My Four-Year Old is the Clean-Up Sheriff and I Couldn't Be Prouder

06/23/2016 11:50 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2016

There are dirty dishes on the table again. Specifically, bear-faced plastic dishes, with little rubber partitions in between the discarded peas and the shredded noodles. Beside one, a bright yellow bulldozer fork is stalled out, his load of noodle casserole abandoned on the vinyl tablecloth. My boys have forgotten to clear their places again.

In the playroom, there are plastic dinosaurs marching in a parade, train tracks under foot and a giant toy flatbed loaded high with legos. And somewhere in there are my boys too, ignoring as I call them to clear their dishes.

I call for them three times but there is no sign that anything I’ve said has registered. They are too immersed in their world of dino calls and truck battles. Their noisiness makes it hard to even hear myself when I ask them a fourth time, to please come and clear their places. When the flatbed finally crashes into the dino-parade, creating unseen horrors as the dinosaurs fly through the air and land across the train tracks, I make my entrance.

“Whee-oo, whee-oo, whee-oo!” I loudly arrive to the scene, toddler-sized police hat perched atop my head. 

The boys stop wide-mouthed, and stare up at me. 

“It’s Sheriff Mama, here!” I announce. “I hear there was an accident. Is everyone okay?”

My three-year-old nods slowly. My four-year-old is beaming wordlessly. 

“I have another accident in the kitchen,” I report to them. “It appears that some bandits have eaten and run but they left their mess behind. I’m looking for a few officers to help me clean it up. You know of any suitable men?”

“I can help!” my four-year-old cheers. 

“Me too!” pipes in his younger brother. 

They stampede into the kitchen, grabbing plates and forks from the table, running them across the room and dumping them into the sink. My older son sprays the tablecloth and wipes it down, crumbs flying off the table. The younger one sweeps the floor into tiny piles which he tracks behind him as he walks. 

“Good job, men!” I salute as they return to the playroom.

They’ve left behind a trail of noodles. There are now peas on the floor instead of the tablecloth. Scraps of food line the sink. It’s a bigger mess than there was before the boys helped clean.

But it wasn’t about the actual plates on the table. It would have been easier to clear the plates and food myself, but that wasn’t the point. It would have taken just a second for me to pile the plates and cutlery, to scrape the food into the trash and slip the dishes into the dishwasher. I could have skipped the repetitive badgering from the other room. I could have skipped the sheriff routine. I could have done it all myself and it would have been easier, quicker and more effective. But I’m trying to raise boys who take responsibility. I’m trying to raise men who contribute at home, who see a mess and take care of it, who clean up after themselves. It’s easier to do it for them, but that’s not the point. They are learning by doing. 

At bedtime that night, as I pull the sheets up to his chin, my older son smiles and says, “That was fun, Mama, when you were the clean-up Sheriff after dinner. Can we do that every night?" 

I nod. “It was fun, honey, yes. But you know what would be even more fun? If tomorrow night, you were the sheriff.”

“I will be your clean-up sheriff any night, Mama.”

And there we are. He’s taking the job. He wants to help. It is messy, it is hard and it takes time. But each night it will get a little easier. Each night he'll take a little more pride in his work and each night I'll help him to do his work a little better. He is learning to clean up his own messes. And that's the point.

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