How would you react to either of the following scenarios involving your middle school son?
Scenario #1 (This is a story I observed first-hand): You are almost done cleaning the kitchen after dinner. The dishes have been rinsed and put in the dishwasher. The food has been put away in the refrigerator. You’ve wiped down the table and are attacking all the smudges and crumbs on the counter.
As you turn to wash your rag in the sink, your son and his friend start a Nerf war seemingly out of nowhere. In the blink of an eye, they have emerged from a back room each wielding a loaded Nerf gun and a pocket overflowing with extra darts. All you see is a blur of bodies ducking and hiding behind furniture and under the table. Occasionally you hear a yelp of delight when one of the boys gets hit.
Nerf darts are flying everywhere. They whiz by your head, land in the sink, and disappear behind pictures on the counter. To make things more chaotic, the boys are using you as a human shield while you maneuver around the center island to get the last of the crumbs.
How would you react?
Scenario #2 (Told by a young adult male in a book I recently read):
“[When I was in middle school] my friends and I were often looking for something fun to do, and my parents always opened up the house for my friends to come over. They even bought soda and snacks for us! During one of those weekend hang out times, my friends and I were inside watching a movie. It was cold and snowy outside, and everything was slick and icy. Some of us got restless and decided to head outside for a few minutes.
“Standing out in the cold, I could see the flickering light of the television through one of the basement windows, and I was immediately struck with a great idea. I decided that it would be great fun to scare my friends who were inside watching the movie by banging my hands loudly against the window.
“Without a second thought, I bolted toward the window. I knew that in order to get the loudest bang, I would need to gain some speed. What I didn’t realize was just how slick the ground was and how fragile double-paned window glass really is. Seconds later, I found myself inside the basement surrounded by my screaming friends. Unable to slow down, I had taken a dive through the window and was now propped atop the TV, covered in shards of broken glass. For several moments, I was in shock, but I was also slightly pleased that I had successfully terrified my friends. Someone ran to get my parents, but they were already on their way downstairs, having heard the screams of more than twenty-five middle-school students.”
How would you react?
Different adults have different standards of cleanliness for their homes. Some love their houses to be spotless. Others are okay with some messes. Some live in houses that are starting to look like a scene out of the “Hoarders” TV show.
Regardless where you fall on that spectrum, let’s be honest: If you have middle school boys in your house, there are going to be messes. Stuff is not going to be put away correctly. Shoes and clothes will be left out. Something fragile in your will get broken at some point.
Don’t be surprised by these messes. Life with middle school boys is going to go better if you can expect and embrace a messy house.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach boys the value of cleanliness and taking care of things they own. Boys need to be respectful of property and shouldn’t be allowed to do anything immoral, but your house also doesn’t have to look like an ad in “Better Homes & Gardens.”
How you respond to the messes can communicate a lot to him and his friends. Your response can communicate acceptance, warmth, and love, or it can communicate the opposite. It can mean the difference between your son and his friends wanting to spend time at your house or pushing them out of your house into other environments where you have less influence and oversight.
Here are some real-life examples of parent reactions based off the two scenarios above. In scenario #1, which I experienced personally, the parents didn’t do anything to stop the boys from playing. They laughed while the boys ran around. The mom kept cleaning. The dad jumped in on the action and escalated the battle even further!
Guess what? There was a lot of joy and laughter in that house that evening.
In scenario #2, which I read in a book a book, here’s how the parents reacted. The young adult man I quoted above continues the story about crashing through the window:
“When my dad and mom came downstairs, everyone was prepared to see me receive a lecture on being irresponsible and to have the party end and everyone be sent home. We had all been to parties where something had been significantly damaged before, and a hole in the wall or a spilled soda on the carpet usually meant the party was over. Surely, a broken window would qualify as “significant damage.” When my parents came downstairs, they first checked to make sure I was okay. By some small miracle, I had nothing more than a tiny cut on my bottom lip. Emotionally, however, I was preparing myself to be disciplined in front of my friends.
“Much to my surprise, my parents didn’t respond in anger. They helped us seal up the window with plastic and duct tape and let the party continue. My friends all commented on how amazing it was that my parents didn’t freak out. That next Monday at school, my friends were still talking about it. It left quite an impression on them.
“As the excitement over my window dive faded, there was something about that night that my friends never forgot. They learned that my house was a safe place — a place of grace — where it was okay to make mistakes, even big ones!”
Embrace the messes in your home, even if it means you’ll be finding random Nerf darts in every nook and cranny of the house for the next five years. Soon enough your middle school boy will be grown up and you’ll find yourself longing for the days when you got caught in the crossfire of an epic Nerf battle.