Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pig Pen Lives

Yes, it's true, "Pig Pen" from the Peanuts comic still survives, and in fact is living in my house, masquerading as my younger son.

This child is the sweetest kid on the earth, very sensitive, loving and kind, with a particular affinity for animals. He has a huge stuffed animal collection that must be kissed every night before bed, and he absolutely DOTES on our cats and our bunnies. He really is a sweet, wonderful, loving child and a real light in my life.

But Oh My God, he is the most hygienically-challenged child to ever live on this earth.....or so it feels sometimes.

My husband, Mr. WellRounded, was packing to take the older three kids to a special camp this weekend. He told the kids what they needed and told them to go pack it in a back-pack. He wouldn't check up on whether they actually packed what they were supposed to, though, and knowing my younger son the way I do, I decided I'd better check.

The child had simply "re-purposed" a bunch of dirty clothes from his last Cub Scout campout. He had dirty, smelly socks in there, dirty pants and wadded up shirts, and worst of all, some rather nasty underwear with major "skidmarks" all over them (I may end up burning them). Thank goodness I made a point to check his pack!

So off we went, down to his room to get clean clothes. I had told this child to clean his room several times over the last few weeks but had not personally checked it recently. He swore to me it was perfectly clean. Uh-huh.

Well, it was "clean" in that there was a path from the door to the bed, but that's about it. Every inch of dresser and bookshelves was covered in the "treasures" of childhood, there were piles of books and comics all over the floor, and the dirty laundry was overflowing from his hamper (despite a number of requests to bring it to the laundry room the week previous).

I'm concerned this child will be a pathological hoarder because he seems to be unable to edit his own stuff. No paper is ever thrown out, no matter how trivial or inconsequential. Anything he has ever made, no matter how cheesy, can ever be discarded. I work with him on editing his schoolwork and paintings and such, and he helps me choose what to keep and what to recycle....but he doesn't seem to be able to do this on his own. Even with my help it's very difficult, much more so than with his siblings.

I asked him this summer to bring up any clothes that were too small so we could give them to the cousins. Nothing ever came up. When I went down to his room yesterday, he had so many clothes in the drawers that he couldn't shut the drawers. He had everything from a size 8, 10, 12, and 14.....all at the same time in those drawers. Even though most things were clearly too small for him, he couldn't manage to organize them into a pile or consider letting them go. It was just too much for him to do on his own.

Well, I don't expect that a 9 year-old will be able to edit everything on his own, but by now he should be able to edit some stuff without me there during the whole process. His older siblings could at this age. And while cleanliness is a struggle for all of them (they think I'm a cleaning fanatic; trust me when I say I'm not!), none of them struggle quite as much as this child does.

He's also a walking stain-attractor. You can give him a perfectly clean shirt first thing in the morning, and before he leaves the house for school it has a stain on it. All of his clothes are covered in stains. I should buy him stock in the "Shout" company because we use so much of it on his clothes. Every kid gets some stains and I'm not that uptight about that.....but this kid is a walking petri dish.

Clean socks? Sometimes.....but often not. Often it's regular shoes with no socks, rather than go get a pair of clean ones. I don't know what he has against clean socks, but he doesn't like changing them.

Clean underwear? A concept he actively resists. I actually have to resort to "cheek-checks" some days to see if he really has put on clean underwear, even after he swears he did. Often, his cheeks fail said checks.

Now, I'm not a believer in keeping kids spotless. If they are out playing like they should, they're going to get dirty sometimes. That's okay with me. I can deal with that kind of mess, and I expect it. It's a sign of good imaginative playing.

But I also know how kids can be ostracized among friends and adults for looking filthy and in particular for smelling bad. I don't want that for my kid, so basics like clean underwear, clean socks, and occasional changes of pants and shirts are non-negotiable.

Even so, it's really a struggle with this one. He really is like Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic. You can practically see the clouds of dust and grime around him as he walks.

He is as sweet as the day is long......but what person is ever going to be romantically interested in him when he looks and smells like Pig Pen? I just hope this is a stage he outgrows......but I'm not holding my breath waiting for it to happen (or maybe I am, just to deal with the smell).

Do you have a Pig Pen in your life? What did/do you do to help him/her?


Lucy said...

Hey, I found you through Shapely Prose.

One of my best friends in college was nauseating. She was an incredibly warm, lovely friend, totally brilliant, hysterically funny- but she literally was Pig Pen. She would frequently forget to bathe- she'd be so caught up in all the projects she was involved with that she would literally forget, but she didn't stop to do it once it was called to her attention, either. She also never, ever cleaned her room. It looked and smelled like a biohazard, such that even on the first day of school every fall semester, she'd move into her dorm and it would look like she had lived there for ten years and never cleaned it. And her feet- oh my God, her feet. I've never met anyone, ANYONE, whose feet smelled like this before. We had to prohibit her for a while from taking off her shoes in any of our rooms, because the smell would not disappear. And we all felt terrible, because we loved hanging out with her, and we always did- but there's really no nice way to tell someone that their hygiene sucks. A lot of it had to do with the fact that she was never taught hygiene- like real, true hygiene. Not just "wear a nice outfit and make-up every day," but HYGIENE.

Then she started dating another one of our friends, and amazingly enough, she cleaned up significantly. The foot odor all but disappeared. She actually started taking regular showers and even wearing perfume. We couldn't believe it.

Until they had been together for some time, and became increasingly symbiotic, that BOTH their hygiene began to slip. Like sheets never being changed, wearing each others' dirty clothes, that kind of thing. And then it became even more difficult to figure out- it's hard enough to tell one person their hygiene sucks, but two people? A couple? And where do you begin- "your collective hygiene sucks because ultimately your relationship sucks"?

I don't know if that's a cautionary tale or reassurance. I guess with your son, because he's still so young, you've just got to keep riding him about how important it is. People act like bathing and cleanliness is just something that everyone does, but the truth is, that stuff is just as conditional as anything else. If you repeatedly demonstrate to him that showers and underwear changes and at least a breathable room are essential facts of life, it will sink in. It really will. And then again, in a few years he'll be hitting puberty, and it might so happen that he won't be able to take enough showers. In any event, the more he sees of it from you and your husband and his siblings, the less likely he'll be to do it conditionally (like my friend) and just adapt.

Then again, I was the little girl who wouldn't even fingerpaint, and who would just get up and sit at another lunch table if the other kids were playing with their food.

womantowomancbe said...

Oh, how funny!!

One tip to get rid of some of the paper clutter is to scan the stuff and put it on the computer or a CD/DVD, so he can have it "forever." This way, he gets to keep the creation, while you don't have to deal with the clutter!


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to say I was like Pig Pen at a couple of different times in my childhood. It generally happened when I was depressed and sorting through major changes in life, and I could just not have cared less about my appearance, wearing clean clothes, or whether I smelled. I was never treated for depression, which was the result of upheaval in my life rather than a general disorder.

Your son is only nine, and he is a boy, which makes his experience very different from mine, but I can assure you I did grow out it as far as personal hygiene was concerned (and am perhaps a little fanatical about being neat and clean now). I'd venture a guess that these issues just aren't important to him at this point in his life. He may always be disorganized, but I don't think it's really that alarming that a nine year old doesn't volunteer to shower or care about getting his laundry where it's supposed to go.

Piffle said...

The comment about being unable to edit or work on his own in an organized way made me wonder if you've considered ADHD. Yeah, I know it's a "popular" diagnosis; but one of the big signs is an inability to organize. And it can exist without overactivity, which is kind of wierd, a form known as Primarily inattentive. Here's a link:

My little girl has it, so I may be seeing bugbears. :)

Areem said...

Just curious if your son is on the autism spectrum? My 24-year-old roommate, who has Asperger's syndrome (plus depression) is exactly like this. It's nearly unbearable for me, and he got kicked out of his last rented room for the same reason.

I also used to be unhygienic and messy as a child/teenager, until constitutional homeopathic treatment sorted things out for me. Unfortunately, my roommate thinks homeopathy is 'quackery', so I don't hold out much hope for improvement.

Good luck with your son!

Anonymous said...

This is interesting; I was very similar as a child. I never threw anything away, ever, sometimes including candy bar wrappers. I hated to clean my room and still have trouble doing it. I never had a problem with showering and bathing, but I refused to wash my (very long, very curly) hair. Really most of what you said about your son described me, too.

We're not the same person so the same tactics won't necessarily help, but one of the big things that helped with the clutter was having places to put papers etc. One weekend my mother and I constructed a book-case sort of thing out of cardboard boxes, and until we moved I put everything in there, sorted by subject. Bath time was enjoyable for me because no one was allowed to bother me, and washing my hair became more enjoyable once it was established that I could spend more time in the shower if I did.

My mother also explained the social reaction to smelling odd, which helped a lot. And the doctor explained the infections you can get by not changing underwear.

It's also worth exploring why he has these behaviours. I know when I was a kid I just didn't see the point to actually cleaning my room. Socks were uncomfortable for me (I still don't wear them) and I was embarrassed by the idea of people seeing my underwear.

I'm sorry to have left such a huge comment. Even if nothing that worked with me works for your son, though, most people grow out of these behaviours--particularly around puberty. Good luck!

Shinobi said...

So if My mom hadn't done all my laundry for me, put it all away, and basically cleaned up after me for my entire childhood life, this would have been me.

I think, for me anyway, learning to be cleaner, to keep a neat house, was really so. Having someone teach me these things (as stupid as it sounds) was really necessary, and I still don't do it mostly because I'm lazy. Any system for keeping things neat I set up I have to make AS EASY AS IS HUMANELY POSSIBLE because otherwise I won't do it.

My dad used to help me go through my room at home, and we'd always have a "Store" a "keep" and a "Giveaway" bag. So stuff that we didn't use all the time we put in a box in the basement, stuff we wanted to keep we kept, and so on. But when I was very young he would sit with me and ask me questions an help me make those decisions. When I got older the mere threat of him "Helping" me was enough to get me to clean my room.

I think the "store" option is a really really good one for your son. It sounds like he is attached to a lot of stuff, and storing it is a good in between option.

To stay on top of it I would try to have regular "de cluttering" days once a month or so when you go through his room together or apart.

I think another thingis that you have to show him what the standard of clean is. Until his room is X clean it is not clean and if he tells you it is clean and it is not at X then there will be Y punishment or something. It is obviously not a problem for him to live in squalor, but that might just be because he doesn't know how nice it is to have things be neat.

You keep saying that he has something against clean socks or clean underwear or whatever. I guess one major thing to get to the bottom of, is does he really prefer dirty stuff? Or is he just lazy? For me, I'd much rather have clean clothes, but y'know sometimes I re wear dirty socks because I didn't do laundry and I don't have time to look for clean ones. Maybe the dirty stuff is just easier for him to reach. (And if he is too lazy to bring his dirty clothes to the laundry room so someone else can was them, then that is probably waht we're talking about.)

So have you thought about moving his hamper out of his room? And what does he normally wear to bed (not to get personal). I'm just trying to think of ways to make sure that in the morning when he goes to get dressed the only options he has are clean clothes. It could be that he's so used to the smell of his dirty stuff that he doesn't notice that they smell. It may also be best if you change any systems like "laundry goes X and Y" you do it for the whole family so he doesn't feel singled out and rebel.

Also, maybe if you had a fabric softener he really liked? So they smelled really nice to him?

I know a lot of this is really work intensive for you (or your husband or older kids?). But some people (raises hand!) would just live in disgusting filth if you let them. The problem is if you are one of those people SO HARD to learn to be clean so you "fit in" that often it is just too much work to even try.

It's like people who don't have a natural aptitude for math or sports, it takes a long time to learn HOW to do it, and then once you know you're probably only going to do it if someone forces you.

Then again, he may grow out of it, I have one friend who did.

boots said...

My brother used to be a Pig Pen at that age. Now, at 30, he's still fairly cluttered and messy about his space, but he got over the hygiene issues once he started liking girls (about 14 or so? Maybe a little earlier).

Michelle said...

I was a Pig Pen as a kid. I didn't re-wear clothes, but I also didn't shower much. I started practicing better hygiene when I lived with other people my age - first at summer camp, and later in the dorms. I didn't want to stick out any more than I already did. Your son will probably figure this stuff out when he realizes that his peers expect better hygiene than that, or when he wants a girlfriend.

I was also a serious hoarder as a child - I used to save empty toilet paper rolls just in case I ever wanted to do a craft project with them (which I never did). But I grew out of it. My mom spent my entire childhood trying to convince me that I didn't need to save every scrap of paper; now she gets to hear me complain that my husband is "rescuing" junk from the give-away box. "But the self-shaking salt and pepper shakers that have never been out of their packaging are too awesome to give away! Don't you want our future kids to have the damaged maracas your dad brought us from his trip to Colombia?" What goes around comes around, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Every kid is unique and learns in different ways and in different patterns. The best way you can help him, is to HELP him. You mentioned in your post about asking him repeatedly to do something, but it doesn't seem that you check on it until much later. Maybe your son needs you to physically check things more often. Perhaps a visual schedule would help, developed with him to make it more agreeable. You shower at a certain time every night, perhaps before a favorite TV show that he can't watch if he didn't shower, bring your laundry to the laundry room every day so it doesn't build up, etc. Write it down and place it where you both will see it. Go over it everyday, maybe several times a day, to check to see if things are getting done. If he is supposed to be cleaning his room, make periodic checks on him to make sure he is actually doing it- praise him if he is cleaning, prompt him to start if he isn't. And build in rewards for compliance with the schedule ( being able to watch special shows, a few extra minutes at bedtime, whatever he REALLY wants on a regular basis, but doesn't often get). I know this may sound like more work, and that you didn't have to do it with your other kids, but it sounds like he needs more hand-holding than usual. Pretty soon you will be able to fade yourself back as he becomes more independent at following the schedule. Organization is a learned skill for many people, some pick it up easier than others. I was never taught to be organized, and I struggle with it to this day. Often I have to be hyperorganized to get everything done! HTH

publichealthdoula said...

I don't know if this would help you, but I use some of the routines and e-mails from - I just use it to keep myself organized and cleaning regularly, but I know she also has ideas and special stuff for kids. The e-mails include testimonials from "flybabies" (some of the lingo gets a little nauseating but it works if you can look past it!) and a lot of them say it has been very effective for their kids.

I was not the neatest kid...Flylady is helping me improve as an adult! People can change!

Lucy said...

FlyLady isn't a terrible resource, I will concede. Her actual ADVICE is good. Her delivery, not so much. You have to literally put on tunnel-vision to see past the lingo- and the body-and-food-shaming tactics she uses. (I actually wrote her a scathing e-mail a couple months ago on that very subject, and I got no response. But I got one when I wrote to her to say my desk was clean. Curious.) Anyway, it's worth taking a peek at her site to see if her routines can be adapted to fit your situation. You're a resourceful mama. :)

Thorny said...

I'm totally late on this, but have you ever done any reading about Sensory Processing Disorder? It can look like (as well as co-exist with) ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, but there are some important distinctions.

The not wanting to change clothes and being more willing to re-wear dirty clothes than clean ones in particular makes me wonder if there are sensory issues at work for your son. I had some similar issues, and for me there was often a sense that clothes I had worn I "knew" were comfortable, whereas clothes I hadn't worn yet were "unknown" and I had strong anxieties about putting on clothes that would wind up uncomfortable later in the day.

As I've gotten older, I've learned what fabrics and constructions work well for me and which don't, but it took some time and it took getting old enough to really have an awareness of how clothes are made to figure it all out.

I too eventually got over my reluctance to bathe - it took a stint at summer camp where I didn't want to be the only one /not/ bathing to get into the routine. But even so, I'm still terrible about clutter and am awful about keeping up with even my maintenance cleaning.

Good luck! I know it's hard, and I'm sure your son's actions seem inexplicable (I know my mom was utterly mystified by mine), but chances are he doesn't /like/ being messy, he just doesn't know how to change.

Kendra said...

I know I am very very late to this thread but it is so nice to have someoe who can empathize. My son is currently 9 yrs old and would never clean his room, change underwear or bathe uless told to. And while dear son has a very ripe odor w/o deodorant and has since the age of 5... a familial thing... he has to be remined every morning and eve3ning to put it on.
Said child also has ADHD and would forget his own head if it weren't attached. We have seen some improvement with cleanliness since instituting a chore chart. says what chores each child has each day and is uber easy to read. Currently my kids rooms are upstairs I am 39 weeks pregnant and have SPD so stairs are mostly a no no. I have the kids take pics after they complete their chores to make sure they have actually done them. LOL hey it works. And my so can no longer get dressed in his own bathroom in the AM. He has to get dfressed inmy room andhis clean underwear has been moved downstairs so we can make sure he actually puts it on. sigh.
But ok since I am 2 years late i will stop lamenting. just glad I am not the only mom invested in Shout for her boy and extraordinary measures to ensure cleanliness. I just don't want him outcast due to being smelly you know?