Neatness: Nature vs. Nurture

I've always been fascinated by the nature vs. nurture debate. The basic question is, are our traits learned or are we born with them?

The debate exists because plenty of evidence supports both sides.  I'm no psychologist, and certainly no scientist either, but I've seen shades of both in my life.  Some virtues, like organization, come very naturally to me; others, like timeliness, have taken lots of work to cultivate (and are not always achieved -- my friends could tell you that!)

I started thinking about neatness this afternoon when I realized what a pleasure it was to come home to a clean house.  One of the benefits to entertaining fairly frequently, as we do, is that it's an incentive to keep your home neat enough that a couple of hours' worth of light cleaning will make it really sparkle.  Towards the end of the party on Saturday, my goddaughter and her friends were gathered in the living room trading stories; they're all students at St. John's College, so most of the stories had to do with eclectic tutors and the horrors of the cafeteria.  So I took the opportunity to steal into the kitchen and wash most of the dishes.  (No TV, no dishwasher.  Yeah, I know.)

Sunday, we ate lunch at church and dinner at my parents', so today the coffee cups were still stacked neatly in the sink.  I ate lunch, added my plate and fork, and went upstairs to relax with a magazine for a couple of hours.  (The afternoon is my evening, as my evenings are full of piano lessons, tutoring and grad school.)  I heard Rob come in and putter around for a bit, then leave again (his courseload is lighter than usual this semester, as he's working on his thesis, so he sometimes comes home for lunch.)  And when I came downstairs again, the dishes were all washed and drying on the rack!

Yes, Rob is an amazing husband, but what struck me about this was its resemblance to the broken-window theory.  If you haven't heard this before, the theory goes that a broken window is the beginning of a bad neighborhood; if someone breaks a window in a building, the next person who comes along feels free to drop trash on the sidewalk next to it, or scribble graffiti on the door, or even orchestrate a drug deal across the street.  A broken window shows that no one cares enough about the environment to keep it looking nice. And the opposite is also true; if a lawn is neatly mowed and edged with well-tended plantings, a passerby will be less likely to litter or let her dog relieve itself there.  A neat space is an invitation to everyone else to keep it neat.

Of course, this only lasts so long, and this is where the nature / nurture debate really gets interesting.  Where does a tendency to clean, or not clean, come from?

I was always interested in organization and neatness; at 5 or 6, one of my favorite occupations was sorting through the odds and ends in my father's workshop -- screws, bolts, nails and other junk.  I liked to make a mess as much as the next kid, but I also liked the feeling of having a system -- a home for each of my belongings.  My sister and I were very different in this regard, so much so that I've often wondered how we could have descended from the same stock.  Even now, there are plenty of times when it's hard to even see the floor in her bedroom., while I get antsy if I have more than a couple of sweaters lying around out of place.  This worked out well for her when we were kids; I can remember cajoling her into spending the afternoon organizing her dresser drawers more than once.  (This was when I first discovered her stash of wooden spoons, the kind my parents used to spank us with.  But that's another story.)

So, okay, I'm a bit of a neat freak.  But that doesn't mean I always love to stop and put things away; there are plenty of times when I avoid the kitchen (or the house altogether) because it's gotten so out of hand I don't know where to begin.  And that's where the nurture part comes in.  I'm sure there were plenty of times I had to be forced to clean my room as a child.  I'm even pretty sure that it was the net effect of all those instances that made me enjoy order in the first place.  If my parents had let me pile project on top of project, I probably would have done so until I was unable to reach my bed.

So this turns out to be yet another case where parents know best -- where a tougher brand of teaching is necessary.  I see a lot of the opposite going on, and I have to say, I'm mystified by parents who seem content to allow their children choices about the most basic questions of health.  When I hear a parent say ruefully, "She won't eat anything but macaroni and cheese," I want to respond, "Of course!  Why would she eat anything else if she had a choice?"  Parents are really the primary educators for their children; it's up to them to take a stand for what they believe is the best way to live, and to enforce that standard until the child is old enough to set his own.  If we let them choose between television and brushing their teeth, they'd let their teeth rot and fall out before they'd give up five minutes of Dora.  And if we don't teach them how to pick up after themselves,  we may be quelling what could be a lifetime obsession with organization.  Perish the thought!