Secrets of Teenage Housekeeping

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Teenagers are allergic to housekeeping. Except they aren't.

For a decade I've watched my teenage students enthusiastically clean our school.


Day One we establish: this is your space. Teachers and students stand on equal footing making rules.

We got most rules down smoothly; flush the toilet, trash inside the can, wipe your feet. Ah, but not about the kitchen. The rule "clean your own mess" was interpreted variously. What if someone wanted to use the burger pan after you? Or the ketchup you got out?


"Wash" --- did it mean scrape and wash or wash but allow food bits to clog the drain, or wash but never dry? A precarious tower formed by the sink.

The rules needed amending. More discussions. But a revelation: the teenagers wanted to wrestle with the problem. They led in figuring out solutions. They had firm ideas and defined styles. They attacked the squalor like the most obsessive 1950s homemaker. Fascinating.

They patiently examined the issues again and again, chipping food out of the microwave to see whose lunch had exploded, getting down on their knees to figure out whose sandwich had turned green in the refrigerator. They cared deeply about their kitchen. Theirs.

Kids developed cleaning specialties. Pat "owned" loading the dishwasher, Elias mopping the floor. Kids went at the stove and wore out several Brillo pads. They loved the bedlam created by vacuuming and gleefully exterminated other people's germs in the bathroom.

Was this procrastinating math class? Insanity?
They felt important. So rarely do we let our overgrown babies contribute in ways that are essential. A clean house wins appreciation from everyone. They were making a difference. Teenagers are eager to learn adult proficiency, as long as it is on their own terms. Let them run the show and they do an excellent job.

Children crave meaningful work. They can see right through "make work" foolishness. We rob our teenagers of fulfillment by denying them work that carries value.

The secret of a teenage housekeeper: he just wants to own it himself.

With a Perspective, I'm Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a North Bay educator and founder of REAL School Marin.