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Warning: this post contains some tough love, but also some valuable help. Don’t feel despair if you realize you’re part of the problem, there is hope for you just like there is hope for your kids. There’s pretty much no tricky situation that can’t be untangled and improved, and you are not the exception. 😉
I’ve probably been asked for help with some version of “My Kids Room is Always Messy, Help!” hundreds if not thousands of times. I wanted to create a reply worthy of the plea. This topic of helping kids and parents deal with this stressful issue might just be my favorite. Helping families was my strongest motivation from the very beginning of my pro organizing business and this blog.
Before we get into the hows of helping your child, I just have a few little things we need to review first.
A few important points before we get started …
This is going to be a tough pill to swallow: but if your house is regularly a mess, you cannot expect your kids’ rooms to be regularly clean. I’m not making excuses for your kids to be exempt from personal responsibility, I’m making the point that they probably don’t understand how to keep their room clean just like you don’t understand how to keep your house clean. Where are they learning how to clean? Kids normally want to live in a clean house and a clean room. Before your focus is solely on the kids cleaning their own rooms, first work on solving the cleaning problems of the house. In fact, training can begin with you in the household, and then it will be so much easier to tackle their rooms.
*For more help, read: Stop Telling Your Child To Clean Their Room IF …
*And also read for helping solve your cleaning issues: How To Have a Perfectly Clean House All The Time … or something like that
Stop expecting perfection: make sure the child knows you care more about them than if their room is a mess. You and I have bad days, and our kids have bad days too. No one’s room is going to always be clean with the exception of those suffering with perfectionism or with OCD (and both of these come with a separate set of tough issues). Your child could be overwhelmed by stuff going on with friends, feeling anxious, or feeling depressed. And if that’s the case, it is going to show up in how their room looks. If you assume it’s laziness and treat your child like they’re lazy, they are going to feel misunderstood and distanced from you. Address the human and emotional needs first, then work on helping with habits (more about habits down below). Your child will feel loved and more capable of attacking the physical mess when their emotional mess feels in control.
Whenever I walk into a client’s home that is particularly messy, it’s almost never because of laziness. It’s usually a mix of bad habits with some unresolved emotional trauma. Kids are just tiny adults, it is the same pattern with them. They need help creating good habits and they need help resolving big emotions.
Repeat: the kids are more important than the mess. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Okay, now with all that said, let’s get into some ins and outs on ways to help our kids.
Don’t Just Say: “Go Clean Your Room”
Well, there is an exception to this. Sometimes when my kids were all much younger and I wanted some quiet time on a long summer day, I would tell them to “Go Clean Your Room.” Inevitably, they would get distracted while cleaning their room, and spend a few hours playing. They usually left me alone because they were afraid I’d tell them to stop playing and clean. Kids don’t realize their parents usually know what they’re up to, so the reverse psychology really worked for a number of years. You’d be amazed at how peacefully they played together without fighting when they thought they were tricking me! Ha!
The ages when I was tricking them into peaceful playing were during the years when I was still hands-on training them how to clean their rooms. This meant I would go in their room with them and give them step by step verbal instructions (usually after one of their cleaning play sessions).
Just saying “Clean Your Room” is too vague for younger kids. They’re very likely to get distracted. Expecting a young child not get get distracted by toys is unrealistic. Here’s things I may say during a step-by-step training situation, while I remind them which bucket is for what kind of thing –
- Pick up all the stuffed animals and put them in their bucket.
- Put all the books back on the shelf.
- Put all the kitchen utensils away.
- Put all the play food away.
- Put all the legos in their bucket.
- And so on…
At the time, you may feel frustrated that the kids just aren’t getting it yet. Remember they are kids! This time is about training, the time will come when you can expect independence, but you have to put in the time and effort to train first.
And as you have chores and expectations outside of their rooms, like cleaning bathrooms, it is the same pattern. You’re going to have to clean a bathroom WITH THEM many times before you leave them to do it on their own. This step is hard!!! It is so much easier to do it yourself than to be slowed down by helping kids help you. But this is a really important phase for them, you are training them for independence. Your life will be easier in a few years when kids can actually clean their rooms and their bathrooms without you. Trust the process and take the time to train your kids!
Guidelines for Expectations
I figure I’ll model to you giving clear expectations of what you should expect, just like you should give clear expectations to your kids. 😉Here are some clear expectations for what are reasonable milestones as your child learns to clean their room independently.
If your child missed some of these milestones, don’t worry, you can play catchup. Just start the training phase and advance to the next phase at their pace. Your child really can learn to clean their rooms. It really is never too late.
Not Just Their Room
Help them feel connected to and partly responsible for the whole house, which will have a trickle effect to their rooms. If they’re only responsible for their own room, then it is easy for them to say to us “this is my room, ignore it if you don’t like it.” But if they are part of cleaning the whole house regularly, they will understand how their room is part of the whole house and matters as much as any other spot in the house.
Teach by Example, and Be Honest
Especially when I’m in a flare up with my ongoing struggle with depression, my room can get disheveled looking. Usually my room is very clean, but sometimes it’s not. My kids have seen my bedroom looking every which way, so I think they know when it’s messy. But, as I pull myself out of a funk to clean my room, I deal with it openly instead of in secret. I tell my kids what I’m doing and make a big deal of how excited I am to have my clean room back. I say things like “oh, I’m so excited for fresh clean sheets on my pretty bed” or “the pile on my dresser was mostly stuff I hadn’t put away yet from my birthday, I feel so good finally dealing with it!”
If you only model perfection to your kids (and hide the rest), your model won’t really matter because it won’t be relatable to them. Kids rooms ARE GOING TO GET MESSY. So show by example, that yeah, sometimes it gets messy, but we can deal with that too. And when we deal with it, we are happier!
You may start to feel like a broken record, and I hate to tell you this, reminding your kids to do stuff is part of training them. Just plan on saying very similar things to your kids almost every day of their lives in your home. Things you’d hear around my house almost every day:
- “Don’t forget to make your bed.” (Proud to say half my kids don’t even need this reminder anymore – woohoo!)
- “Who’s job is it to do the dishwasher this week? Can you please unload before I start dinner?”
- “Brian, help your sister unload the dishwasher.”
- “Remember, your room needs to be clean before you go play.”
- “It’s ______ turn to do their laundry, get it started soon please.” Or for my little man, “Bring your basket to they laundry so we can do it together.”
- “I need everyone’s sheets in the laundry room!” (I’m usually yelling this across the house on Saturday morning.)
- “Please don’t work on personal projects until your homework is finished.”
- “Don’t forget to make your lunches.”
- “When you clean the bathroom today, could you please remember to wipe the cabinet next to the sink?”
- “Please clean your room completely today, dust AND vacuum!” (Again, a Saturday thing around here.)
You get the idea. My kids do a lot, but I’m not expecting them to be off doing everything just right without a little involvement from me. They are still kids, they are still adults-in-training. I get a little less involved every year as they get closer to being grown-ups, but they are not grown-ups yet.
Also, though I believe in giving reminders, I don’t think I should have to give multiple reminders, so I have a sit-down chat with my kids when they slip into the “have to be reminded a bunch of times thing.” But I think it is fair to let them get a reminder for me most days for most things.
Decluttering Will Always Help
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, this one will not surprise you. Decluttering makes cleaning easier. If you want your child to be able to easily clean their room, keep decluttering until there’s a reasonable amount of stuff to clean up. Makes sense, right?!
*For more help, read: Guide Children to Declutter
*Also, read: You’re Not Helping Your Child By Keeping All Their Stuff
*Also, read: Kids Can Declutter
To summarize, how to help your child:
- Teach them how to clean their room.
- Set clear expectations.
- Reinforce expectations with chore lists for them to reference
- Remind as needed, which will be often.
- Show them that their room is part of the household and it is important to how the whole house feels.
- Declutter their rooms until cleaning is easy.
- Model good habits and model how to recover from bad days.
Save this post …
As I keep thinking of new bits of information to share on this topic, I’m going to update this post so all you need is in one spot. I realize this was long and a lot to read, so I’d suggest reading it it more than once. Give some suggestions a try, then coming back and read it again to find a nugget of info you missed the first time.
And just for fun, I think you should give these Jar of Job Opportunities a try – it is a fun way for kids to earn money while your house gets cleaner. Win-win!
I can’t wait to hear how things go. You can do this!