There are mind training opportunities in home tasks. Cleaning up is undervalued. Perhaps it is celebrated in kindergarten, but less so in later years. What might cleaning up, being thorough, and putting things in order do for cerebral prowess, a sense of mastery and autonomy?

Suppose kids are conditioned to wipe up every last crumb. Maybe they won’t forget the last page of the test. Following a recipe and scrubbing the brownie pan might prime a mind for following directions. Could covering every dish lead to covering every question? Domestic habits to school abilities; thoroughness here, thoroughness there.

It does not have to be seen as drudgery, but rather the capacity to notice, tend, and complete. True satisfaction can come from finishing tasks.

We once had this babysitter who was a 17 year-old superstar. She had a resume of fine accomplishments, from violin to chess. When we arrived home we so admired the well-fashioned fort in the living room but the kitchen was a frosting-splattered, dish-scattered blitz. Obviously, her path to excellence did not include counter wiping.

But perhaps for some, removing the plate, rinsing it, and putting it in the dishwasher is a useful exercise, not just a helpful chore. Three steps are followed in order and the impact on the inner (self) and outer world (others) is relevant.

Co-inhabitants feel respected, the space is ready for the next creation and completing the concrete task engenders anything from “whew” to elation. There is opportunity in this everyday situation for teaching attention to detail. Robert and Michele Root Bernstein, resesarchers and psychologists, found that great thinkers and scientific prize winners had a history of tinkering. Deep absorption in hand-based tasks lead to the capacity to think long and hard.  

If thoroughness is a pleasing inner experience (ego syntonic) the child may seek other experiences that conjure the same feeling. He or she knows himself/herself as a get-the-job-done person. This bolsters self-esteem and instills a tiny sense of mastery. Removing your imprint from the environment also can engender a quiet sense of integrity and peace. Educator Booker T. Washington had his students store tools before enjoying their dinner.

It is true that some people are at their best with disorder. A mess might feel right for a creating mind. If you are over 18, live how you must. Only you know how you need your space to be so that your brain works. But dealing with what’s dropped or defiled might help some chaotic kids develop a useful sense of responsibility and ownership of a task or project well done.

My client Jim said his girlfriend did not clean, nor would she expect her children to.

“They will be really smart and have high self-esteem though.”

I wonder about the self-esteem. Identification with an elevated personage is excellent for striving. Holding on to an ideal role model can help one stay the course. However fine-mindedness can also be bred by respect for the surroundings.

 There is a relationship between humility and greatness.

My friend Lauren sets up her space so it is easy for her kids to organize their things independently. She has a bin for each child’s art works, a cubby for their clothes, a shelf for sports equipment. At the end of the year she sifts through and discards.

“That’s fantastic,” I said when I heard about her assertive removals.

“Just throw it out,” Lauren said.

Here is an email I received from my childhood friend.

“I spent the day cleaning the apartment. It took me about six hours. I find I can't work when the house is dirty. I bought flowers, and tomorrow I have to buckle down.”

Thoroughness is an excellent quality to cultivate from head to toe. According to psychoanalyst Dr. Ethel Person, people who find a way to combine pleasure with drudgery tend to do well in life.  Let your kids listening to podcasts or music while they set the table. If they bring their own creative contribution to the design, autonomy is linked with duty which makes it more tenable. Instill the habit and who knows how far they can go.


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