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How to combat suburban sprawl

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Have you ever heard your mother's voice come out of your mouth? Have you ever told your child something you were told as a child? I don't know what is more shocking: The fact that I have or the fact that her words have actually come true.

Let me explain. In our adult lives, there are several moments where we realize we've entered the big leagues: our first job, first house, first child. But realizing you're an adult isn't necessarily confined to first times. Discovering you've finally grown up can happen during last times as well. 'This is the last time I drink that much, the last time I lie to someone, the last time I wear pleather in public.'

Still, there are plenty of other milestones in adulthood between these firsts and lasts. For me, these milestones revolve around raising my children. I'm constantly trying to nurture my kids while encouraging them to take care of themselves. It's a real balancing act.

'I love the celebrity bed head, Meg, but please go take a shower.'

'Addie, that's a wonderful outfit - for a night club. Could you pick out something more appropriate for church?'

'OK, you can be a zombie for bedtime, Jack. Now hop your hooded self into bed!'

Most of our exchanges are based on a bartering system. If I promise dessert, they'll eat dinner. This may not seem like sound parenting, but it works for us. I learned these motivational strategies firsthand from my mother. When I was little, if I made it through a week without throwing a fit, she'd take me down to my favorite bakery to pick out the holy grail of all baked goods: the chocolate frosted donut. There is no joy like the delicious taste of empty carbohydrates.

Whether it's donuts or designing rocket ships, rewards have always been an effective parenting tool, but they only work if kids earn them. Child-centered parents focus on positive rewards rather than punishments. When our kids leave toys on the floor, they leave toys on the floor. They'll either come across them again and pick up playing where they left off or trip over them and put them back. We fall into that crazy category of people who believe in natural consequences, meaning we don't spend too much time conjuring up our own.

The down side to all of this child-centered mumbo jumbo is the state of our house. You can't really get too upset about the mess if you don't enforce the cleanup. Our kitchen is always one dishwasher load behind, our laundry is always two loads behind, and our clutter - well, that's the suburban sprawl I mentioned earlier. It's everywhere.

How do you stop suburban sprawl? You start with the most polluted area, the kids' bedroom, and you clean your way out. All three of our children share a room. It makes for a cozy, slumber party atmosphere on a nightly basis. With three bean bags, a bunk bed, a twin bed, various crates, toy chests and comforters, their stuff rivals the stockpile the Jolie-Pitt kids have amassed during their parents' humanitarian globe-trotting.

Surveying the smoggy wasteland, I didn't feel so humanitarian (unless you count my promise to donate all of the toys, clothes and/or miscellaneous thingamabobs that weren't put away to Goodwill). Surely, there must be other children in the world who would appreciate the riches my children so blatantly took for granted.

'I cannot clean up your messes the rest of your lives. You guys are old enough to know better. I'm going to come back in one hour, and if this room is not picked up, then we need to take a trip to Goodwill,' I said on a huff of hot air.

While I walked down the hall I counted to 10 and asked myself, did I really just say that? Didn't my mother used to tell me the same thing? 'I'm not going to clean up after you your whole life!' her words echoed in my head. Wasn't she coming on Thursday to help with the dishes, the laundry and all of the flat surfaces in my home?

Walking into my own bedroom, I took a look around. If the kids had dust bunnies in their corners, I had dust elephants. I hadn't seen the surface of my dresser in months. The shelves were covered with books not put back. Last night's wine glass sat on my night stand. Clothes lay heaped in the corner rocking chair, a make-shift clothing rack. I won't speak of the horrors that lay in wait under the bed.

Realization dawned bright: My mother has been cleaning up after me my whole life, and now, I've become the same one-woman cleaning swat team for my children. Obviously, from the previous description, you can tell I need help, but how come she couldn't change me? How come, even after my resolve to take the toys to Goodwill, I'm repeating the same pattern with my own piglets?

Because I'm in the Oprah Winfrey full circle moment. I am what my mother always said I was: messy. But I've evolved into the kind of domestic dweller she always hoped for a sporadic cleaner. I'm just cleaning up after my kids this time around. That's what moms do. They swoop in on their witchy brooms armed with Windex and a roll of paper towels, and they save the day. They hold no grudges, take no captives and clean the bejeezus out of your bedroom.

I walked back down the hallway and apologized to the troops. It was wrong of me to pull rank when I've always told them, 'We're in this sty together.' So we cleaned together. We still donated to Goodwill, and it became kinda fun sorting out trash from treasure and gum wads from rubber balls. I had been mad at them, but in truth, I was mad at myself. I had allowed this mess, not just during their lifetime, but all of mine.

As we organized, my son said to me, 'Mumma, when you were mad, you actually took my happiness away.' In that moment I finally understood what my mother meant to say to me all those years ago, what she's been saying by her actions all these years since.

I told him, 'I love you kiddo, and I'll always help you, but I really wish you'd help yourself.' The funny thing is, they were my words this time, but my mother taught me how to combat the suburban sprawl: love.

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