I sat last week in a doctor’s office, someone with whom I’ve had enough experience to know that he also has three kids in the same age/gender mix – elder girl, two younger brothers – as my own. It was one of those Spring days for which you desperately await, a time when you can enjoy the outside again. He stated that he’d taken a very early morning walk and my response was that I’d actually thrown open the windows in the boys’ bedrooms before departing for the appointment; it was a day for which I’d waited, a chance to air out the stale odors that had taken residence over the enclosed winter months. He nodded in agreement, commenting that the boys’ hangout in his basement smelled heavily of sweaty feet and stale sweat. Geez, boys do stink, don’t they? I remarked. He responded Yeah, they really do. Boys stink.
The old axiom is that Spring is a time when a young man’s fancy turns to love. When you have boys who are teens or tweens, the fancy turns instead to thoughts of opening the bedroom windows in order to blow out the accumulated stink of winter. The pubescent years are difficult enough as the teens try on new attitudes, opinions and looks like a diva tries on shoes. But boys provide a literal insult to injury with the accumulated odors that accrue in their rooms; they can bathe daily and use all manner of deodorant, but their personal den generally accrues enough poor hygiene habits that there is a perceptibly stale funk. There are the standard components of dirty socks and underwear that somehow wind up behind furniture or buried within the closet and there’s a never-ending refrain of reminders to hang up the damp bath towels. I once entered a child’s room and was immediately struck by the notion that there’s something wrong with this picture; after several minutes of searching around, I realized that a bedroom has three dimensions and looked up to find underwear dangling from the ceiling light. Seriously, son? The amazing part is that when I commented to him later, his account of how it got there jibed with what I’d expected when I first saw it.
Boys are generally unaware of the details that surround them and the obliviousness reaches an absolute-zero boundary when they enter the teen years. But even the oblivion can be pierced by environment and the results are, well…someday we’ll find them amusing. In one instance, a boy decided to address the odors by spraying two drawers – full of clean clothing – with the larger part of a bottle of Axe deodorant while we were at the store; when we walked in the front door, the reek of Axe so permeated the house that we had to wheel about and exit the same door. In another instance, a boy complained of a swarm of small flies in his room and when I investigated, I found an uneaten school lunch bag crammed into a clothing drawer, the flies drawn to the decaying fruit. There are certainly other stories from this household which I won’t share and I know of many others from fellow parents who can only shake their heads in disbelief. If you have boys who aren’t yet teens, you’ll certainly accumulate your own.
The upshot is this.
- While we want our children to take responsibility for themselves and their personal environment, the path isn’t on an even grade and there are periods when they enter the teen years that you actually think that they’re regressing. This is part and parcel of those years when the kids’ brains literally rewire themselves – thank you, MRI studies – and their thoughts apparently wind up lost for all of the dead-end synapses that no longer accommodate traffic.
- There will likely be some conflict between the privacy-conscious teen and the parent who wants to come through and at least keep the room habitable, culling through debris, opening windows, clearing out drawers and changing sheets. Decide what your limit is and stick to it.
- As they age, don’t assume that they automatically know what to do with antiperspirant, deodorant and body sprays – most especially in what amounts. It’s self-evident to parents but conversations with boys can lead to expressions of enlightenment that rival their personal discovery of a fourth dimension or an answer as to why the Cubs just can’t seem to make it to the playoffs.
The long and short is that we have to be prepared to continue to monitor and work with them, even when we wish that we didn’t have to. We also have to make decisions as to what we’ll tolerate and what kind of conflict we’ll have to undergo as we help them grow through this period. Our failure – and I know of parents who won’t stay on their boys to wash routinely and use appropriate personal care products – will lead to larger issues with the kids as they run into peers who aren’t shy about poking fun at their hygiene. While the boys’ rooms can stink, it doesn’t mean that they have to as well.