My last post (Swooping) was about a strategy to help family members work together to keep the house tidy. I stated in that post that “swooping” should only be used in common areas of the house such as mudrooms, kitchens, and family rooms. I encouraged parents to close the children’s bedroom doors until I could address these private spaces in a subsequent post. This is that post, and my inspiration comes from a teenager I have known for many years. Felix is a delightful young man who came to see me as a child due to suspicions that something was amiss about his learning. Clearly a very bright boy, he was making poor grades in school. He frequently forgot to complete his homework. He rarely made it off the school bus with all his possessions. He struggled with simple math because he had trouble lining numbers up in columns. Felix could complete more complex arithmetic problems in his head than on paper. When he wrote sentences with his spelling words each week, he arranged them randomly on the loose leaf page and rarely thought to number them. I did an extensive evaluation of his learning and diagnosed Felix with a nonverbal learning disorder. With the right supports from the right teachers in the right school, and with the right type of help at home, Felix was able to achieve academic success in line with his ability.
Several months ago, Felix and his parents came back to see me. They were fighting frequently, and the house was filled with tension. The most frequent topics of the family arguments were grades, curfews, and chores. When I asked Felix, Mom, and Dad if they could identify a common thread that runs through all of these, Felix readily pointed out that they are all about his parents’ efforts to control him. When I asked the family to prioritize them, Mom was insistent that we address household chores first because these were causing daily conflict.
As I usually do in family therapy sessions, I first asked the young person to share his thoughts and feelings about the topic. Here’s what Felix said:
I don’t tell them how to keep their room, so why do they have to tell me how to keep mine? Felix, age 16
He has a point. It is his room. I think of youngster’s bedrooms as being similar to their wardrobes or their hairstyles. Children should be given wide latitude and clear limits: “You can choose your prom dress but it cannot be so low-cut that it is overly revealing,” or “If you choose to get a mohawk, you will have to pay for it yourself.”
This approach makes sense for a child’s bedroom as well. For most young people, their bedroom is the only private space they have. Like clothing and hair, kids express themselves in the way they decorate their bedrooms (see an earlier post Safety, Relationship, Everything Else) as well as in the way they keep them. It is not worth the risk to the parent-child relationship to nag a child repeatedly about the tidiness of her room.
Here are some guidelines I have seen work very well for families. The approach works best if parents are willing to tolerate a fair amount of messiness for the sake of family harmony. As a family, select a weekly or twice-weekly time for the children to clean their rooms. Ideally, this would be on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning with a midweek time for families that opt for two times a week. Establish a very clear set of criteria for a “clean” room. If possible, limit that list to 5 or 6 items. Below is the list Felix’s family agreed upon:
- Bed made with clean sheets.
- All dirty clothes in hamper.
- All clean clothes in drawers or closet.
- No dirty dishes or glasses.
- Floor clear of all clutter.
- Trash in waste basket.
A good rule of thumb is for a clean room to be required before fun activities can commence. This would mean that Mom or Dad or other parenting adult would need to check his room before a child goes outside to play, turns on a videogame, or gets a ride to swim practice. It might mean that a child misses out on some neighborhood fun or arrives late to practice to the annoyance of a coach. These are both logical consequences for not following the rule about cleaning the bedroom at the appointed time.
Anyone reading this blog knows that it only takes a few minutes for a room to go from tidy to disastrous. Even among children who are compliant about cleaning their bedrooms, few will do a good job keeping them tidy. And here is the real reason that bedrooms have doors. They can be closed to hide the mess. Mom doesn’t have to feel her head exploding every time she passes her son’s room if she can’t see inside. Dad doesn’t have to make a snarky comment as he walks down the hall if the clutter in his daughter’s bedroom is hidden behind a closed door.
This is a win-win. As in most win-wins, it is also a give a little-get a little. Parents do not have to worry that there are rodents or mold living in their children’s bedrooms, and children get to keep their rooms just the way they like them most of the time.
Now, a word about kids, like Felix, who have real organizational challenges that contribute to their messiness. These kids will require direct instruction about how to tidy their bedrooms. To set them up for success, parents need to make sure that there is plenty of storage space for all the clothes, toys, books, art supplies, etc. Then, in a collaborative effort, parent and child should put labels on the various storage bins, drawers, baskets, etc. – labels such as “socks,” “pajamas,” “Legos,” and “colored pencils.” During the learning phase, a parent can help the youngster gather all the items that are not in their proper place and put them in a pile on the bed. Mom or Dad can then sit next to the pile and hand the objects, one at a time or as groups of like objects, to the child and ask “Where does this (do these) go?” and then hand the item(s) to the child to be put away. Frequent praise is helpful. Early in this learning process, it is important to keep the pile fairly small because individuals with organizational deficits can be easily overwhelmed by big tasks. I often encourage parents of kids who need extra support to learn to organize their rooms to do a little “precleaning.” This just means paring the mess down to a more manageable amount.
So, now you have two tools – swooping and closing doors – to help you as you attempt to maintain a tidy house and to teach your children how to organize their belongings. With a healthy dose of patience and forbearance, you will have all you need to make your household not only tidier, but more peaceful as well.