Care and Feeding

My Wife Is Obsessed With Our Son Becoming a “Good Man.” He’s 5.

I feel like it’s a lot of pressure.

A child cleans up a mess on the floor.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife “Maya” grew up in a house where she and her mom were the only women. Everyone else in the house was a man—her dad, her brothers, two uncles (until they got married), and her grandfather. She and her mom were solely responsible for cleaning. Maya made it very clear that she would not clean up after me. She keeps a chore chart on the wall to make sure we’re both doing a fair amount of work. She works from home and I commute, so she does more housework.

We have a son and a daughter. Our son “Timmy” is five, our daughter is six months. Timmy makes messes with his toys, with food, and recently started peeing on and around the seat of the toilet. My wife finally had enough and made him clean around the toilet himself. Of course, he is only 5 and didn’t do a great job, so she made him clean it again and again until it was actually clean: a total of three times.

Now Maya has made him “Timmy’s spill box” which contains rags, cleaning spray, and paper towels, and she makes him get it whenever he makes a mess, deliberately or otherwise. I’ve told her this may be a step too far, but she says she’s not raising a man who doesn’t know how to clean up after himself.

I asked Timmy how he felt about having a spill box. At first he said it’s okay, but after some coaxing he said it’s okay because if Mommy has to clean she’ll get mad, and he’d rather be playing. I told her about this. She said if he wants to be playing, he can learn not to make messes.

Who is right? I feel like she’s putting a lot of pressure on a 5-year-old, and that making him repeatedly clean the bathroom borders on abuse. At his age, he shouldn’t have to worry about making a mess. I think Maya is letting her childhood experiences affect her parenting.

-Dad Caught In The Middle

Dear Caught In The Middle,

I think you’re both right. As a former 5-year-old boy myself, I know my toilet aim was atrocious, and my mom had the not-so-fun task of cleaning up after me and my two brothers. I have two daughters, so this isn’t a huge issue for me, but I know it’s rite of passage for all of my friends who are raising little boys. They pee anywhere but inside of the toilet bowl, the parents clean it up, and the cycle repeats.

I don’t have any problem with your wife making Timmy clean up his mess, but the drill sergeant routine makes me a little uncomfortable. The kid probably doesn’t even know how to read yet, and forcing him to clean up his messes perfectly at that age could have a negative impact on him.

I think there’s room for a little compromise. If Timmy makes a mess, he should clean it up to the best of his ability. On some days, his attempts will result in just smearing the pee all over the toilet seat, and then you or your wife can demonstrate how to properly clean it. This process may take weeks or months, but as he grows older, he’ll get better at it.

Another thing you can do is offer Timmy a prize whenever he does a great job for cleaning up. Based on what you’ve laid out here, it doesn’t seem like your wife would be onboard with that idea, but many kids around that age need a little external motivation in order to achieve the desired results, so hopefully she’ll play along for a little bit. Remember, he would only be rewarded when he does an amazing job.

Last but not least, it seems as if your wife has some unresolved trauma regarding her upbringing. She may also not be all that happy with the current situation at home. You say because she works from home, she does more housework. Are there other things you could be doing in the evenings or on the weekends to make the workload more equal? If I were you, I’d make a point to go above and beyond in terms of housework when you’re home. Are you helping Timmy clean up when you’re around and making sure it doesn’t always fall to her? You should also ask if there are any additional ways you can support her emotionally and even suggest going to therapy together, if needed.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with raising boys to handle domestic chores. As a matter of fact, I think every boy should learn how to cook, clean, do laundry, etc. However, the teaching process should be a slow burn, not a flamethrower to the face—especially when we’re talking about a 5-year-old.