ASK EMORY: When Will They Ever Grow Up?


Dear Emory,

My kids aren’t really kids anymore—they are now 17 and 20-years-old. They’re pretty good kids, and I don’t have too many complaints…but, geez, they are such slobs around the house. Eventually, they’ll get around to cleaning up after themselves, but only after I give them lots of reminders and complaints. Or, to be honest, I usually cut to the chase and just yell.

How can I get them to start acting more responsibly? I feel like I’ve been working for decades to get them to clean up after themselves, and I’m really tired of it.

Worn Out on Willow

I’m sure that there are many parents of teens and young adults who feel the way you do, “Worn Out.” Your letter reminded me of Peter Pan and Pippi Longstocking—the fictional children most famous for their determination to never grow up. The authors knew to leave Moms and Dads out of their stories. No parent in their right mind would want to pick up after their kids forever.

But, back to your kids, “Worn Out,” you pose a great question. How can parents get their practically-grown-up kids to understand that childhood doesn’t last forever, even while living under the family roof?

Since you describe your kids as basically good people, “Worn Out,” I’m guessing they would agree that picking up after themselves is fair and reasonable, in principle at least.

The problem, as most older kids describe it, is that listening to their Moms nag them to clean up the kitchen and hearing their Dads complain about their messes catapults them right back to feeling like they are 10-years-old again. And whenever that happens, big kids find themselves reacting like little kids once again. They don’t start doing something until someone bugs them about it. And then, because they feel annoyed about being nagged and criticized, they respond grumpily and half-heartedly.

The habits of childhood are hard to break. The habits of parenting can be hard to break, too. Your kids can make the transition towards acting more adult-like, if you’re willing to begin talking to them more like the young adults they want to be, and less like the children they used to be.

So, instead of nagging the way you usually would, you might say, “When I see something that needs to be done around here, are you willing to pitch in and do your share? How would you like to handle cleaning up after yourself?”

Instead of complaining the way you usually do, you might say, “I have a question…I understood that you were going to clean up your dishes in the kitchen, but it’s still not done. When would you like me to expect that this job will be finished?”

Instead of getting mad and yelling the way you usually do, you might say, “We seem to have a problem with keeping things clean around here. I’d like to work with you to solve this problem without either of getting mad about it. What do you think would be a better way to work together to keep our home comfortable and pleasant for everyone who lives here?”

It’s awfully easy, “Worn Out,” for us tired parents to slide down the slippery slope of irritation and anger with our kids. When nagging, complaining, and yelling aren’t working, we nag more often, complain more loudly, and yell more angrily. It’s an exhausting and discouraging routine to get into.

Save your energy, and even improve your relationship with your older kids, by changing how you start your conversations with them about cleaning up after themselves. Talking to your kids more as if they are young adults cues them to respond in a more adult like way. And this is the approach that will ultimately encourage your kids to act in more respectful and responsible ways.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: