Saturday, February 26, 2011

Messy Rooms

A member of the Positive Discipline Social Network asked for help regarding the power struggle to get her children to clean up their rooms. I shared the following excerpt from Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen Glenn:

“My children refuse to clean their rooms. They have dirty clothes under the bed, dirty dishes and spoiled food on their dressers, and toys strewn everywhere. No matter how much I nag and complain, we don’t seem to make any progress on their rooms.”

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

Messy rooms and unfinished homework are complaints we hear often from parents of children of all ages. These issues become a real battleground in many families. Often children share rooms, and this becomes another reason for fighting. Some families are comfortable letting the children keep their rooms the way they like them, but it is possible to have a semblance of order in your children’s rooms if that is important to you. Helping your children organize and clean their rooms can be worth the effort, and children learn many valuable life skills through this process. Success requires commitment to time for training and ongoing supervision on your part.


  1. With young children, it is important to clean with them so they don’t become overwhelmed. Sit in the middle of the room and pick up a toy, saying, “I wonder where this goes? Can you show me?” Wait until the child puts the toy away and then start over. Do this at least once a week.
  2. Many preschool children collect scraps of paper, rocks, string, and other treasures. It is okay to remove these objects when your child is out. If she objects, let her help sort the items, but usually young children don’t miss the clutter and just start collecting again. When children get old enough to notice and care, be respectful of their treasures and leave them alone.
  3. It is never too late to "Take Time for Training."  Let your kids know that you will clean their rooms WITH them for two weeks. This can include tips for organizing. Once you know that they know how, you could get them involved in a “morning 3 minute pickup" (a little game to see how much they can do in just 3 minutes), and a "bedtime 3 minute pickup." Let them take turns setting a timer—or get a timer for each of them. Then decide together on a time every Saturday morning when everyone works on cleaning the house together. A lot can get done in 30 to 60 minutes when everyone is working together. This can include each person doing the heavy cleanup in his or her room.
  4. You may be part of the problem if you buy your child too many toys. That is easily corrected. Suggest that she choose some to put on a shelf and take down later. You might also suggest that your children clear out toys they no longer play with and give them to a charitable organization, for other kids to enjoy.
  5. Do not bribe or reward children for doing what needs to be done. Caring for their rooms is their job to help the family, and they don’t need a prize to do it. Do not connect allowances to cleaning rooms. By the same token, do not threaten to take away your children’s possessions if they don’t take care of them. 
  6. Some parents choose to ignore messy rooms. They allow children to keep their rooms any way they want, but get them involved in solutions to keep common rooms clean.
  7. Another possibility is to give your child a choice, “Do you want to clean your room or do you want me to? If I clean, I get to throw away anything that seems worthless.” Another choice could be, “Do you want to clean your room, or pay a housekeeper out of your allowance?” Your tone of voice will determine whether or not the choice is received respectfully or as an invitation for a power struggle.
  8. For children who argue over sharing a room, suggest they work it out together or at a family meeting.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Let your children have a say in how their rooms are decorated. Children have distinct taste in colors and decor, and it is important that their rooms be theirs and not yours. Make sure they have plenty of containers and shelf space for their toys and possessions.
  2. With children ages two to ten, it often works to say, “Here is how your room needs to be kept. You may play with your toys or move things around, but put them back the way the room is set up when you are done.” Some children are perfectly happy to comply with your wishes when stated unemotionally. If your children want more involvement, use the other suggestions.
  3. During a family meeting set up a routine with your children for cleaning rooms. With school-age children, one that works well is to have the room cleaned before breakfast. If the child forgets, simply turn her plate upside down as a nonverbal reminder to go clean her room before joining the family for breakfast. When children take part in making the plan, they are more likely to cooperate in following through with it. Be realistic about what you consider clean. If children push things under the bed or pull the covers up over wrinkled sheets, let it go.
  4. As children get older, it works better to have one day a week when they clean their rooms.  They need to return dirty dishes to the kitchen, put their laundry in the laundry basket, vacuum, dust, and change their sheets. Having a deadline that you enforce works best. For instance, the room must be cleaned before dinner on Saturday. If you aren’t around to enforce the deadline, don’t expect your children to clean their rooms.
  5. Twice a year, go through your child’s clothing with her to remove clothing that no longer fits and donate it to a charity like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. You can also put away clothing that is out of season.
  6. You may wish to have a discussion about your “minimum standards” for a room, especially as your children get older. You might say, for instance, “I’m not happy with the situation, but I’m willing to live with your room the way you like it as long as my minimum standards are met. They are that the dirty dishes be returned to the kitchen once a week, that the floors get vacuumed once a week, and that the sheets are changed on weekends.”

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn how to maintain a routine, contribute to the family, organize and care for their possessions, and cooperate. They can also explore their own taste and express their uniqueness in the decoration and organization of their rooms.

Parenting Pointers

  1. A clean room may be high on your priority list, but very low on your child’s. If you choose to make this a battle ground, your child may keep a messy room just to win the battle. Keep perspective -- remember that many neat adults were once messy children.
  2. Don’t worry that your friends will look at your children’s rooms and wonder about your housekeeping. Your friends can tell the difference between your standards and your children’s.

Booster Thoughts

Krista and her brother Tom loved to decorate their rooms. Every two or three years, their taste would change completely--from circus themes and kittens to baseball players and ballerinas to rock stars and movie heartthrobs. There were times when posters covered every square inch of wall and ceiling space and times when the walls were painted hot pink or black. The rooms reflected their unique personalities, interests, and tastes.

Tom and Krista helped paint their rooms and pick out fabrics for drapes and bedspreads. The posters they wanted would be at the top of their birthday or Christmas wish lists. On occasion, they could be found moving their furniture around into some new arrangement. Some years the rooms were orderly and clean; other years they collected chaos and confusion. Each room usually boasted at least one sign on the door announcing, “Come In,” “Keep Out,” or “Beware.”

These two children were encouraged to be themselves and express the ways in which they are unique. They loved the opportunity to express their individuality, and their parents enjoyed watching each new aspect of their personalities develop. We wish this for you and your children.

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