Parents love to tell me how messy their children are. Occasionally, they bring in photos of their children’s rooms or playrooms for fear I won’t believe their descriptions of floors covered with dirty clothes and wet towels, desks covered with books and crumpled papers, and bedside tables piled with dirty plates and glasses. The pictures are unnecessary; I have no trouble imagining just how messy a child’s room can be. I used to be the kid whose room looked like the aftermath of a tornado.
This post was inspired by the following exchange with a young client who came to see me during her parents’ separation. There is stress in the house she shares with her mother as her mother adjusts to single parenthood. Mom expressed frustration over how little Erica, age 10, and her older sister, age 12, were doing to help around the house. Here is my question to Erica and her response:
Me: If you know it stresses your mother out for you to leave messes all around the house, why do you do it?
Erica: Because I hate to clean up.
Okay, then, that was pretty clear. I loved the honesty of this response and was pleased that Erica did not make any excuses or blame anyone else for her misdeeds.
Kids don’t clean up because cleaning up is boring, it does not involve a screen, and they have better things to do. It’s that simple. Some kids have organizational challenges which make tidying up more challenging, but they can still do it. There are kids who clean up because they just like to do the right thing or because they themselves value tidiness. For children who are not intrinsically motivated to keep their spaces organized, the only real incentive to clean up is to avoid yelling (i.e., expressions of disapproval, see yelling. versus YELLING!) from Mom or Dad. This is not that big of a motivator for a lot of children, so they just don’t clean.
Rarely will I offer a money-back guarantee on parenting advice. If ever I were to do it, it would be with this post. The approach described below is tried and true and almost failsafe. If you give it a consistent try and it doesn’t work, I will refund your money. Oh wait…
Swooping is a behavioral strategy that increases most children’s motivation to put away their belongings. It sends two powerful messages: “If you care about your belongings, you will put them away” and “It is not fair for you to clutter up spaces that we share.” Swooping can be used in common areas of the house such as the mud room, kitchen, and family room. It should not be used in children’s bedrooms (more on this in a subsequent post). For now, just close the bedroom doors.
Here’s how swooping works. Every night (or almost every night), around the same time but not too close to bedtime, Mom or Dad (or other parenting adult) gives a 15-minute warning that sounds something like “Okay, everyone, in 15 minutes I am going to swoop,” and sets a timer. This is a signal to all concerned (that means you too, Parents) to remove all of their belongings from the common, pre-defined, areas of the house. During the 15 minutes, adults should make sure their belongings are put away. When swooping is first implemented, it is a good idea for a parent to walk around with each child to make sure he understands what is expected. This might sound like “See those shoes by the back door? They belong on the rack. Your markers and pad do not belong on the coffee table. Don’t forget to hang your coat in the mudroom.” The assistance should not include negative comments or an angry tone of voice. The goal is to demonstrate that keeping the house tidy and organized is everyone’s responsibility. Working together as a family is what makes swooping successful.
When the 15 minutes are up, Mom and/or Dad begin to swoop. This means that they walk through the common areas of the house and pick up items that do not belong there. They might swoop a favorite pair of basketball shoes, the wii remote, an iPod, a cellphone, a stuffed animal, or a textbook. The swooped items are then put away to be returned one by one at the parents’ discretion. A good rule of thumb is to begin to return swooped items when fewer items are being left out to be swooped. The first few times parents swoop, they should expect some drama – crying, begging, bargaining, tantrumming. This too shall pass as long as the parents don’t give in to the child’s negative behavior. Without criticism or an angry tone, parents should remind the child that she can get the swooped items back as soon as she begins to put all of her belongings away.
When I describe swooping to families in therapy, I often hear the same questions:
- Am I allowed to swoop things she needs for school like homework and gym shorts?
- What about his blankie? (No! Swooping a transitional object will just make bedtime a nightmare for everyone. Transitional objects are exempt from swooping but can be set aside until bedtime.)
- What if one child leaves another child’s toy out to be swooped?
- Can they take things that I paid for myself like my iPod?
- They can’t make me go to school without my gym shoes, can they?
- Can I swoop their stuff?
To all, I say, “Use your judgment.” The goal of swooping is not to punish or to create a lot of negative feelings among family members, although some upset is inevitable. The goal is to teach the idea that there is a logical consequence (losing access to your belongings) to an undesirable behavior (leaving belongings where they do not belong). If sending a child off to school without a completed homework assignment that you found on the kitchen counter will make that message loud and clear, it is likely a parent will only have to do it once or twice.
Once children are demonstrating cooperation and success with putting their belongings away, parents can begin giving swooped items back. Again, there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to do this. At our house, we return “essential items,” such as school books and soccer cleats, first and end with video games and remotes.
I have recommended swooping to many families over the years. In all but a tiny number of cases, the technique has worked to engage kids in the daily tidying necessary to maintain an organized house. The few who wouldn’t engage exhibited significant oppositional and defiant behavior, and their refusal to help keep the house tidy was part of a much broader negative parent-child dynamic.
So, Parents, go forth and swoop. After a few days of consistency on your part, you should begin to see a change. It will be a win-win; your children will be practicing teamwork and organizational skills and you will spend less time straightening up, nagging, and feeling resentful.