Is living in a dirty house bad for children?
January 20, 2008 10:01 PM   Subscribe

Sibling and sibling's spouse are living in squalor, and I think it's bad for their kids. Should I intervene?

Sibling and sibling's spouse have always been messy. The past year or so their home has declined into a littered, unclean hovel. Food is left on plates for days, and there is a strong permanent odor of sour milk. They don't dust or vacuum. Floors are brown with dirt, sinks are disgusting. Rooms are piled hip-deep with papers, blankets, clothing, boxes, toys, books, and school detritus. I won't enter their home anymore because of the dust and odor.

The three children are happy, clean, fed, and their clothes are washed. They are smart, well mannered and friendly. But they are living in a fire hazard. Friends aren't allowed over. They have no concept of cleaning up or putting stuff away; when they finish eating they just walk away from the plate. However, they don't seem to mind the mess at all.

Sibling does not like to throw things away, is extremely sensitive, cries easily. Sibling's spouse is just lazy. Previous attempts by other relatives to clean have been met with refusal.

I wouldn't care about their hovel if they were childless. It's the children's safety I think about.

1) Am I correct to worry about the children?
2) Should I pursue the matter with the risk of angering them or just butt out and mind my own business?
posted by red_lotus to Human Relations (43 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
How old are the children?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:10 PM on January 20, 2008

To me the answer depends on what kind of intervention you're suggesting. I can certainly see your desire to intervene, but I would advise against it, unless you simply mean having a quiet, non-confrontational word with your sibling about the state of their place. Although given you say your sibling is pretty sensitive, I advise caution as it could go very bad.

If you're talking about getting child services involved, or some sort of other, radical intervention, I would seriously advise against that. Sure, the parents are lazy and filthy but by your own admission, they are anything but when it comes to their kids welfare. It seems to me that the kids are being well looked after, and that's probably the most important thing.

If anything, the fact that your sibling and his or her partner seem to genuinely care about their kids is something which could help you change their slovenly ways. A quiet non-judgemental word like "Your place is a fire/health hazard and this could kill your kids" might be just the thing they need.

But again, be careful. You sound like a good person, and the last thing you want is to be burned (and by this I mean losing contact with your sibling and the kids for good) because of your good intentions.
posted by Effigy2000 at 10:28 PM on January 20, 2008

The three children are happy, clean, fed, and their clothes are washed.

That's the main thing here. I think you should encourage your sibling and the sibling's spouse to seek help (sounds like a hoarding disorder to me) but don't involve the authorities in the childrens welfare (unless they're being abused, which doesn't sound like the case). I think the children are better off with a loving family (albeit a filthy one) than with the foster care system.
posted by amyms at 10:35 PM on January 20, 2008

Rooms are piled hip-deep with papers, blankets, clothing, boxes, toys, books, and school detritus.

Do you mean that there are paths created for them to walk on? Or do they have to wade through piles of stuff? Or are you exaggerating?

The fact that the house is messier than you would like it to be, is not a reason to interveve.

The "fire hazard" reasoning is probably not enough reason to intervene. Most lived-in houses are a "fire hazard" in the sense that they are filled with flammable things.

If there is a real health hazard that you can identify (i.e., "one of the children has asthma and the poor housekeeping is making it difficult for him to breathe") then by all means intervene. But don't meddle in someone else's housekeeping just because it offends your sense of neatness.
posted by jayder at 10:38 PM on January 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

If you honestly believe it is a potential hazard for the children, I would say contact Child Protective Services.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:40 PM on January 20, 2008

@ johnny gunn: the children are 12, 10, and 6.

@ effigy: my intervention would definitely NOT involve child services! the kids are very loved and cared for, and you're right, that is the most important thing. That's why I'm wondering if I"m overreacting with my worry and/or being judgmental about their lifestyle.

I have not previously mentioned the filth and fire hazard aloud because of the sensitivity issue. An intervention would be along the lines of a quiet word, definitely an offer of help.
posted by red_lotus at 10:41 PM on January 20, 2008

I grew up in a house similar to this. If it were me I would absolutely say something, especially if it were my sibling who had the problem.

It affected me very negatively to grow up in a house like this for a number of reasons.

I absolutely hated how dirty everything was and my mother would use guilt to try and get me to "clean it myself if I hated it so much." It took many years and a good friend's intervention before I finally learned how to be organized and be clean by myself. It increases anxiety to live in squalor.

I would recommend face to face with your sibling when the kids aren't around. It's probably not something a higher authority needs to intervene with, but if you are concerned you should absolutely voice it.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 10:43 PM on January 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

I actually had a friend who grew up in a house like this... didn't have people over because the entire house was filled with dishes, newspapers, trash, books, etc on every surface, with paths carved through or entire rooms given up to the trash and clutter. Although I'm sure it would be bad for someone with allergies or the like, the worst thing that came out of it for him was a sort of semi-serious shame about his home. He turned out just fine, as did his siblings. I would say leave it alone unless the kids are complaining. It's nasty but that's just going to be the way it is; cleaning up now would be a temporary measure until it gets filled up again.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:43 PM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

@ jaydar: the last time I entered the house some rooms could not be entered at all. There is a small path in most rooms and a hallway. The detritus is indeed hip deep in some places and higher in the corners.
posted by red_lotus at 10:43 PM on January 20, 2008

Next time your sibling's birthday rolls around, hire a professional house cleaner as a gift. Pay for the service up front. Sibling will probably be embarrassed as to the amount of mess and won't want a stranger coming in, so don't ask beforehand if he/she wants it - just do it.
posted by item at 10:47 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

If there are small paths as you describe I think that would constitute as a serious fire hazard.

You might consider looking into child protection services, if only to find out what constitutes major harm to the children. Perhaps there is a way to do that without giving them much information about the people involved.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 10:51 PM on January 20, 2008

My brother's house was this way for years. The kids didn't seem to suffer for it, although I'm sure they'll be hell on future roomates.
posted by tkolar at 10:52 PM on January 20, 2008

Sibling does not like to throw things away, is extremely sensitive, cries easily.

i wonder if these are symptoms of a psychiatric illness that needs to be diagnosed and treated.
posted by kryptos at 11:18 PM on January 20, 2008

Talk to child protective services. You don't have to give any info until you feel comfortable. They don't just show up, see some squalor, and grab the kids out of the house and take them next door to live with the Flanders. Decisions are made carefully, and every effort if generally made to keep kids out of the system unless it is unavoidable.

You're describing a deteriorating situation with children who are endangered by it and possibly already showing adverse psychological effects as a result. You're also describing family members who have a past history of reacting badly to criticism and refusing it.

I think the children must be made the priority here. Call. If you do not feel the situation warrants an actual report to Child Protective Services, at least you will know who to talk to if it ever does.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:36 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

...hire a professional house cleaner as a gift... don't ask beforehand if he/she wants it - just do it.

Do not hire a cleaning service without your sib's knowledge/OK. It sounds like they have some hoarding issues that warrant some psychological help. Having a stranger come in and start throwing stuff away will cause them MAJOR anxiety, and it won't help anything. In a few months, their house will be back to the way it was.

I had a friend who grew up kind of like that. Piles of stuff her mom was saving, half-finished major construction/remodeling projects. The effect on her was that she went completely the other direction. Unbelievably clean. Saves nothing. IMO she has gone too extreme in the other direction.

I think the best way you could help them is to direct them to (and pay for?) some therapy.
posted by clh at 11:44 PM on January 20, 2008

A website that might help: Squalor Survivors. I believe it has tips for friends/family on the best and worst ways to approach a person living in squalor. Also, read up on hoarding. Regarding how the mess affects the kids psychologically, there's actually a whole website for the adult children of hoarders. While most of their situations were worse than this one sounds, some were comparable. Read their stories -- some are tragic.
posted by changeling at 11:47 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry, "their stories" should link to this page.
posted by changeling at 11:48 PM on January 20, 2008

Comments like this:
They have no concept of cleaning up or putting stuff away; when they finish eating they just walk away from the plate

and this:
It's the children's safety I think about.

suggest to me that you are at least a little concerned about their lifestyle choices, and are using safety as a justification for this. Not to say that you aren't correct in wanting to intervene and that there aren't real safety issues. Just take care to keep the two issues separate in your head.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:53 PM on January 20, 2008

child protective services will figure out who you are from caller id, and who it is you're talking about. once you make the call, even if you don't identify yourself, it's out of your hands. something perceived as a betrayal could lead to something perceived as an absolute renunciation of your society.
posted by bruce at 11:55 PM on January 20, 2008

Thank you, Bruce, for reiterating terrifying myths about Child Protective Services. One of the things they do is advise callers as to whether or not their concerns merit further investigation. It's not as though you make a call and, whoosh, in come the suits to sweep the children away.

I wonder how many children suffer undeniable abuse because people are so freakin' afraid of what will happen if they report it?
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:08 AM on January 21, 2008 [5 favorites]

Kids are kids, and the house they grow up in is the house they grow up in. Every child will react to this in their own way. My most neatnik friend is a neatnik because he grew up in a house similar to your sibling's, and having a gorgeous, dust-free house was his way of rebelling against his parents. Growing up in a messy house doesn't doom one to perpetual messiness.

What I'm more worried about is where these kids are *now.* There's some serious depression going on in that house, and your nieces and nephews may be embarrassed to bring their friends home.

You obviously love these kids, and want to be a positive part of their lives. If you live in the same city, one thing you can do for them is to set aside one afternoon/night a week where they visit you. If they want to come alone, great. If they want to bring some friends along, that's even better. Be the place where they can reciprocate their schoolfriends' invitations without feeling humiliated.

Make dinner, and then wash up right afterwards. Do your everyday chores, and invite them along, so they can see how normal people keep clutter to a manageable level.

If you don't live in the same city, invite these kids to visit for a few days a couple of times a year. They will learn from you, and they'll remember it.

You can't change their parents, but you can be both an oasis and a teacher. These kids are lucky to have you in their corner.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 12:18 AM on January 21, 2008 [8 favorites]

My cousins' house was basically uncleaned for years, as their mother's schizophrenia got worse. The children there were also clean and tidy and loved, but the house was a dump - and aside from any health issues, it certainly affects kids knowing that you can't possibly invite others over, as that's an important part of building friendships when you're too young to hang out somewhere else. They lived interstate, so we didn't really know how bad it was (although we saw their lack of normal habits when they visited) until my 13yo sister went for a holiday to their place and came back horrified. Eventually several of my relatives went on an uninvited visit (although they told my uncle they were coming) and basically threw out most of the house, including mattresses with rats living in them, cockroaches everywhere, dishes molding away in the kitchen, and other filth. It took four adults two weeks of solid work.

It doesn't sound like your siblings house is that bad, but I would do something regardless of 'angering' your sibling, and I wouldn't rely on the kids 'not seeming to mind'. It's pretty hard to criticize your own family, and they're also used to it - but while kids can get used to a lot of shitty stuff, they shouldn't have to.
posted by jacalata at 12:45 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

twelve and ten years old are old enough to be consulted: talk to them, ask them if the condition of the home bothers them, see if they want to learn the basics of housekeeping, and teach them if they are receptive. Cleaning dishes and taking out the thrash is well within their capabilities.
posted by francesca too at 1:38 AM on January 21, 2008

I'd just like to point out that the OP does not want to contact child services, so I think that it is silly for that option to be discussed. Personally, I think that that would be an overreaction, particularly as a first option.
posted by gregvr at 3:24 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

red_lotus: "@ effigy: my intervention would definitely NOT involve child services! the kids are very loved and cared for, and you're right, that is the most important thing. That's why I'm wondering if I"m overreacting with my worry and/or being judgmental about their lifestyle."

I think you're not overreacting. As I said earlier, you're a good person who is worried, and by the way you describe the situation you have some reason to be.

A quiet word, making sure you keep things calm, non-confrontational and non-judgmental, is the best bet, and be sure (and prepared) to end the conversation straight away if it seems your sibling didn't like what you had to say, which he or she probably will. Play the (very true) angle that the kids are in possible danger (health wise) if they keep living this way. It's an angle, but its true, and since they do obviously care for the kids it is an angle that might speak words to them. And if they don't take the hint, then leave it be. As long as the kids stay happy, healthy and well looked after, that's all that matters.

Good luck!
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:34 AM on January 21, 2008

Yeah, calling protective services seems like an overreaction. Not to mention that they might not investigate it. When I call CPS for work you need proof that the kid is actually being beaten before they'll do anything. It probably varies from area to area.

Anyway, I'd approach it like, "It's a shame the kids' friends can't come over. You know, I just read a book about how to organize your house. It's so easy to let the housework get away from you, but this book really helped me. Why don't we do your house next? I'll come over next weekend and help you organize." Posing it as a project that you're interested in might help her accept, as in, she might allow you to do it just because she thinks you're totally interested in organizing houses. I use this approach with my sister, who is mentally ill and can be hyper-sensitive, quite a bit.
posted by christinetheslp at 4:22 AM on January 21, 2008

My take on it is you need to talk to them again, and here is why. YOU might not call CPS but someone else might, and that home is bad enough that they might get involved. (I used to be friends with a CPS worker, plus on the Flylady site there have been testimonials of folks who were threatened with losing their kids until they got their crap together.)

Sounds like sibling needs some psychiatric help, and as for practical help, I do recommend
posted by konolia at 4:31 AM on January 21, 2008

been there... tried to get involved, offended them a lot, wont ask again. I dont go round, and nor do a lot of people I know, I'm hoping that tells them what they need to know.

Heartbreaking story aside - their 4 year old son (an only child) confided in me about his 'imaginary brother', I asked him where he was..playing along.. and he said "he doesnt live here, he lives in a clean house".

He became aware that his house wasnt normal when he started going to school and visiting other kids houses and seeing that their houses were not dirty shitholes like his.
posted by daveyt at 5:15 AM on January 21, 2008

I have a friend who grew up in a house like that too. All the kids in the family had some problems with friendships but otherwise turned out OK. Around age 17 he took charge, cleaned the hell out of his room and the area of the house through which people would have to walk through to get to his room, and his housing since then has been alternately messy and spotless. (Unfortunately one of the messy stages was when we were roommates.) His parents have moved but quickly messed up their new place too,

I guess my point is:
- it's probably not screwing up the kids to the level that warrants CPS involvement, but it's not good for them. If you can help, you should try.
- the parents are probably not going to change, this is just the way they are. Maybe until any mental health issues are treated, maybe forever. A professional cleaning/organizing service (with follow-up visits) is probably the way to go. And if they kids appreciate a clean house, maybe they could be taught to at least keep their rooms organized, or make a deal with the parents where they do a lot of the cleaning in exchange for an allowance.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 5:47 AM on January 21, 2008

My house kind of looked like this when I was growing up. My relatives were scared of the place, but looking back on it I realize it was basically harmless. I credit having grown up surrounded by filth for my complete lack of allergies.
posted by killdevil at 6:06 AM on January 21, 2008

I had a couple of friends who grew up in houses like this. It was embarrassing for them, but on the continuum of embarrassment-by-parents there were worse things. It's worth noting that if the kids are clean, well-cared for, and fed, with clean clothes, then the parents obviously do understand a bare minimum of the need for cleanliness. If they're not feeding the kids spoiled food and the place isn't overrun by vermin, there's not much actual danger there.

Peer pressure and their own fledging rebellious souls should handle the rest of the concerns. Do the kids get that it's normal to wash dishes and put things away when they're at friends' houses?
posted by desuetude at 6:16 AM on January 21, 2008

Dear God, don't hire a house-cleaning service. Most services are not equipped to deal with a mess of this magnitude. In NYC, they usually have to call specialized teams or even City waste management. Besides, having the house cleaned for them is only a temproary fix.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but if it's as bad as you think it is, then an anonymous call to CPS really is a good idea. Any number of people who have had a peek in that house could have made the call, so you won't be under scrutiny about it. Some secrets are worth keeping. Hopefully the fear of losing parental rights (whether real or merely perceived) will jog something loose there.

As others have said, growing up in an environment like this is toxic in many different ways. The children's physical and mental health is, in fact, being compromized. The mother has made herself untouchable by being overly-sensitive, so this has to be handled by someone authoritative who isn't afraid of being seen as a real meanie. CPS to the rescue. Seriously.
posted by hermitosis at 7:02 AM on January 21, 2008

At least they won't get asthma.

I grew up in a house like that, and I do have allergic asthma. It just made it impossible for me to clean much of anything, either, because it filled the air with roach and mouse and rat dust that would set me off to fine old wheezing fits (not that anyone had bothered to diagnose it at the time, so I thought that was normal until I was in my twenties). But as long as nothing was disturbed, I was okay. And you may want to find out for sure if anyone in that family has allergies or asthma, because it can be a barrier to getting anything cleaned and you might have to get them out of the house while major work is going on.

I can't say whether I would have welcomed an intervention of some kind in my family or not. I've sometimes wondered how it happened that there never was one. I knew, and sometimes resented, that I couldn't have my friends over, but there were other reasons than filth for that.

Do you know if the debris is sheltering or attracting mice or roaches? If it is, you can use that as a way to address the issue - offer to help about those, instead of the mess in general. You would have to move the mess to get much accomplished about the pests.

Since you say the change has been noticeable within the past year, you must already know that there's something wrong. Your sibling sounds like there's a problem with depression, but IANAD. Is there any way you can just ask if everything's okay and if they need to talk about anything?
posted by dilettante at 8:06 AM on January 21, 2008

My armchair psychologist opinion is that your sibling sounds like a classic compulsive hoarder. This sort of thing really is a problem, and kids who grow up in these conditions go on to have problems - there's even a support group for it.

I have a friend who grew up in a house like this. His parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother, who had some *problems*. She had two dachsunds and she let them shit in the house. She wouldn't clean it up for weeks, and the dogshit would pile up. It was pretty damn gross. She was a good mother, but rather flaky. My friend is doing pretty well, but he definitely has some problems of his own. And although he doesn't have dogs that shit in the house, he doesn't completely 'get' the cleanliness thing. But where could he possibly have learned about cleanliness? It's not like he had a role model in that regard.

So I would definitely talk to the parents. If nothing else, let them know that their house isn't normal. Lots of people with problems think that they're more-or-less normal, because nobody will tell them otherwise. Be gentle, but be sure to get your point across.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:20 AM on January 21, 2008

And yeah, don't involve the authorities. Your sibling and their spouse sound like decent, caring parents who just need a little guidance.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:21 AM on January 21, 2008

Seconding NOT involving the authorities unless the children are in harm's way. You never know what the mood of the person answering the phone is going to be, and they can cause trouble far beyond what your intentions might be.

Talk to your sibling in private and gauge her reaction. If she seems unwell, talk to her spouse.
posted by gjc at 8:57 AM on January 21, 2008

I'm always in favor of acting in children's best interests. Just talk to your sibling and offer to help clear out the paper and other clutter as a special project. Sometimes it's hard to know where to begin and with three kids I'm sure they're up to their eyeballs with work. A sincere offer a chunk of time to help would probably be really welcome.

And yes, my own experiences have taught me that growing up in a house like that is very stigmatizing for a child.
posted by MiffyCLB at 9:39 AM on January 21, 2008

From my experience as a foster parent, the impact of bureaucracies like CPS is hard to predict. Their (regulation and rule-based) responses can complicate and even aggravate some situations. It would not be my instinct for this situation as described.

Are you close enough geographically that your "normal" house could be a second place for the kids to hang out? I'm imagining being the kids, in that situation I would love to be somewhere normal for some hours, days. Also I would appreciate having a trusted adult confirm that my house is not normal.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:56 AM on January 21, 2008

I grew up in a house that was almost this bad (though we did wash our dishes). I've heard that growing up in a slighty dirtier house can help kids' immune systems believe it or not (they are exposed to more germs and hence develop better immunity). If the kids are clean and well, then it's not a health hazard and you don't need to call CPS.

But I will say that psychologically it's difficult living in this situation as a kid. You can never have your friends over and you're constantly worried what people will think. Also, you live in squalor and you have no control over it -- which is horrible. At least if you're a grown up and live in squalor you change your living situation. And growing up with slothful habits can make it hard later in life with roommates, spouses. I think my father almost lost his girlfriend of 15 years a few times because she couldn't take it. It took me until I was over 30 until I learned to keep the house at a "normal" level of clean - and it was a pretty big issue in my current relationship (before I reformed), bordering on a deal breaker for my fiance.

So speak to your sibling, but in a polite, non-confrontational way. They may not realize how hard this is on the kids. Maybe there's someway that you can help (e.g. sharing the cost of a cleaning service)
posted by bananafish at 10:53 AM on January 21, 2008

Thanks to everyone who responded. The posts from those who grew up in similar homes were especially insightful. I appreciate the link to the squalor survivors site, I"ve been reading that and learning a lot.

Those who pointed out that sibling might have some mental health issues are correct, she has been depressed in varying degrees most of her life and has been in therapy for many years (it's clearly not working.) After learning more about hoarding issues this is very descriptive of her behavior. It seems like the best thing to help the hoarder is offer support rather than shame.

I spoke to another family member this weekend and we've been thinking about talking to her together. We both agree that we'll actually go in the house again just to see how things are. We'll insist on a clear path to both doors in case of a fire which is my biggest worry. (Five children in my town recently died after being trapped in a very unkempt home which is what has been upsetting me lately.) We'll monitor both the house and children to see if things deteriorate into unclean kids/being fed off of dirty plates (they do use the dishwasher)/rodents, etc.

Calling child services is not an something I will do because the children are neither abused nor neglected. (If that were the case, I wouldn't hesitate.) So far the kids seem comfortable in the mess, but I will definitely talk to them about it and offer to help them if they want to clean their rooms, etc.

Thanks again for the responses.
posted by red_lotus at 11:22 AM on January 21, 2008

Those who pointed out that sibling might have some mental health issues are correct, she has been depressed in varying degrees most of her life and has been in therapy for many years (it's clearly not working.)

I would be more concerned about the impact your sibling's depression and mental health issues are having on the kids than the squalor. The dirt they can probably live with. Mom being a depressed mess is probably going to be harder to deal with in the long run. Maybe when you talk to her you could discuss getting her to a different/better therapist. Or maybe even talk to her therapist yourself?
posted by LeeJay at 6:38 PM on January 21, 2008

What LeeJay said. I grew up in a clean house with a depressed mother and would much rather have grown up in a pigpen with a happy mother. Address the depression, not the symptoms.
posted by desjardins at 7:58 PM on January 21, 2008

wow, postscript.

Me, other siblings, parents, etc have tried to address the depression for many many years. She simply will not switch therapists. Her spouse has tried to convince her to try some another psychiatrist or new medication too, but to no avail. She won't speak about it and gets hostile when the subject comes up. You can't help someone who doesn't want to help herself.

She is kind and nurturing to her children, and they love her beyond belief. She is, despite her squalor and anxiety issues, a very good mother.
posted by red_lotus at 6:34 PM on January 29, 2008

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