mess Is Driving Me Crazy

How can a minimalist mom and a crafty kid get along?

Young girl cutting lots of flowers for an art project.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ulza/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have four children, with another on the way. My oldest, who is 9, is very creative and bright, but is perhaps prone to hoarding a bit. She draws and cuts out creative pictures. She keeps magazines she wants to read, and interesting bits of recycling she will use for art later. When she was younger, I would just throw away most stuff. (She didn’t remember or care.) Now that she is older, I want to respect her desire to create and keep her own stuff, but I am also finding myself driven crazy by the mess!

I am personally more of a minimalist, so my immediate answer is a trash bag for everything. But I’ve settled on allowing her certain spaces (a desk for papers, a trunk for her rock collection/other personal items), and insisting that as long as she keeps things organized, she gets to keep them. But she is easily overwhelmed by mess, so I find myself frequently having to help her with cleaning/organizing to keep it from getting out of control. And I, personally, just find the sheer amount of STUFF she has overwhelming. I guess I’m writing for an outside perspective on how to balance my minimalism with the desire to respect her autonomy (and not scar her for the future and make her want to hoard even more). Help!

—Drowning in Stuff

Dear DiS,

I am not concerned that a kid with a lot of art projects and materials is going to wind up living under toppling mounds of garbage as an adult. I think that you’re likely, as you have observed, someone who would be driven wild by what doesn’t bother her at all.

When it comes to kids and the state of their own bedrooms, I generally recommend people pick their battles. Food trash? Actual garbage? Dishes? Those things are the battles. Those are the things you don’t have to tolerate. If they are fine with general clutter (and I’m not talking about the amount of loose paper that would represent an actual fire hazard), I think your best bet is to acquire or repurpose some more big boxes and tubs and just ask that, at the end of the day, things are in them. They don’t have to be organized, just off the floor.
If you take “organized” off the table and settle for “dumped into a box,” you’ll have an easier time setting her up for success, and you up for expectation management.

It’ll be good for both of you, I suspect.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My stepdaughter is 6 (and with us half the time) and just wrapping up kindergarten via remote learning. My husband and I are both working from home full time while our offices are closed, and she can not or will not accept this new status quo—at least when it comes to me. She’s capable of playing by herself quietly in the same room as her dad, but the second I’m visible, she gives up her solitary play and wants my attention. I redirect, explain that I have to work and cannot play, cannot talk, cannot listen, need to focus, that she needs to learn to play by herself, all to absolutely no avail. I’ve put up red stop signs and green go signs. I’ve tried ignoring her. I’ve tried giving her clear schedules for when I am available. I’ve tried all of these at once.

My husband tries to correct her or answer her questions himself. None of it works. I give up and retreat to the bedroom, where there’s only room to work from the bed, which is wreaking havoc on my back and my sleep quality. What can I do?

—Swamped by My Sweet Stepkid

Dear SbMSS,

Go back to the red and green signs, but when the sign is read, the door is locked. You don’t have to change your doorknob, just buy a door jammer.

Be sweet and loving and attentive during your “go” times, and make it clear to your husband that he will have to back you up by removing her if she opts to pound at the door.

It will take a week or so, but if you hold firm, it will end.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My best friend of 20 years has a son who is graduating from high school this month. He is planning to go to the same university that my son is a sophomore at in the fall (the school has confirmed that they will be open). My friend’s son has what I would call severe autism. He can still talk, and he’s smart, but frequently (four to five times a week) has these wild, uncontrollable, raging “meltdowns.” He cries, screams, and kicks, even if they’re out in public. And this is an 18-year-old.

My friend never got him help for his autistic behaviors when he was young, thinking he’d grow out of it, and now she has a monster on her hands. He was finally sent to an alternative school after he knocked a kid’s tooth out with his foot during a crying meltdown, and harassed a girl he liked via text message to the point that the parents took their daughter and moved out of state. The problem is that my friend wants my son to include her son in his group of friends and activities at university. My son, who grew up with my friend’s son, does not like him, mainly due to having been continually embarrassed by his behavior in public. The last time we all had an outing together, my friend’s son picked up several plates and threw them at the waitstaff because they didn’t have plain chicken nuggets. Some of my son’s classmates were at the same restaurant and he was teased about it.

I realize that telling her that my son doesn’t want to include her son will probably end the friendship, but is there any way I can make this better?

—Agonizing

Dear Agonizing,

If your son and her son are both in college, I give you “permission” to let your son make his own choices, and to not feel like it’s your responsibility to apologize for them. I’m very sorry that his mother made limited or nonexistent efforts to get her son the support and resources he needed, and that other people (especially that poor girl) have suffered as a result. I hope that he will find better coping strategies for his meltdowns, and that he will connect with useful services in college. That’s not your responsibility, and I really wish she had written to me.

I don’t think you need to say anything to your friend at this stage. Her son will be meeting a lot of new people, and your son has been a year ahead of him and not his daily support system as a result. I expect that you may indeed hear from her that your son is not choosing to hang out with him. “I’m sorry that Jim is having a hard time, has he looked into autism support groups or accessed therapy options via the college’s health center?” is really all you can say. Adults can associate with the people they choose to associate with.

Focus on the things that made you friends in the first place, make time (if you want) to forge the kind of friendship that can really help ease your mutual transition to empty-nesting, and remember that your son’s life is now very much his own. You don’t have to make excuses for him. I would encourage you to have your friend check out ASAN, which has amazing resources and information for autistic people who are making the leap from high school to the more unstructured and often overwhelming experience of college. They have a wonderful handbook for young people at this exact transitional stage, and it’s written by people who have gone through it themselves.

This is a very unfortunate situation, and I’m so sorry you all find yourselves here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I are parents to a wonderful, almost 5-year-old boy. We’ve been extremely lucky to not have encountered any major issues with him to this point (and usually only fleeting minor issues). But we are struggling with how to respond to something that has come up recently.

My son has recently become very interested in human bodies, his own and ours, particularly my wife’s. He has recently started wanting frequently to cuddle with my wife and he “rubs her legs,” (which is what he calls it) with his hands, which frequently inch up toward her butt. He asks to do this a lot. My wife loves cuddling with him but is concerned this is inappropriate.

We have done at least a little research and feel confidently that this is not sexual in nature and is merely comforting to him, so we’re not concerned that this is some kind of underlying emotional issue that needs to be addressed professionally (although if this sets off red flags for you, please elaborate!). But we both feel a little … weird about it, for lack of a better description.

We are both very affectionate with our son, and don’t want to make him feel ashamed for doing something that is appropriate at his age. My wife has used this as an opportunity to talk about personal body agency, and that when she tells him she is tired of the “rubbing” and wants to stop, he has to comply. We’ve also told him this is something he can only do at home, not around other people (and telling him this also made me feel weird because again, I don’t want him to feel ashamed).

Should we ignore this? Specify where he can and can’t touch? If a discussion is necessary, how do we talk to him about what’s appropriate without making him feel ashamed or bad? As parents we tend to err on the side of “X issue is not that big of a deal and he’ll grow out of it,” but I don’t want to overlook a problem if we need to deal with it.

—Need Advice on Affection

Dear NAoA,

It’s not a big deal, but your job is to teach him to “grow out of it.” It’s just part of the general process of gaining maturity. Kids can be handsy, and he’s now old enough to be told that certain parts of our body aren’t for touching without permission. This is something that is important not just to avoid being (innocently) groped by your kid, but to prepare him to recognize it’s inappropriate if someone else does it to him.

“Not there, honey, that’s a private area” is absolutely fine and is not going to crush him. Kids don’t know an elbow from a thigh; it’s something we all have to teach them. Kids do tend to start developing a sense of personal privacy around the age of 5, developmentally speaking (sometimes it’s wanting to change alone, sometimes it’s suddenly not following you into the toilet anymore), and these two things will go hand in hand.

I think it’s absolutely best to stop him from touching these places on anyone, as opposed to trying to draw a home–outside world distinction he’s just not ready for. As you are making this change, feel free to make extra time for general cuddling so that he doesn’t feel like you’re pulling away from him. You’re doing him and yourselves a favor by kindly setting this boundary, and I know you can do it without making him feel ashamed.

— Nicole

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