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Interview with Cleaning House Author Kay Wills Wyma

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The new Cleaning House: A Mom’s Twelve-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement from author Kay Wills Wyma (also available on Kindle) follows her 12-month family household experiment to build real self-esteem based on building competence and confidence as her five kids learn vital life skills. Wyma answered my questions about the experiences surrounding the book plus her related life management experiences concerning the household, family development, and skill-building.

What made you decide on the year timeline and how did you sustain it mentally/emotionally as a mother of five?

With 12 life skills that I wanted the kids to know before leaving our home, a year seemed the perfect fit. If they could learn one a month, then we would be well under way in equipping them versus grooming them to be needy.

Like the kids, I had moments of wondering why in the world I started, but, once I said “this has got to change,” the line was in the sand. I had no choice but to follow through. Honestly, with a goal in mind, the anticipated drudgery became doable. Though not planned, changing tasks each month actually breathed life into the project.

Sustaining it was surprisingly easy. Neither the kids nor I had realized all they could do. I hoped for proficiency. Who knew excellence was around every corner?! Each accomplishment was like a gust of wind filling everyone’s sails. Not that there weren’t set-backs, usually associated some sneaky strategy on my part. (I never thought about the potential negative impact on the kid who chose to purchase everyone’s dinner rather than cook – something I thought would offer a taste of what his parents experience. Forget about the financial impact, when letting someone cook for him, he never had the chance to try his hand on something far outside his comfort zone.)

I’ll never forget sitting on the couch, asking myself why in the world I had laid down such a large gauntlet. I looked over at the kid navigating the kitchen, and realized that I was sitting on the couch. It had been years since I’d sat on that couch at 5:30 in the afternoon. What’s more, as I sat, my son was scurrying…scurrying independently. He had already told me to steer clear – he said could do it himself.

“Do it myself” – the forgotten motto of teens. They say it all the time when they’re toddlers – testing their wings – craving independence. I think it hides just under the surface of my older kids. I don’t hear them say those inspiring words, but I sure see it in action now that they see mountains more as opportunities than obstacles.

We’re far – oh, so far – from perfection, but a few steps forward is all this mom needs to keep plugging away. The confident smiles I see erupt (even when they don’t want me to see) are worth any amount of push back or whining they might dish my way.

How did media/social pressure contribute to entitlement feelings in the kids in your household?

Kids have enormous media/social pressures on them these days, compounded by the ever-changing ways those pressures get to them. This weekend I talked with a mom whose oldest daughter had just graduated college, while her second (and youngest) daughter had just entered high school. Between the two girls the social media gap is profound. Fifteen years ago, bulky cell phones were for adults; today every teen wields a sleek handheld computer. So, welcome to the world of texting rather than talking. Welcome to conversations a parent never wanted to have with their 10-year-old child about things like pornography.

One of the catalysts that started our Experiment was my then 14-year-old’s audible musings that he would look good driving the Porsche that was ahead of us in traffic when he turns 16. I sat at the steering wheel dumfounded. How could he think that he might own a car like that at 16? Had he heard any of my award-worthy soliloquies on the merits of serving and giving – not materialism?

But, in his mind the Porsche was the answer to every social problem. If he could drive that car, he would have arrived. Something we can all relate to in many ways. For any of us it could be a car, a job, a house, a … fill in the blank.

The Porsche kid hasn’t talked about a car in over a year. Could it be he is a bit more anchored? That he doesn’t need to look so hard at things to fill the gaps? Might the gaps not be so large because he has found a place that needs him and grounds him? Family responsibilities anchor a child, reinforce the truth that they are a necessary cog, all while steering a child’s eyes off of him/herself.

How did your work background/work ethic help your family develop in such positive ways?

My husband and I both had parents who expected our best efforts. Not perfection but the best we could give. My father frequented quoted “A job worth doing is a job worth doing well.” He also told me countless times, “You can do anything you put your mind to,” a phrase I’ve drilled into my own children. Growing up, we weren’t allowed to quit. If we started something, we had to see it through. And we were taught to respect our elders and people in authority, and not consider ourselves better than anyone. So, when my first job started at the bottom (my first real “office” was the copy room–seriously), it didn’t occur to me to quit or to inform my employer that I required better digs.

Google Millennials (also known as GenMe) and countless articles pop up that describe a terrific group of kids who expect to be treated a certain way or they quit… or get their parents involved. Which well-intentioned, loving parents do. There are now companies who have instituted “Bring Your Parent to Work Day” just to handle all the question and concerns of parents who call bosses based on their child’s behalf.

How do you cope emotionally when you must watch a kid fail or endure hardships when a kid chooses not to listen/take your advice?

Watching a kid fall has to be the absolute hardest part of parenting. Failure is probably one of those inevitable things that we as parents would rather occur while our kids are at home. Then we can help them. Not do for them, but help them get back up… then get back up again.

Today I talked with a mom whose son had broken the law with some friends, and it wasn’t the first time. In a courtroom, as she had to decide whether or not to bail out her son, a wise court attorney advised her to let the boy do time. “He may learn,” the attorney said. “Get him out and he’ll stick with those kids and likely get into more trouble.” Neither wanted to voice what that could be.

Only last night after almost a year behind bars, my friend’s son came home. Had he learned anything? The signs are good. He earnestly apologized to his family and to people he’d hurt, and he’d gotten out a year early for good behavior. In fact, rather than ask his parents to bring him home, he’d called his siblings and said, “Don’t tell mom; I’m going to surprise her.” Drawing from the little money he had, he got himself home by train. And that family’s happy reunion stands in contrast to the year before of a self-absorbed young man wreaking havoc on everyone around him.

How do you address the “everybody wins” mentality, where kids miss important feedback and never get accurate measures of their performance because adults/facilitators don’t want to offend anyone or hurt the lower performance kids’ feelings?

Society’s trophy-heavy self esteem tactics produce exactly the opposite of what is intended. Instead of character-driven confidence, we get kids needing to be told how great they are, or feeling owed, or looking to home for solutions.

And the thing is, kids know the truth. When little Billy receives the “Most Spirited” award at the end of the season, he and all the other kids know that “spirited” stemmed from rough play and unruly actions, not to respect for coaches and refs. When we insulate Billy’s feelings by celebrating such behavior with a medal, trophy or accolades, not only do we fertilize further disorderly behavior, we teach teammates to look the other way. Rather than actually help Billy mature by facing a few small setbacks, our good intentions just might be setting him up for future unrealistic expectations.

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