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When kids’ clutter gets out of hand, what can parents do, and what should they say?

Kids often CAN but WON’T do things – like tidying up their rooms– and often CAN and DO come up with reasonable explanations for avoiding tasks. Perhaps they’re taking their time weighing options, or planning, or reflecting on the process. Or maybe they’re overwhelmed or uncertain where or how to begin.
Here are four ways kids may justify their actions (or inaction), when it comes to cleaning up their clutter, along with some suggestions and reasoning for parents who aren’t quite sure how to respond.

Example #1:

Child: “My room is a mess but I LIKE it like that.”

Response: “Okay. YOU have to live in it. Please make sure there are no crawling things or health hazards, and that your mess doesn’t filter through the house where the rest of us are.”

Reasoning: Kids have to learn consequences—sooner or later. If your child can’t find clean clothes to wear, or the bedroom floor is getting crusty, or the bed feels and smells more like a dump than a place of rest, then he’ll probably eventually start thinking about clean up possibilities. Offer to provide what’s necessary, like garbage bags, organizing bins, cleaners, air freshener, a laundry hamper, and so on – and maybe a hand if you’re so inclined. (As in assistance, and perhaps applause.) Don’t admonish. Do encourage. (For more on consequences and how to ensure that they’re reasonable, see the related article listed below by parenting coach Marcilie Smith Boyle.)

Example #2:

Child: “I can’t tidy my room because I’m busy. I’ve too many other things to do..”

Response: “It’s great that you’re taking on responsibility. What ONE clean up activity can you add to your list of things to do today please?”

Reasoning: Don’t push too hard to get everything straightened up all at once. One step at a time will create progress. It helps if tasks seem manageable, and aren’t too tedious. Reinforce effort that your child does put forth. And, remember to use the words “please’ and “thank you.” They can be impactful. Positive outcomes don’t just happen, they come about as a result of action and accountability—starting out with a single proactive contribution or step in the right direction, which can lead to feelings of accomplishment, and the impetus to harness momentum.

Example #3:

Child: “I’ll clean up my room when I feel like it, not because YOU order me to.”

Response: “I’m not ordering. I’m not scolding. I’m suggesting. It’s your room, your choice. But maybe we can chat?”

Reasoning: Don’t get drawn into a confrontation or power struggle. It’s counter-productive. De-escalate tension and finger-pointing by staying calm and trying to appeal to reason. Nobody likes to be ordered about, and your child may feel you’re being too demanding. You can talk about that. But keep it short and to the point. For example, you might say you don’t want to be unreasonable, you simply prefer to live in a home that’s relatively neat, and would like that to be respected, in the same way, that you respect your child’s preference for certain foods, clothes, and extracurricular activities. If a calm candid chat doesn’t work then you may have to settle for a clean house with one messy room for a while. Take a deep breath and close the door.

Example #4:

Child: “Your desk is not so tidy. I shouldn’t have to straighten up my mess if you don’t clean up yours!”

Response: “You’re right. I’ll try and deal with it. Let’s each set aside some time to tackle our spaces, then maybe we can do something fun together during a break.”

Reasoning: Kids look to their parents to set an example, and you can’t expect them to be neat if they see you’re sloppy or take a little pride in your own living or work space. It may seem like they’re being oppositional, but be honest with yourself—is there truth to their claim? When parents demonstrate a willingness to improve their own organization skills and efficiency, it can turn a negatively charged situation into a productive one. And, offering to do something enjoyable together works as an incentive and provides an opportunity to spend quality time with one another.

For more reasons why kids put things off, and what to do about it, see Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination (Great Potential Press, 2015). You’ll find over 250 suggestions for parents. And, here are links to a few more articles that relate to the reasoning I’ve suggested here.

Related Articles:

Struggling To Come Up With “The Right” Consequences? Try This! by Marciie Smith Boyle

What I Did When My Children Refused To Make Their Beds: Choosing My Battles by Sara Dimerman

Get Those Kids To Pitch In! Tips To Get Some Kid Help by Elizabeth Sturm Hanatuke

Clean Bedrooms—It Can Happen At Your House – Amy McCready’s Positive Parenting Solutions

Encouraging Children to Participate in Household Chores by Ariadne Brill, Positive Parenting Connection

By Joanne Foster, EdD.

Joanne Foster is coauthor (with Dona Mathews) of Being Smart about Gifted Education, 2nd Edition (Great Potential Press, 2009) and Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids (Anansi Press, 2014). Dr. Foster also wrote Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination (Great Potential Press, 2015).

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