You walk into your son’s room to open the curtains, turn off a light, or maybe look for the cat. Next thing you know, you are sprawled out over a pile of dirty laundry in the middle of his floor, having tripped on a baseball glove two sizes too small. You rub your toe and vow that he is going to clean his room or you are going to rent a dumpster and clean it for him. Before you go to extremes, take a deep breath and think about some of our solutions.
Before we move on, however, there are two foundational truths that we need to grasp. #1) Some kids are innately messy. We all remember the professor whose desk was buried beneath a mountain of papers, but he still knew exactly where everything was. Organized disorder is how some people function best. Frustrating as that may be, sometimes we need to adjust our expectations. #2) We also need to remember that it is easier to keep something neat than let it go and and have a major clean up project on your hands.
Onto our solutions:
1) Observe together. At a time of peace (read: when the issue of a messy room is not a hot topic) stand in the doorway of your child’s room with him and just look at it together. Let the reality of it come into focus. It is not uncommon for our eyes and minds to quickly habituate to our environment. Think about it. There is probably something out of place, broken, mismatched or odd in your home that you no longer see any more. Even yellow post-it notes (which are designed to catch our attention) recede into the background. So stand together and encourage your child to see his room with fresh eyes.
2) Help him. Now that he can see the mess, acknowledge that it can feel overwhelming and he will need help. Come up with a time that works for both of you to address the problem. You can help him create some “to-do” index cards (a list a mile long can be as overwhelming as the room itself) to break the task into more manageable pieces. You can also volunteer to help. Modeling in an area of skill development is not the same as enabling. Now if he lies on the bed eating chips while you feverishly clean up, that is a different story.
3) Wonder with him. The next time it takes him 20 minutes to find a matching pair of socks, resist the urge to lecture. Simply wonder aloud, “I wonder how long that would have taken if your socks were all in your drawer? You probably wouldn’t have been late to school.” Leave the wondering at that. Letting him experience the consequences of a messy room can be a powerful teacher. If his messy room is getting in the way of normal functioning, chances are he is not one of those “disorganized professors” in the making.
4) Prevention is the key. A messy room does not happen over night (unless of course that night consisted of a sleep-over with 8 of his closest friends). You are going to need a plan to keep it neat. First, define neat (clothes in hamper, bed made, toys under bed, etc). Then, adopt a plan to keep it that way. A daily pick up session after dinner will help keep the mess under control.
5) Use a junk bucket. Let’s face it. Kids have a lot of junk. Odds and ends. Scraps of paper. Happy meal toys from three years ago. This is the stuff that can tip the scales between a neat or messy room. The solution is to not engage in power struggles over the junk but to contain it. A clear plastic tote can be a simple, yet effective solution. Tell your child that this bucket is his – for all those things that don’t have a home of their own. He can put whatever he wants in there. The deal is, though, once it is full, he needs to go through it and throw out or give away enough of the contents so it can fit more.
Make sure your standards are reasonable and take your child’s unique personality into account. Your way isn’t necessarily the right way (you likely have adult friends with different standards from yours – either neater or messier). Instead, look at it as an opportunity to help your child address a problem in a planful and organized way. These are life skills that he will be able to use in other areas as well, not just a messy room.