Working parents will recognise the age-old challenge of trying to get little Johnny or Jess to pick-up their laundry. At my place, to my horror, my kids’ laundry is usually strewn across several frontiers, from bedroom, to bathroom, to lounge room and beyond. As a parent, I would naturally prefer to channel my parental anxieties at far more important subjects. I’d prefer to be worried about their friendship circles, what they get up to when I am not there, whether they do their homework – rather than their poor laundry habits. As a psychologist, in a schematic sense, I know very well how to address this behaviour to get the outcomes I’d like to see (kids growing up with life skills). And also, what I need to do to manage my own tolerance levels. I have options in how I choose to respond, but they have consequences.

As a parent, if I am upset and frustrated that they are not doing what I told them to do – I could ground them. But, as a psychologist – to enable the right kind of behavioural change – I know I need to:
  • Describe a beautiful world of responsible laundry self-management
  • Explain the consequences of poor laundry self-management (our rooms will never be clean, clothes might be smelly, we won’t look nice, we could catch a cold by wearing wet clothes, people might worry that we aren’t coping…)
  • Teach the skill – demonstrate what’s required and the stages, and be there supportively until the child masters the skill (don’t assume that people know how to do something just because you’ve done it so many times its now automatic for you)
  • Use visual aids by creating signs or special prompts to guide the behaviour (put it in the calendar, make a sign for the clean clothes pile/dirty clothes pile).
  • Recognise when skills are being positively developed and quality assure the performance (in whole or in part), be kind, reinforce with consistency and persistency.
  • Let the child experience the consequences of not following through (let them wear dirty sports clothes, suffer from not wearing their favourite dress),
  • And most importantly, when you see them completing a job well done – praise this and couple it with something positive – smiles, games, time together, some kind of reward system (making sure to taper off the rewards as the behaviour gains traction)
It’s pretty obvious right? Sure. So why don’t we always follow this through? The parent in me says, it’s because it takes too much time. It means I have to sit with discomfort and even peer judgement (I am not ‘doing enough’ for my child). It also means I have to sit with distress, even anger that my child will – from time to time – run out of clean clothes as we get this plan on track and that will make both of us look bad. Should we be surprised that even the star performing parents struggle? We live in a high stress world, endlessly trying to satisfy competing demands – is my house tidy, is there food in the fridge, can I afford my mortgage repayments, are my work pressures impinging my family life…. It’s a slippery slope for even the most seasoned parents, they may start by explaining the plan to their child, but all too often – it’s not long before voices become shrill and a bit of yelling creeps in – and before you know it anger and punishment. Worse still, before you know it, you’re doing the laundry yourself and holding on to a little bit of distress that you’ve failed to achieve anything. Parenting is not an easy or straightforward journey. Even when you know what needs to be done – it’s hard, life is hard. Be less critical of yourself, remember that life lessons don’t come easy, but the payoff – helping a child be all they can be – is immense. Take a breath, cry if you must, reach out for help, and decide where to put your energy. There’s a good chance that in time, you won’t even remember how hard it was. That’s the beauty of teaching independence, and helping your children become all they can be.
Written by: Ariana Kenny, Casework and Clinical Services Practice Leader/ Acting Out of Home Care Executive Manager