As much as I’d like to admit that I’ve actually filled a garbage bag full of my children’s toys, clothing, and art and tossed it into the dumpster, I haven’t. I haven’t actually gone that far because just the act of getting out the garbage bag is usually enough.
I have gotten really, really close though — to the point that my children are actually terrified of it happening. In fact, knowing the way my children distort reality, it might have become a topic of legend. I can see my son now, sitting crisscross apple sauce in his room, his younger sisters around him, a flashlight below his jaw, telling them horror stories of that one time Dad actually threw away all of his Pokémon cards, shoes, and game systems.
It’s a threat we only use when our children don’t take us seriously when we tell them to clean up their stuff. For example, two weekends ago my daughter refused to clean off her desk. It was cluttered with last year’s school papers, art, books, markers, to the point that all of it was one nudge away from spilling off onto the floor.
I asked her to clean it up, and she said, “No.” And not just “no” as simply as I wrote it. She said it in this bratty, hand on her hip sort of way. She’s nine. The funny thing is, my wife works at the school. In class, with her friends, and with her teachers, she is a sweet, smiley little thing. She follows the rules and never tells anyone “no” in a bratty tone. But at home, she has this snark that is getting out of hand, and in this moment, with the desk, her attitude was at an 11. She was testing boundaries like children her age often do, and frankly, I wasn’t having it.
I asked her one more time, and she gave me the same response. I didn’t ask her again. I didn’t yell or send her to her room; instead, I just said, “Okay. Cool. I’ll do it then.”
She gave me this half-satisfied grin that showed she clearly assumed she’d won the battle. But let me tell you, it changed once she saw me walk back into her room with a big kitchen garbage bag from the cabinet below our sink.
She screamed, “Nooooo!!” as I shook the bag, filling it with air. It was much different “No” this time. There was no snark. There was only terror that I was actually going to do it for real this time.
She stood between the desk and me and suddenly we were negotiating. We discussed how long it would take her to clean her desk. We discussed what it would look like when she was finished (spotless). And then, I put the garbage bag in the corner of the room so she would know I meant business.
Now check it out, I am sure someone out there will think that threatening to throw away your child’s belongings is abuse. Or someone will say their their children always listen and they’ve never had to get out a garbage bag. Their little angels clean up after themselves, and then polish their parents’ shoes, and do all the dishes, and ask for more chores.
But for the rest of us who are actually living with the real struggle of raising children, I want you to know that I feel no shame in occasionally getting out a garbage bag so my children know that I’m serious.
When I got into this parenting gig, I knew it would be a challenge, but no one ever gave me all the details. They never told me that my children would fight with me about everything from picking up their own crap, to personal hygiene, to getting up in the morning. I had no idea that it would be a daily grind of repeating myself, setting up standards, holding to expectations, only for them to look at me with total distain because I wanted them to put their dirty clothing in the hamper.
On the whole, my children are good kids. They are well behaved in school, and they do well in their classes. They participate in sports and help around the community with our church. Most of the time we laugh and hug and enjoy each other. But there are these moments when they refuse to do what they are asked, and 90% of that resistance is around cleaning.
And in those moments, when things get ridiculous, and I need them to know that I mean business, I pull out the garbage bag. I let them know what is at stake, and that I’m not messing around. And every time, they get busy. And frankly, I have no regrets.