Cleaning Up the Swamp

Using creative discipline with older kids

Lisa's room had become impossible. School stuff, makeup, and all sorts of paraphernalia were piled on the desk and dresser. Clean clothes were stacked on a chair, and dirty clothes were on the floor. Need I say more? Any parent with a teenager will recognize the scene. I decided I had a public-health duty to the rest of the family. Since Alan Alda's "M*A*S*H" series was Lisa's favorite TV program and Hawkeye's tent was referred to as "The Swamp," I taped the following sign on her door:

M*A*S*H Unit 4077

"The Swamp" has been declared unsafe for human habitation. Some attempt to resolve the worst damage must be completed within 24 hours.

James Geiger, M*A*S*H Unit Health Officer

When Lisa read my note, she wrote a sarcastic "Ha! Ha!" in the margin and left it posted on the door. She was not thrilled with her father's tactics, but she cleaned her room that night.

On an earlier occasion, before older sister Jennifer left for college, the girls stopped making their beds before school, and days passed with wrinkled bedspreads lying around the room. Finally, in an act of desperation, I made their beds and used the back of my business card to leave a bill for twenty-five cents per bed for "maid services." I suspect they were a little embarrassed that their father had had the run of the room in order to make the beds, and they certainly were caught off guard to realize Dad had left them a bill for services rendered. I even pressed the issue by insisting they had a legal obligation to pay their honest debts. I don't remember if they ever paid the bill, but they did begin making their beds before school. Who knows—maybe it was just a ploy to keep Dad out of their space.

On another occasion, my wife and I insisted that we needed more "family togetherness" with our son, so we supervised the cleaning of his room—fearful that we would find a missing chair!

Parents have a right, indeed an obligation, to insist that their teenagers maintain some minimum standards in their private living space. But how does a parent balance the Bible's admonition to "train up a child" with the teenager's need to develop self-reliance? And why should parents assume that ideas like sanctuary and the home as our castle apply only to adults?

If one's sanctuary is where one finds a measure of freedom and privacy, then the teenager's room should be his or her sanctuary. Otherwise, the teenager will seek refuge elsewhere. It may be the home of a friend. It may be at the gym, on the playground, or in a tree house. It may even be a hangout with friends who are unacceptable to mom and dad. But it will be of the child's own choosing.

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