Guilt Cleaning and the Art of the Apology


This child. Is not a child any longer. Shh… don’t tell his mother.


This child is driving me crazy. By all accounts, anyone as disorganized as he is should be failing out of college. A point I make. Often.  He is excelling, which is annoying. And who does that? Succeeds at Calculus and Physics straight out of the gate? Annoying.

But it all came to a head on Monday morning. 1:30 AM to be exact. After a long weekend, he was “working” on a calculus problem he said was “due” the next day. Um, that he “forgot” about until he “remembered” at 12:45.

I stood in his pitiful room. Looked at all the mounds of clothes and papers and cat hair covered things and my head exploded.

So did my mouth.

It was not a good parenting moment.

And then I issued the ultimatum, “Your priorities are as follows: Calculus, Physics, German, and working for your father. If you are not doing those things, you should  address your room and your laundry.  If you have done all those things, then you can think about having a social life. But really, Calculus, Physics, German, and work.”

And you know what’s really annoying? It’s not that he’s slacking off school work. NO. It’s that he is OVER working. Turning in 15 page papers when 3 paragraphs would suffice. Formulating his own theorems on practice problems. Staying up into the wee hours of the night to talk on maths boards with other math obsessed people about his proofs.

And while he’s busy over achieving at his school work, everything else is being completely ignored. Including his health. He ended up with a nasty bug a few weeks ago, partly because he’s so run down.

I keep lamenting that there is plenty of time to do the things he needs to do and have a life, if he would only, only, ONLY please get organized.

I bought him a fabulous Apple back-pack. And loads of school supply crack. And I’m still trying to figure out how he can possibly be excelling when his binder looks like an overstuffed sausage casing.

So, at nearly 2 in the morning, I had had enough. And I said so. In ways I should not have. In ways that did more than make my point, in ways that only frustrated him further.

Needless to say, I felt pretty bad the next day. So much so, I took total pity on him and cleaned his room, organized his desk, and did all of his laundry.

You guilt clean your kid’s room, too. Right? And besides, fresh sheets always make it better, right?

To a point. But then, it was time to pick him up from school and the tension in the car was palpable. As we navigated our way home we made small talk — but you could tell, he was in no mood to forgive me for being frustrated. And I got that. While it would be great to say a quick “sorry” and count that as “done” — it’s not enough. Not by a long shot.

He came home, went straight  into his room, and then walked back into the kitchen, “Mom, I’m so sorry I was being so difficult yesterday–well, all weekend really. I know you’re disappointed, I am too. But, thank you for cleaning my room. I’m going to work on getting more organized.”

And that’s when I really apologized.

Repentance is more than a simple “sorry”: it requires action, not just words. And if your apology is words based, then it better be something specific. Something meaningful. I like to think that the quality of an apology should be in direct relationship to the harm that was caused. “Sorry” is what you say to the guy you inadvertently cut-off on the highway. “Sorry” won’t cut it when you’ve dropped an emotional bomb of words on someone. And don’t you even think about justifying your bad behavior. If you’re sorry, then… BE sorry. In word and deed.

There is nothing Geo hates more than cleaning his room:  nothing. So doing that chore for him was just a way to physically demonstrate that my words were not empty. Because, my kid is compassionate and easy going and forgives quickly. I needed him to know, that I understood that I’d gone too far– that there are consequences of saying hurtful things, that I was willing to do something real to demonstrate it.

Actions speak louder than words. But words, words harm in ways that are indelible. You cannot issue a quick “sorry” and think you’re free to move on your merry way. Not if you want the relationship to flourish. It’s probably the hardest lesson to learn as a parent: that when you are wrong, you owe it to your child to say so. And it doesn’t hurt to clean their room in the process.

6 Responses to “Guilt Cleaning and the Art of the Apology”

  • IZ:

    True words. “sorry” for an emotional bomb is like saying “thanks” when someone gives you a huge, meaningful gift. Sentiment must always be in the scale of the harm caused or the gift received, otherwise it is meaningless.

    I appreciate the fact that we have the kind of relationship with G where we can see when we’ve wronged him and talk openly about it. He’s a good kid that G, and you’re a good mom!

    • wende:

      A good mom, who blows it. ACK. I swear, there are moments in time, when I just want to step out of my body and give me a good whack upside the head.

      And I think we’ve endeavored to practice this. But Geo forgives too easily, I think. He is your child, in this regard. Me, I want real words, real action, real repentance. I want to know that you’re SORRY, not just going through the motions. I’m a HARD judge on that front. While G is quick to forgive until he can no longer, and then that’s it. So… it’s words to the wise, I suppose.

  • The art of biting one’s tongue and removing oneself from the situation are parenting skills that are often overlooked, but we should all be trained in them. (our own parental time outs?) 😉 I have said several things in frustration that I can never take back and will always regret. It sounds like you handled it the best way you could, with love in actions.

    • wende:

      I need a detachable tongue. Tho… on second thought, I’m pretty fluent in gesturing wildly. Le sigh. My mantra is, “He’s only 16”. CLEARLY I need to up my reps!

  • Some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known were incredibly disorganized. I had a prof that was usually wearing the same clothes as the day before after falling asleep in her office or simply being preoccupied with academia. She loved knowledge and there was always chalk on her sweater; her office was a squirrel’s nest but she was brilliant.

    My co-op teacher during my internship had a desk, a table, a filing cabinet and two bookshelves without any real work surface around them. They were piled with papers, scripts, newsletters from years ago and assignments from students who had graduated. In places, the layers were a foot thick. Having known him for years, I endeavoured to clean it up from time to time, or at least sort the top inch, but let my focus drift to the same thing his did – the students. As my facilitator said one day, “I knew everything I needed to about him the second I saw his desk. His priorities are clear.” For the record, the desk (et al) drove me crazy, but I learned that as long as nothing was growing in there, I could live with it. Just. I think he actually takes glee in watching my eye start to twitch when I look towards the chaos…

    Your kid’s a genius. Most of those genius people are messy. You did a good thing by tidying for him. And cut yourself some slack. There are no perfect people in heaven – just those who’ve admitted they made mistakes, asked forgiveness, and tried to do better.

    • wende:

      Messy and absent minded… it drives a mother nutty. The crazy thing is, I’m not a neat freak. I’m hardly organized. In fact, I was joking with IZ and Geo this week and said, “Heaven help us all if I ever get this house organized and I can take the moral high ground.” Heh… But yeah, it’s just beyond him to do any of these things. I worry, that as the process becomes more taxing that his lack of organization will bite him. He does better in a clean environment (don’t we all?) and so I shudder at what happens when he goes off to school and I’m not there clean his room.

      Somethings, he eventually gets. But this, this is probably not one of them. We may need to budget for a cleaning service as well as tuition in the future.

      Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate it!!

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