It’s a battle that is waged in millions of households across America every Saturday morning. Mom or Dad or both say, perhaps gently the first time, “Okay, guys. It’s time to clean up your rooms.” The kids whine, dawdle, get distracted, or outright go on strike. As the morning wears on, the reminders get increasingly loud and more demanding. “How many times do I have to tell you to clean up this mess? You’ll get it done and NOW or ELSE!”
Parents feel they have to impose some order. Kids want their rooms to be their own – messy – castles. The struggle escalates. Threats get made. Kids comply a little. Parents scold a lot. Eventually everyone is in a bad mood. Sometimes parents give up in exhaustion or do most of it themselves in frustration. Sometimes the kids do it, or do it enough, if only to get their parents off their backs, to avoid consequences, or to get on with things that are more fun. Another Saturday, another round.
Why bother? Because it’s our job. Teaching our kids how to keep their stuff in order, whether they have a room or a corner of their own, puts important deposits in their bank of skills for being a grownup.
Establishing regular routines provides some predictability and stability in life. Knowing how to make and keep order will stand them in good stead during adult life challenges. Making a bed when in the midst of difficult times may seem trivial. But knowing how to go through the motions and create a place that is peaceful are important skills for getting us through hard times.
Insisting on putting things in order also teaches kids to be responsible for their things. When we show them how to keep things safe, when we teach them how to mend and repair things that are in disrepair, when we encourage them to take the time to organize what they value, we are making the abstract concept of “responsibility” into a concrete set of actions.
Whistling while we work teaches our kids that doing chores isn’t odious; that there is pleasure in taking care of our things; that taking loving care of what we’ve been given is a way to love back those who have given them to us.
Those who are the most professionally successful tend to be those who know how to manage people, money, and stuff. Teaching our kids how to tidy up regularly, calmly, and eventually without prompting, contributes to mastery of one of these important three skill areas. Teach your kids how to organize today and you may be ensuring career success tomorrow.
Tips for Improving the Situation — At Least a Little
- Set a good example. (It’s always the first step.) Kids are far more sensitive and responsive to what we do than what we say. Do you take pride in your home? Keep your own things in order? Have a positive attitude toward the daily tasks of keeping house? If the answer is yes, you’ve won half the battle. Kids take in what we do through the pores of their skin. What you do normally is what they come to see as normal and expected.
- Give the kids pride of place. Kids who feel their space is specially their own (whether a whole room or a corner or a shelf) are more likely to want to keep it nice. Find ways to give them some control over how their space looks and where things are kept. It’s not expensive to let them rearrange the furniture or to paint a shelf, or to buy some new sheets. They can decorate boxes to organize their stuff and choose or make pictures for the wall.
- Define clearly what it means to have a clean room. Make a checklist the kids can refer to with pictures for little ones, simple words for older ones.
- Make your bed.
- Put laundry in hamper.
- Hang up clothes.
- Put toys and equipment away.
- Vacuum your floor.
- Now you’re done.
- A place for everything and everything in its place. It helps a lot if everything has a home. Provide the kids with boxes and bins. Work together at labeling and deciding what goes where.
- Bail. Keep the stuff-level down. If your kids have enough of what they need, it might be helpful to establish a rule that for everything that goes in the room, something needs to come out. If a kid gets a new shirt, an old one goes to the local Salvation Army or Goodwill store. A new toy means an old one needs to be passed along. This not only keeps the kids from being overwhelmed by possessions, it also teaches them to feel good about giving things away. If the one-for-one rule doesn’t make sense in your family, periodically have a sorting day where the outgrown, the worn out, the neglected, and the broken items get systematically given away or thrown out. Exceptions can be made for special things, of course, unless absolutely everything gets defined as “special.”
- Initially, do chores together. Armchair supervision doesn’t work anywhere near as well as active participation. Keep your expectations reasonable and show them how it’s done. As they master the skills and no longer need step-by-step encouragement, you can put on some music and boogie your way through the list. Or use room cleaning time as a time for conversation.
- Set reasonable standards for health and safety. Cleaning up health hazards like garbage, dirty dishes, and moldering laundry simply is not negotiable. Same goes for taking care of safety hazards like broken glass or blocked exits.
Older Kids, Different Rules
Once the kids are preteens and you’re sure they know how to clean a room, it’s time to back off.
It’s normal for preteens and teens to begin pushing their parents away. They need privacy. They want a corner of the world they can claim as their own. They want more control. The three feet of clothing on the floor and the pile of dirty socks, CD cases, and assorted papers is their declaration of independence. In their eagerness to demonstrate they can do as they please, they are willing to displease the adults around them.
Reaffirm the standards for health and safety and close their doors. What do you care if they can’t find a clean shirt? Maybe not having one will motivate the kid to do laundry. The exception to leaving them to figure it out is if you have reason to believe something dangerous or illegal is going on in there. In that case, all bets are off. It’s time for an unannounced room check.
Otherwise, have faith. If you taught them well, the lessons learned as children have just gone underground for awhile. Many parents are stunned to see their slovenly teens turn into meticulous housekeepers as soon as they move out to a place of their own.