One of the frustrations parents often talk about – especially as the kids get in the teen years is their messy rooms. Every time I talk to my kids about their messy room I hear my mum in my head talking to me about my room when I was a teenager. A lady once said to my mum, “It will happen when they have a house of their own”. My mum didn’t want to accept that advice, and neither do I!! But where is the line in expecting our kids to keep their rooms tidy? What does tidy mean? Who is to judge it as tidy?
How you answer those questions is how you will work through this issue in your house. Let me share some of the things I’ve learnt as I’ve seen messy rooms and tidy rooms in my house.
Keeping our possessions and space tidy is a skill – it has to be taught. Not just once off instruction, but remembering the instruction process: you model, teach, stand beside them as they practice and then you let them do it – then them doing it becomes your expectation. Model – Teach – Practice – Expect. If we don’t do this for every aspect of keeping a room tidy then we will be frustrated at our kids lack of skill (and to be honest, our kids will probably be overwhelmed and frustrated too!)
Once trained – the bedroom becomes their responsibility. This means there are natural consequences if they ignore their responsibilities. We have to think this one through. Parents have always just demanded/expected their kids to keep their stuff tidy. Why? Do you know why you have this expectation? This is the first step in thinking through natural consequences. The natural consequences that I see both in my kids’ lives, and when my own spaces are messy are: losing stuff, running late because you can’t find what you need, embarrassed when friends come over and there is nowhere to ‘hang’, precious things are broken, favourite clothes aren’t clean. If natural consequences are going to teach anything we (the parents) need to let them happen. If we remind, bribe, or even get cross we are becoming the consequence and suddenly keeping the room tidy is once again our responsibility. It is either their responsibility or it isn’t.
It’s a gradual process. Keeping a room tidy and clean actually requires a lot of different skills. It is more than just putting clothes away – that is just obedience. The bedroom offers many homemaking opportunities – yes, for boys as well. Initially they learn to put toys away, then they make their bed, then they can dust, wipe fingerprints, clean windows, change sheets, clean overhead fans and airconditioners, sweep/mop/vacuum the floor and make the room look nice. You may have a different list of chores to be done to maintain a room, but each one of those skills needs to be taught – systematically. It takes time. You don’t have to wait till they have it all down pat to give them responsibility for their room – they can be responsible (that is take complete ownership) of each skill as they become competent. This means they will be learning some skills, practicing others and being responsible with yet others. This is why it is tricky for parents – we can’t just sweep it all with – “Keep your room tidy!”
Decide if this is a battle to die on. Parents tend to take personal affront at a messy room. The messy room is only the result of choices. Which choice are you going to focus on? Break it down. Are they still in training? Are they being disobedient? Or have they moved on from training and are being irresponsible? Generally, when my kids’ rooms became messy, and consequences weren’t working, I decided to go back to training. My goal is for them to have the life skills of looking after their stuff and creating a hospitable space. If they weren’t getting it, and their hearts were in the right place, then they needed more skills-training. Parents often confuse the two – heart attitude and competency in skill.
Does their room reflect my housekeeping? This is something I’ve had to think about and make a decision – and my decision has shaped how I’ve dealt with my kids rooms (and housekeeping in general). My house is a training ground for my kids to learn life. So really my house reflects my training programme, not my housekeeping skills. My house reflects that kids are learning to do chores in a timely manner, my house reflects that my kids are learning to cook, my house reflects that my kids are learning to clean windows, mow lawns, and do the laundry. Because they are learning, because they are in training, things won’t be done perfectly; they won’t even always be done. Same goes with bedrooms. My kids’ bedrooms don’t reflect me as a housekeeper – they reflect my training programme – and not the quality of my programme, but the process of my training. I’m okay with that – one day it will all come together. And yes, as my mum and I have moaned – that may be when they end up in their own house!!
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Being responsible and sharing a room – this is tricky but it is once again a life skill that has to be taught. Tolerance! My kids shared rooms for years. They were all in one room until the ages of 3, 5, 7 and 9. Then the boys shared till Josh was 19, Daniel 13, and the girls shared till Jess was 19 and Nomi 17. My kids all have different personalities! Sharing a room brought many training opportunities but since we are talking about keeping our rooms tidy it is the girls that gave the best illustration there. The boys didn’t put much effort into their rooms – it was a place to sleep and keep their clothes! But the girls ‘lived’ in their room and they started at a fairly young age wanting to stamp their personality on their space. One is tidy and organised; the other is arty and random. Yes, it did cause conflict, but we worked through each of these issues. They had ½ the room each – I decided on the paint and colours of bedcoverings and curtains but they decorated their side of the walls, they had their own half wardrobe and drawers. They had to learn to be tolerant: accept the other person as different. They also had to learn to show deference: to limit your own actions out of consideration to the other person. They had to learn grace, forgiveness, and humility. Learning to live in a space is as important as having a tidy space.
Bless your kids – Just because. When my kids were in training I would occasionally have to get in there and overhaul things. Sometimes they would work beside me, learning as I made decisions about stuff, other times I would do it on my own with the idea of getting it back to a manageable state so we could continue training. But when they became responsible for their room there have been times that I’ve just gone in and tidied it – just because I can. No judgements, no pointed comments, no expectations – just a kind deed.
Training tips for kids’ messy bedrooms:
Here are a few tips that worked for me (and when I say worked – I don’t even mean that our rooms are particularly photograph-able but they are liveable and acceptable most the time)
— Create a space for everything. I love boxes – boxes in the cupboards, boxes under the beds. Toys in boxes, clothes, crafts, unfinished projects, sentimental stuff. Sometimes I have labelled spaces so the kids know where things go.
— Declutter every so often – I found a good time to go through a bit of a purge was before birthdays and Christmas. Every so often, we would go through their boxes to make sure they still wanted/needed everything they had stored in their room. A good opportunity to teach decision making skills, to let go of stuff, and to downsize. Whether you use boxes or not, make sure that your kids don’t have too much stuff for the space they have.
— Have a routine that includes tidying bedrooms. For us it was 5.00pm chore time – they were to do their chores, have a shower, and clean their desk and bedroom.
— Set a timer to remind yourself to go and check on their completed tasks. Training must include inspection – when we don’t inspect their work, we let sloppiness become the norm because it is never picked up on.
— Have a list of all the cleaning chores that need to be done (and divide this list if they are sharing the room.) They used to do the deeper cleaning once a week, but now as they are busier with other adult responsibilities they are working towards doing a cleaning chore a day in their room.
A friend commented to me once that she had boarders living with her and how tidy they kept their room and how she felt this showed respect. I shared this with my older kids as there is a fine line here – this is my kids’ home, and yet it is my home too. They are responsible for their space and yet their room is a part of something bigger – my home. So there is an underlying heart attitude – much like sharing a room – they are now sharing a house and they need to look after their space with the attitude of respect, tolerance and deference to other people, especially their dad and mum.
Have you struggled with your kids’ messy bedrooms? Any tips to share?
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