There’s a Christian proverb that most parents cling to like a lifeline: “Teach a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not turn from it.”

It sounds so simple.  The burning question that every parent asks is, what is “old?”  Is it 10, 20, or 50?  And does “the way” also include keeping their entire wardrobe off their bedroom floor, closing the refrigerator door, and flushing the toilet after they use it?

Most of us have heard the old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

Ah, if all I had to do was teach my kids how to fish.

I’m about to celebrate completing my first year of homeschooling.  That means I’m with my girls pretty much all day. I’ve see them in every conceivable situation in every room of the house.  I’ve seen them agonize over their four times tables and figure out what an adverb is.  I’ve watched them clean up drops of water on the kitchen floor and leave behind a puddle.  I spend long hours each day dreaming about the day when they can do their own laundry, vacuum the floors, load the dishwasher, and—of their own accord—wipe the peanut butter off the kitchen counter.  They’re only 8 and 9 years old so I’ve been thinking—based on God’s promise above—I have a long time to wait.

But actually, this week, I realized I…can’t wait.  I mean what am I waiting for?  The Merrymaids fairy to sprinkle pixie dust on them and voila they’ll be conscientious housekeepers?  Who am I kidding?  The only person on the planet that’s going to teach my kids how to clean a toilet is…well, me.

If only that were so easy.  If only I had to teach them one time to properly clean the bathroom sink of extraneous toothpaste.  If only I had to teach them one time how to hang up a damp towel to keep it from developing mold.  If only I had to teach them one time how to sweep the kitchen floor and get every piece of confetti, dog hair, corn chip, stray thread, and grass into the dustpan. 

But no, I’m at about number 212 with little or nothing to show for my labor.  I’ve even considered sneaking Home Economics into our homeschool curriculum next year.  Then I can actually grade them on how quickly they learn to dust the windowsills, sort the colors from the whites, and clean the sliding glass doors.

But first, I think I’m going to take them to the optometrist because I swear they are blind.  I ask them to pick up their shoes in the living room, and they don’t just step over the mound of clothes they left next to the shoes, they actually kick it over like a pile of fall leaves.  I mean how can they not see their bikes sprawled on the porch blocking the front door?  How can they not see the neon glare of the unattended computer monitor left on, the empty bathroom-hallway-and-kitchen lights ablaze, and the dog’s bare food bowl and snakes’ bone-dry water dish (see my blog entry “Welcome to the Jungle…er, Zoo”)?  How can they not see the ferret poop in the corner, the full set of bowling pins in the foyer I’ve tripped over a half-dozen times, the marbles I slipped on the other half-dozen, and the chlorinated wet towels drapped across the leather couch? 

I’ve heard teenagers also develop a profound sense of deafness.  I can’t wait.

For now, out of necessity, I’ve engineered a standard of cleanliness which my kids understand.  There are two levels of clean in our house.  Theirs and mine.  I use it every time—and I do mean every time—they claim to have cleaned up their playroom:  “Is it your clean or is it my clean?” I ask.  Nine-times-out-of-ten, they don’t even answer but trudge straight back into the disaster zone like war-weary soldiers on their third tour of duty.  As she disappears into the din, my youngest usually sounds like a commando caught behind enemy lines when she cries, “We need help!”

Most times I relent and wade back in with them.  I mean, parents are supposed to model appropriate behavior, right?  Haven’t our kids been imitating us since birth?  It’s a proven fact that we learn better from watching others.  But how many times do I need to point out the score of Littlest Pet Shop props, the hastely doffed penguin pajamas, the fraying cast-off dinosaur, or the mismatched hair clips littering the floor?  I mean, I’m loosing my vision—yes, I now need reading glasses—and I can see the debris quite clearly.

But then I remember my own teen years (memory loss from the Three-Kids Syndrome has scattered all recollection of my earlier childhood).  I recall my mother gave up on me and the condemned property that was my bedroom when I was about 14.  Who knows how many times she asked me to clean it up before conceding defeat and just pulling closed my door with a sign that read “Danger! Scheduled for Demolition”.

But something must have took.  Somehow the words took seed.  The 18 years of  “pick up your shoes”, “put your clothes in the hamper”, and “make your bed” must have gotten lodged somewhere in my brain because within a week of moving in with my first college roommate, she confronted me with the fantastic story that I was channeling my Marine Corp mother–my bathroom always smelled of bleach, my shoes lined my closet like a squad in formation, and you could bounce a penny off my freshly-made bed.

My mom—God blessed her—would never have believed it.

So now each time I remind the girls to clear off the coffee table, or put their dishes in the sink, or get their wet bathing suits off the bedroom floor and puh-lease hang them up, I remind myself that a foundation is being laid, God’s promise is being fulfilled, my words are not in vain, and eventually—Lord willing, yes!—eventually, they will put the cap back on the toothpaste.

Until that time, I will draw strength from God’s Word and the old Chinese proverb and be grateful that I don’t have to actually teach them how to fish.  Can you imagine the mess I’d have to clean up then?