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My almost 15 year old son recently had to spend 10 days in the basement, due to a member of his school testing positive for COVID-19 (he tested negative). During that time he had the run of the whole basement to himself: bedroom, hallway (with sink and mini-fridge), and bathroom. He erected a sheet halfway down the stairs to demark his territory, and we had a spot where we left him all of the food that he needed (and anything else).

For the most part he kept to himself and to his devices, coming halfway up the stairs to talk or see his siblings when he felt like it.

After the 10 days were over and he came upstairs, we tentatively ventured down…And were met with a complete mess. Rotting food floating in the sink. Garbage on the floor. Unbelievable stench. Dirty clothes everywhere.

So what is the proper way to respond to this? He is old enough to have take care of himself during this time, he knows about cleaning, and he knows that what he left us went over the line.

My partner approached this by going down with him, doing most of the initial cleaning (bringing up dirty laundry, filling three garbage bags) in his presence while talking with him, and getting him to participate by holding open the last garbage bag and walking out together to throw it away (and for this participation he was thanked).

Part of me thinks that he got off too easy. That even though he was on his own in the basement, he should still be held responsible for maintaining some minimal level of cleanliness (not expecting it to be spotless, but this was way beyond anything that we would tolerate in "normal" circumstances). However, as a teenager in his prime of exploring rebelliousness against his parents, I am hesitant to think that any direct reprimands or retaliatory punishment would effect anything other than an eye roll and sarcasm in return.

So what is the best way to respond to this? Is my partner's approach the best that we can hope for? Is there a different strategy to take in this circumstance?

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    Another couple of angles to think about: quarantine is hard on anyone, and especially hard on some. Loneliness, despair, and worry can be a driver in giving up on keeping your living space livable. It's worth having a conversation with him about why he let it get so bad. Maybe it was rebellious apathy, but there may be more complicated reasons that warrant some more grace. – Carl Kevinson Jun 16 at 16:38
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    You may only get an eye roll and sarcasm in return today but that doesn't mean the reprimand was worthless. My parents pounded all sorts of moral lessons into my skull as a teenager that I didn't make any show of appreciating at the time. But I still abided by their wisdom, and when I was older I found myself repeating some of those things without even thinking about it. The rebelliouness is natural for that age, but it doesn't mean they aren't listening. – Steve-O Jun 16 at 17:13
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    Guys, being isolated for 2 weeks, especially at age 15, can cause serious mental problems. Honestly I'd be more concerned with depression than some garbage cleanup. – Davor Jun 16 at 21:04
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    One obvious question: did he have the equipment available for cleaning, clothes washing, garbage disposal, etc, or didn't you think about that when the quarantine started? Don't blame the kid for things that were basically out of his control! – alephzero Jun 17 at 2:02
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    One possible perspective of a person in this situation could be: "I have to sacrifice my personal freedom to protect my family. Cleaning up after me is a fair trade for me staying in quarantine to protect them." - I'm not judging if this is right, but it could be a (subconscious) thought of someone in that situation. – Falco Jun 17 at 11:55

12 Answers 12

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I think it's hard to say exactly what would've been the right approach, because we (and you, probably) don't have all of the details, particularly about how the interaction went when your partner attempted to get him to clean up. But, some thoughts.

First - it's possible, even likely, that the mess seemed too big for him to consider possible to clean up. This is a common issue we face with our (slightly younger) children, but it's also a problem I have from time to time - it's not unique to children. I get over it, apply my strategies (map/reduce), but it's possible he doesn't really have the skillset to do that. Giving him those tools is a critical life lesson; being able to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles by breaking them up into a series of smaller tasks, for example, or simply getting started and seeing the obstacle shrink measurably over time, are vital skills to learn.

Second - I certainly think it should've been primarily his job to clean it up. I'm not sure I'd argue that he should do it alone, both because that might have simply made him give up on an "impossible" task, but also because it's important to make it clear to him that he has your (and your partner's) help when he needs it. Help doesn't imply doing everything though, any more than it would in any other circumstance; he needs to take the lead, or at least do the majority of the work. But he should know you have his back and will help him when he meets a seemingly impossible task.

As to how you get to that point (where he does the work) - that seems more herculean of a task to me than cleaning it. If it were me I'd probably have simply said that he's welcome to come out of quarantine when it's cleaned up, and again offered to help, but limited my input to strictly less than his; if he's not cleaning, then neither am I. If he simply refuses and leaves the basement, of course, there's not a lot you can directly do, other than whatever you would otherwise do when he's doing something inappropriate. I'd also consider a legitimate plan on his part to be sufficient to let him leave - as long as he follows through.

As far as your partner goes, I would make sure you and they are on the same page - and don't approach them second guessing them; that never works well. Instead, if you're going to bring it up, bring it up as "This is clearly a problem [that he doesn't help clean up]; how can we fix it for the future."

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    (map/reduce): made my day :-) – user61034 Jun 16 at 16:30
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    Amen! Great answer! – anongoodnurse Jun 16 at 17:20
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    A book for helping children tackle the big problem of cleaning up is "Benji's Messy Room": amazon.com/dp/B07XJCB2KG/… (disclaimer: my mom is Jonda Beattie, and I'm the Benji in the book) There's also a "Suzie's Messy Room". – Ben Hocking Jun 16 at 23:58
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    Thanks! +1 for recognizing leading with "we don't have all the details". Great idea on addressing this on a level of providing him with tools. Also appreciate that you are saying to recognize that it can be difficult for him, he may need help, and ok for us to be involved but he still needs to take charge. – Simona Jun 17 at 7:41
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    Can someone explain how to apply map/reduce to a real life problem like cleaning? – stannius Jun 17 at 18:19
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Ok, so I'm 15 too, and this is just gross. I mean yeah we do some dumb stuff, but living in a basement for 10 days with rotting food and all that is just plain gross. He is a 15 year old, almost an adult, and he should be cleaning up after himself. You may be thinking, "oh, but this was just him being a little free and having lots of alone time so it's alright. He won't do it again" but that's wrong. If he learns that other people will clean up his mess even when he is old enough and perfectly capable, he will start using that to his advantage.

If it were me that did that, well first off I wouldn't, but if I did, I would clean all of it up, and probably get grounded. I'm not saying that grounding your son is the right thing to do now, because if he did this than it leads me to believe that you both allow him to do stuff like this a lot. If he is accustomed to it or has a habit of leaving a mess for others, you need to work with him to help him break that habit. If there is still a mess, you should talk to him and have him clean it up, and if he refuses, then there need to be consequences. Like you said, " ...in his prime of exploring rebelliousness..." but living in that condition, jeopardizing the health of your whole family isn't ok. If you think that just talking to him will get an eye roll, then make it a larger punishment. Take his phone or games, set an earlier bedtime, stuff like that.

If he gets used to people doing everything for him, it's going to be a lot harder to break that habit in real life, and it's setting him up for failure. You might be thinking that you don't want to be "mean" by punishing him or making him do work, but letting him continue on with this behavior is going to make his life awful. I know that doing this will be tough, especially if they are already distant or rebellious, but it will help him a lot.

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    If you are 15, you are not the average 15 year old. You're making a lot of assumptions (rebelliousness?) and not putting yourself in his shoes (empathy) at all. He may have been bored and depressed down there after the novelty wore off. Even temporary situational depression changes priorities very significantly, and neatness is a priority quick to go to te bottom of the list when you're alone and depressed. – anongoodnurse Jun 16 at 17:27
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    People who have this level of messiness while living at home pretty much just don't let strangers see it (don't invite people over, etc.). But you find out in college dorm living that, left to their own devices, a lot of younger adults get into this state. – user3067860 Jun 16 at 18:47
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    To everyone: Depression is a sensitive topic. We expect everyone to tread carefully and be especially mindful of others’ feelings.This is not a contest of who has what level of experience or knowledge. I have removed some of the comments. Please accept that depression can manifest itself in different ways and that there is no one-fits-all solution. – Stephie Jun 16 at 22:06
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    Here is my completely random ``practical'' advice, take it with a grain of salt. ``You need to clean this up, because ... . In a week from now, the basement must be cleaner than it was in all aspects, otherwise you will be grounded (...) for a week. We are ready to help you, even in starting it, just ask us any time. If you don't ask, we won't even go down. Do you think it is fair? If not, what would be fair?'' – pts Jun 17 at 14:15
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    @anongoodnurse, what do you mean by Im making a lot of assumptions? – DripKracken Jun 17 at 19:23
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Retaliatory punishment after the fact is a waste of time

It’s happened, and you already had your reaction to it. For better or worse, you decided to let him off “easy”. Then turning around and coming up with a punishment makes you look unpredictable and won’t really lead to positive results for your son.

Cleanliness is still an important value to impart

On the other hand, we clearly have a problem at hand here – your son is at an age where he’ll be expected to care for himself soon. Whether that’s living in a flatshare, a college dorm or whatever, they’ll be living by themselves or with others who have significantly less motivation to put up with him.

The solution is to make it his responsibility

For better or for worse, they’re clearly not quite up to the task of looking after themselves yet. So how do we fix this? Well, by the same method you found the problem in the first place: Making him responsible for his own space. Vacuuming, cleaning laundry, getting rid of debris and trash, washing dishes etc. This isn’t a punishment. This is just making sure they’re learning to live on their own while you’re still around to help them with it. Don’t do any of the work for them. If they’re struggling, break down the tasks they need to do (it’s easy to get overwhelmed with large cleaning jobs, just the act of breaking it up into small easy to do chunks may do wonders for their motivation). Check up on them regularly, at the start daily although hopefully that won’t be necessary after you keep it up for a while. If you find something wrong with their room, don’t fix it for them. Explain to them what is wrong and tell them to fix it, and make sure that they do. Hopefully they’ll learn the habit soon enough and you’ll have no cause for complaint anymore, and can rest much more assured when you finally send them off to live on their own.

This applies to other life skills as well

Cleanliness isn’t the only thing they’ll need to do. Have you talked to them about how to pay bills? Pay taxes? Voting? Cooking? There are many adult skills your son will soon be expected to be able to perform to an acceptable degree, you should ensure that they have the skills they need while you still can. Keep in mind that nobody is born knowing all of these things, and it’s not the sort of thing you get taught in school so it’s on you to ensure they have what they need.


All of the above is under the assumption you have a normal healthy teenager. If they’re suffering from developmental disorders, physical disabilities or the like they might need special attention that’s not covered by the advice above. If they do, it might help to talk to a qualified therapist or the like to figure out where your child may need special care and additional assistance. As other comments and answers here also mentioned, you should check if this is normal behaviour for your son or if it is something that’s been brought about by the stress induced by the quarantine – it’s not exactly uncommon for someone in an unusual situation to feel helpless and “let themselves go”, so to say.

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    Great first answer! Thank you for covering some good topics that they can now address at home. – SomeShinyObject Jun 17 at 0:09
  • Thanks. I would accept this as well if I could. Totally agree that retaliatory punishment is a no go. I was asking more about what would have been the best way to act in the moment, right after this took place. And appreciate your relating to it as a responsibility and not a punishment. – Simona Jun 17 at 7:42
  • Great answer! I'd also add, in terms of communicating these expectations, that you don't want to come off as nagging or annoying them - you want to show that you're supporting them and that they can ask you any questions they have (e.g. if they don't know how to do something or are worried they're not doing it right). – V2Blast Jun 17 at 23:18
  • one thing i'd suggest: don't sharply transition from cleaning up everything after your kid to leaving it all to them. people grow into responsibility, and that takes time. dumping on too much at once isn't gonna teach them any lessons other than "basic self care is overwhelming and i'm not capable of it". – user371366 Jun 19 at 6:37
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Cleaning up after yourself isn't a punishment. It's just life.

My teenager desperately wants to be perceived as and treated like an adult. Mostly he thinks that means getting to do what he wants, but we are spending a lot of energy trying to instill that it means more doing what you don't want, just because it needs doing.

If it were my son, I would point out it is things like this that make me still perceive him as a child, that I use how he handles adult responsibilities as a gauge for how he will handle adult privileges, and does he care to correct that perception.

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    adults help each other when overwhelmed. Accepting help and wanting to be treated like an adult are not mutually exclusive things, and being treated "like an adult" is not a simple binary. your teen is "like" an adult, but has important skills that are not fully developed. it's possible to treat someone with respect and autonomy while also accepting that they are in a place where they will likely require more support than they can give. – user371366 Jun 19 at 6:35
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Great question and I am sure many parents struggle with their teenagers on this subject. In my opinion, a 15-year-old is too old to not have the responsibilities of cleaning up after themselves. I would recommend putting your foot down and setting up ground rules about chores, this will prepare him for a world where he doesn't have people keeping up after him.

I also think you and your partner should talk about this beforehand to get on the same page and maintain consistency around this subject. Everyone in the household should be helping out.

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tldr: start giving them all chores, mentioning (if asked) that it is because you realised how unprepared the 15yr old is for living alone.

This is a tough one. Should he have cleaned up? Absolutely. Can we judge him for not having done so? I don't think so. Don't know about you but at 15 I was never left knowing no one was checking up on me for so long.

An important question parenting question is motivation. If your son was previously relatively tidy perhaps he only does it because you're watching or friends are coming over - left knowing no one but him will see the mess everything can be left for tomorrow, procrastinating until it becomes such a big job he doesn't feel like he can start.

What to do next?

Your actions immediately afterwards aren't up for debate - the question is what we do next. You should start giving your children chores and consequences - they can't use their devices if they don't complete chores (harder to implement with older kids but if not now it'll only be even harder in the future) or rewards for doing them (money, days out, choosing dinner etc). You could mention that this was triggered by seeing the state that the 15 year old left the basement in, that it shows they need to learn to do these things.

Parenting is one of the hardest jobs - you're already tired and sometimes you take the easy route. You do the vacuuming because you know that even after painful process of forcing your kids to do it you'll probably want to do the job yourself after all the bits they've missed. It pays off in the end though!

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Rather than looking backward, look forward. Your teenager may already know that they "should" have cleaned up as they went along, but (for whatever reason) they didn't. Making them feel bad is unlikely to be helpful in the long run. So: don't punish, don't even criticize, but make it clear what your expectations are, while still allowing the teenager some autonomy.

To do this, you could have allowed a grace period (24 hrs?), during which you celebrated his escape from quarantine and encouraged him to enjoy the outdoors, seeing mates, and your company. Then, next morning, you could have chosen a suitable moment (i.e. when he is not busy and nobody else is listening) and said "I'd like to use the basement this weekend. When will you have time to move your stuff out?"

Depending on how much time you have available, you might have added "... and would you like me to help you with it?"

If you are (very) lucky, this might be enough to get him to work. At least it opens the discussion, in a non-threatening way.

I have two teenagers. I have generally been quite lenient with mine where housework is concerned. For tasks such as hygiene and homework that I have felt the need to nag about, I have found it very useful to ask "When shall I next remind you about this?"

I do agree that teenagers need to learn independence, but I think it is still more important for parents to maintain a long-term relationship with their offspring.

By the way, I think it is great that your partner (presumably male) showed your son that cleaning is not exclusively "women's work"!

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consider this: your teen has been almost totally isolated from human contact, and living in miserable, filthy conditions for the past 10 days. aside from how overwhelming such an extensive cleanup can be (especially for someone who probably hasn't fully developed the skills to manage difficult tasks like this), this person has also spent the past 10 days living in this room, with the conditions slowly deteriorating while failling to address it. no one likes living in filth, and i can say from experience and from accounts from friends, it can be an utterly demoralizing, and possibly even traumatic experience, and can be devastating to one's self confidence and ability to plan and perform basic tasks. It's a viscous cycle, and recovering from this will require help.

This probably doesn't mean cleaning everything up yourself though. it might mean a few things:

  • give your teen a chance to get away from the filthy basement for a while. Give him time to walk away and come back later, after getting some amount of experience in a space that isn't totally out of control. This isn't procrastinating, it's essential recovery.
  • plan the cleaning process together. If he really can't engage and you need the basement clean quick, this means taking the lead and doling out a few easy tasks while you do the heavy lifting. But there's a good chance you can work more equally, either by taking it slow or if he surprises you with energy. At this point you have to meet each other where you're at, neither of you can do more than you're capable of doing and pushing either yourself or your teen isn't gonna accomplish anything.
  • remember the difference in your respective situations right now: you're probably pretty annoyed and grossed out at the state of the room, your teen is probably disgusted with himself and emotionally shut down. The point of involving him in the cleaning process is primarily about helping him experience regaining control of a space he's lost control of, and secondarily to get the space clean.
  • maybe you're not ok, and also overwhelmed by how messy the space is. Maybe you're angry at the mess and this is getting in the way of a compassionate response. Whatever the reason, there's no shame in bringing in a friend to help if you can't handle the dual tasks of managing a cleanup effort and comforting a devastated teen by yourself. This is a pandemic, no one is at their most capable, and that includes you.

EDIT: looks like i should've read the question more carefully. Sounds like your partner took the lead on an excellent, compassionate response. Also sounds like they had a long chat, and your partner likely has a good sense of where he's at emotionally, so they're probably the person to talk to about how to proceed.

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I would be angry, a lot.

Well, knowing who I am dealing with, I would try not to let the basement environment and the teenager behaviour to deteriorate that bad. I would enforce the same basic rules that are applied upstairs regarding bedtime, personal hygiene, participation in remote schooling and homeworks (if applicable), recreational use of the Internet, waste, dishes and dirthy clothes management, etc...

The control is pretty much possible first by asking the kid and second by using some device with a camera (if lying is suspected). I am not encouraging a live stream spy cam for the basement. Give the child a camera phone, ask him to take a picture, and send it to your device.

After the fact - well, I would expect WAY more involvement in the cleanup project than helping me with the bags and I would enforce more involvement.

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    The answer has been updated to coincide with @fraxinus' intent. I agree that this answer is completely valid with good advice that can be applied now after this specific incident. – SomeShinyObject Jun 17 at 0:06
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In short, of course. Out of quarantine or not. But show him this thread and you'll get no answer. Suggestion: insist he live in the basement indefinitely, and allow friends to visit, but don't clean it, see who breaks first. He will, when peers echo your opinion.

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    "...when peers echo your opinion..." The average peer is just like this kid, and will not be offended by the slob factor. – anongoodnurse Jun 17 at 0:04
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    You will break first, when the stink reaches the upper floors and he still doesn't care. – Erik Jun 17 at 11:32
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    This will not work. At best, it'd only get him to do the bare minimum so it's not completely unlivable. Case in point: nearly every college student ever (who's living away from home, at least). – V2Blast Jun 17 at 23:26
  • referring to "breaking" someone, in the context of parenting, is a good sign you need to seriously re-evaluate your approach. – user371366 Jun 19 at 6:30
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I'm a father of younger children than yours: not speaking from direct experience here... however, my kids don't see the mess... hell, I don't see the mess sometimes... I'd like to think I would notice rotting food, though!

So my proposed solution: give the man the basement on a more permanent basis, and anchor the ongoing privilege of retaining that space to keeping it clean.

The rationale for this is to "monetise the result" (ie. give an incentive to achieve your desired outcome). Cleanliness is learned, and while someone else is seeing to it for us we'll almost certainly find something more exciting to do.

I've made a big assumption here that the basement space has some desirable features to the youngster, but if it doesn't, you might need to find some other lever. (Find their "currency".)

Space permitting, a second-hand washing machine could be obtained that he can use as his interim dirty-clothes storage. (Washing doesn't get any easier than this!)

You might also decide in the future to levy some contribution to the weekly costs of the household - and then choose to return this to him, in part or full, if the space is kept presentable. (Please note: you're taking the levy, then giving back once the pre-condition is met - after the initial outrage over the injustice has passed, it will become a constraint of the system...)

If he chooses to ignore the desired result: "it only gets worse from here", for example, you might decide to take the power cords and controllers for his electronic entertainment devices, ("while there's work to be done, there's no time for games" etc.)

A parallel idea may be to create a schedule of things that need to be done, (a list of tasks with times allotted): bin day, every morning, every night. My wife discovered that one of ours responded really well to a schedule, to the point we had to remove the weekend from it just to ensure that he retained some flexibility in his morning routine!

Implementing this strategy could be problematic if the situation arises where he's earning the new space, and someone else in your family household needs to be quarantined... maybe you might wish to wait for a little while 'til the virus stops circulating as freely in the population? Having said that, he would probably understand the risk to the household and the requirement for quarantine.

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  • i rolled back this edit because you changed the connotation of the post - "your son" dependent, "the man" independent - someone once gave me some advice which i use as overarching guidance, always: "the end result is independent, well-adjusted young adults" – busybloke Jun 18 at 20:13
  • You're certainly welcome to preserve the intent of your post, but could you consider making some of the modfications that were made to improve the readability and grammar of your post? You can see at How to Answer and the help center more about the quality expectations we have on this site. Thanks! – Joe Jun 18 at 22:01
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This is a really easy answer: yes, the teenager got off way too easy. As documented, he knew what was expected, and failed to do it. When addressed, he participated, but made no real effort. The person who should have done the thanking is the 15 year old. Your partner already took care of it, so you should accept that parenting, but have a discussion with your partner. Would your partner be so accepting if you did this or... would you be so accepting if your partner did this? Personally, I would have made my teenager clean up and punished them if they didn't. But, that ship sailed the instant your partner parented.

  1. When punishment happens, punishment always happens after the fact and is one of two ways we learn, the other of which is a reward. Failure to punish is permission to do anything. That doesn't mean there isn't an avenue for mercy, it means that for mercy to be gained, recognition of a wrong is required. This isn't about punishment, its about responsibility of all parties. To be clear, punishment should only happen if he refuses to clean, but making him clean is a parent's responsibility. Him cleaning is his responsibility.

  2. We will always face difficult situations in our lives. There is no way around that, we still need to be taught to be responsible in the face of those difficulties and we are still accountable for our actions to society, whether that society be a small block like a family, or a large block like a city. The sooner he learns that what matters is how he responds to those situations, the better.

  3. If the teenage boy is living in your house, he needs to be held to the standard of keeping it clean. Living in a house is a privilege that not everyone gets, being given an entire basement is not a privilege many people get, therefore, with great power comes great responsibility.

  4. 100 years ago, 15 year olds were getting married, supporting families, and living on their own. Allegedly, Jesus's mother was around 13-16. If we look at our forefather's documentation, we see that children were given great responsibility and were well educated at early ages, doing apprenticeships and becoming masters at their crafts. At some point in the past 100 years, we decided children weren't capable of being responsible and shouldn't be held responsible. Simple tasks such as cleaning rooms or cleaning up after themselves are now thought to be impossible and/or beyond expectation. What I am saying is, a 15 year old should know how to clean and be held to that expectation. However, if he does not know how, then it is very important to teach him that skill at the earliest point possible. More likely, he knows what is expected and was rebelling. If he is rebelling, why is he rebelling? That needs to be addressed.

Our treatment of teenagers as babies is a societal issue, and the fact that my post has been downvoted proves the societal issue is systemic. We as a society don't believe in holding our children, ourselves, or each other accountable, we argue that punishment is bad. We have forgotten simple wisdom. In psychology, the most effective training methods used both reinforcement and punishment. We think that giving something negative to our child is bad, but in reality, withholding that negative thing is sometimes the worst thing we can do. Holding a child to be what they are capable of being and urging them to grow has a higher probability of developing their best possible outcome in life.

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    1) punishment is not a necessary or acceptable approach to educating a child. 2) consequences and accountability is not the same thing as punishment. He's already experienced the consequences of failing to keep a space clean, by living in filth for 10 days, and has likely gone through a process of accountability in the conversations and shared cleanup work with OP's partner. 3) living in a house is actually a human right, and living in an isolated space when quarantined is a necessary health/safety measure. None of this is a privilege and making access to housing conditional is child abuse. – user371366 Jun 19 at 6:26
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    additional comment: parents are supposed to be supports. This doesn't mean shielding your child from the consequences of their actions, but it means supporting them as they face them, helping them come out of the experience having learned something instead of suffering harm. Children actually want to learn things, they don't have to be forced. – user371366 Jun 19 at 6:29
  • 1. @user371366 I disagree with you. Punishment is absolutely acceptable and necessary and continues throughout adulthood. Everything in the world provides punishment and rewards. Parents who forget that geld themselves. 2. Living in filth in a lot of states will get your children taken away (speaking as former child abuse investigator) 3. Living in a house is not a human right, go to a foreign country. 4. Parents support by helping their children grow using the tools appropriate for each child. Children are people. Not all people want to learn, most are content/unwilling to change. – Patrick Knott Jun 29 at 21:07

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