When is a child's mess a more serious problem?

The first step is to decide just how messy your child is - are we talking about leaving a few things around here and there, a slightly messy room, or something far more serious? Ward Halverson has heard some amazing horror stories and seen some extremely messy rooms, problems that got so out of hand he and the child's parents had to take drastic measures.

Most kids, however, just have moderately messy rooms, and struggle to clean up after themselves around the house. School lockers and desks can sometimes be a problem as well, and places like the family car might be an issue.

On the other hand, situations where children have completely destroyed their rooms or created an environment that can be dangerous in the event of an emergency must be addressed quickly.

Is the mess becoming an issue of danger?

The test is whether your child's messy room, or mess around the house or elsewhere, is interfering with her or ability to function. If a messy room could result in possible danger to that child - especially in the event of an emergency - then it's absolutely necessary to do something.

OK - my child is way too messy. What can I do?

It's important to understand, first of all, that children are (for the most part) naturally messy. They have to learn how to keep things relatively neat. Is the bed made? Clothes and toys put away? Books and papers in order? Not likely. Getting children to clean often comes with nagging and frustration. But with some careful planning, achieving a clean bedroom and home can be made easier. Here are some simple approaches: " Make it easy: Use specific "action" questions and directions. For example, instead of "Go clean your room," try saying, "Do you want to pick up the stuffed animals or the train? The big things or the little things? The clothes or the books?" This creates a productive team process between the parent and child, and breaks the cleaning into manageable tasks so that the child knows exactly where to start and how to get it done.

  • Get organized: Use a good storage and labeling system so children know where things should be put away and where to find them. For younger children, organize items similar to a pre-school room with different kinds of toys in different colored labeled bins. Use wall space for storage as much as possible, including shelves and hooks, especially in bedrooms.
  • Go for kid-size: Try sawing off broom handles and mops to make them shorter. For older kids, make sure all the cleaning supplies are in one place and kept in easy-to-pour containers with clear instructions. Of course, younger children need to be monitored around or kept away from cleaning agents.
  • Reduce clutter: Buy less. Extra stuff complicates our cleaning and makes kids discouraged. It causes problems because we lose things and get frustrated, and it can be the source of family fights. Try the "SOS" approach, or "simplify our surroundings." If you're a clutter collector, ask yourself, "Is this item enhancing my life?" If the answer is, "No," then give the item away to charity or toss it in the trash can
  • Stay positive: It's crucial to encourage family fun, even when it comes to cleaning. And remember, the parents' attitude, particularly the mother's, drives the household pace. It's more effective when children generally don't clean or are told they have to clean before they can play. Instead, try to make cleaning part of the play. You can think of the project as "home improvement". First, tell everyone ahead of time when they're going to do home improvement. Then, make some special family-oriented incentives, like serving a special bacon-and-egg muffin breakfast before tackling the chores. The real reward is being with the family and accomplishing something, children find out that good things happen when everyone works together. This process encourages consistency and setting expectations that can be met every time.
  • Create a game: If games and rewards work best in your family, you may want to try role play or theme-based games. This may not work for the long haul but it can help to lay down good cleaning principles, and get everyone involved and enjoying themselves. If your little ones are into trains, it's time to clean the station. For the animal lovers, be the zoo keeper. Whatever pretend scenario you create, keep the motto that cleaning is a part of staying healthy and happy, and necessary in everyday life, whether it's pretend or real.
  • For a little older kids you might want to try theme-related cleaning games. In the clean-up area, for example, hide a set number of candies, dinosaurs, or seasonal cut-outs (such as paper Easter eggs or pumpkins). Make sure they find them all and clean as they go.
  • Take 15 minutes: For some families, a short, 15-minute clean-up schedule works best. Clearly outline tasks on a paper list or card for every child. Make the fifteen minutes fun by playing upbeat, workout-type music and have a clock or timer that counts down. Give warnings at ten minutes and five minutes. If your clock has hands, you can post motivational messages beside the numbers as the clock ticks down. To save time, you will want to make sure everyone has the required cleaning tools before you start. For further rewards, you can give a sticker for those who finish their tasks to perfection in the allotted time. When the child gets a certain number of stickers, she gets to pick the family activity - for example, what movie to watch or where to go for dinner.
  • Be a role model: You can't, of course, expect your child's room to be cleaner than the rest of the house. Consider how important cleaning and organization are to you, and how you want to convey this to your children. Then, act accordingly and consistently.

But why are my kids so messy?

Cleaning is not an intuitive skill. Nobody is born knowing how to attack a messy room and turn it to serenity. Few of us can effectively wield a broom, dust pan, or dust rag without a lesson or two-and a lot of practice. Making beds takes time. When it comes to clean bedrooms, keep your expectations very low. Few kids have clean rooms. They like them dirty, it's the only place where they have control over their environment, and for some kids, a dirty room is a point of honor! This may be an area where something needs to give, and that something may be you.

How about lists?

When you make chore lists for your child, always take your child's age and development into consideration. A five-year-old can get the books back on the shelf and the clothes in the hamper, but she won't be able to do much with the bed. A 12-year-old can do his own laundry with some supervision. Remember, your expectations will change as your child matures. Using the list will help you define your expectations. It will help your child organize his time and remember his tasks. You'll have an easy, stress-reduced way to check if things have been done. Keep the list small. Better to have too few things on the list than too many (aim for success!) Here are two quick hints: Separate the job into straightening and cleaning, and don't clean before you've straightened, you'll just make yourself frustrated; and, a filthy room is like an archaeological dig. You've got to approach it in layers.

Do you have a sample checklist?

Absolutely! You can use something similar to what's below, either typed or just made up with your children, keeping in mind what works best for your family. Here's a sample Checklist for a Clean Room:

Goal: To clean my room as expected



Bed made to include sheets and blanket tucked in



Dirty clothes in hamper



Clean clothes hung in closet and put in drawers      



Nothing under the bed



Bookshelves straightened



Nothing on the floor



Closet door closed



Closet floor clear



Drawers closed with no contents sticking out



Checked with a parent for "inspection"




Messes are so frustrating for me as a parent.

Every parent I've ever worked with has struggled with teaching and trying to get their child to pick up their rooms. Many parents end up nagging, frustrated, disappointed and down right angry. Then the kid feels bad. And then the kid picks up their mess because of how their parents feel and how it makes them feel. Then the kid tries to forget the whole thing and go about being a happy kid again.

There is of course another problem. The whole messy room scenario becomes a cycle. Eventually the room is a mess again, the parents get angry, the kid picks it up and then the kid forgets again. Parents get frustrated because their kids are not consistent. It happens to all good parents.

What most parents don't realize is that teaching kids is not about reminding, telling kids what to do, or even telling kids over and over. Only a very few kids will learn if you just tell them. Teaching involves practice, supervision, monitoring and a structure that teaches self-discipline. Instead of teaching, some parents decide to get tough. The punishment they dish out can be severe. I can professionally tell you that a little punishment is not all bad, but threats and punishment doesn't work well with a lot of kids. In fact, it makes things worse and creates power struggles, resentment and vindictive behavior.

OK - so what's the solution?

There is a solution to the messy room problem. It is simple and there is a lot of behavioral science to back it up.

If your child's room is a disaster, buy a 50 gallon plastic storage tub and a 25 gallon clear storage tub. It is important that your child be able to see through the smaller tub. Take the lid off the 25 gallon tub and put the lid away. After your child goes to school, pick up everything in the room that is out of place, on the floor or scattered around the room. Fill the 50 gallon tub with all that stuff and take the big tub out of the room. If you can, be waiting when your child comes home. Brace yourself and remind yourself to stay calm. Tell them that you have a new idea on how to help them keep the room clean. Be positive and excited. Show some confidence in your idea. Take them to their room and show them how good it looks. Your child may get upset and wonder where their stuff went. Show them where you put all their stuff. The spare room or the garage is a good place to put it.

After your child has calmed down, tell your child that you will help them put everything away in a day or so. After a day or so, help your child put everything away. They will probably appreciate the help. Make sure they know where things go. Try to have fun if you can. Get rid of things they don't need or use.

Go into your child's room after they have gone to school the next day. Pick up everything that is not put away or picked up. Hopefully it will be just a few things. Put all of it in the 25 gallon clear plastic tub and leave it in their room. Plan on and make time to talk to your child when your child gets home that day. As soon as possible tell your child that you have a great way to help them keep their room clean. Tell them that everything in the 25 gallon tub must be put away before they go to school on the next school day. Tell them you will help them remember where it all goes if they need help. Older kids won't want help but younger one probably will.

Here is the hard part. You need to tell your child that you will put their belongings in storage for a month, or give their stuff away or sell it if they don't put it away. Now don't panic. You don't have to get rid of everything. You can keep the really valuable things for when they get older or they eventually need it. You can also save anything that is important. In some cases, you should let your child earn their belongings back or you can let them buy it back. But whatever you do, tell them that they are basically giving it to you if they leave anything in the tub by the next day. Tell your child that anything that is in the tub and not put away means "I don't want it."

Then what?

What happens if they put things away in the wrong place? Anything that is shoved or stuffed under beds, or in closets where it doesn't belong, is put back in the tub. If that starts to happen, tell you child that anything that ends up in the tub three times in one week is now yours to do whatever you want with it. Be sure to remind them when it is the second time in a row and tell them that three times means that it is yours.

Does this work with every child?

Maybe not, but the concept will work with nearly every child. You may need to decide on your own consequences. You can give things away, put them away, sell them, let you child earn them back or maybe they can buy them back from the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Any way you shake it, however, the tub is a great teaching tool, especially with children six to 12 years old. The key to making this work is consistency. If you are consistent, and start young enough, you may be surprised. Your child will end up appreciating you for helping them to feel successful. In time, you may find there is nothing to put in the tub. One final suggestion, it may help if you start giving your child an allowance for chores and give them a bonus for each day there is nothing to put in the tub.