You are cleaning up in the kitchen.

You hear your children playing in the family room.

You see them run upstairs.

When you are done cleaning the kitchen, you go to sit down in the family room to take a break and watch T.V.

Toys are strewn all over.  There is even a pile on the couch and you are unable to sit down without being poked by a toy.

You are irritated!

The room looks like a tornado hit it.

Now you have to straighten up this room before you can sit down to relax.

Messy rooms. Almost every parent can relate to this problem. In their fun and glee, children scatter toys throughout the room — or house! They play with the toys they are supposed to be putting away. It seems to take hours for children to pick up, when it could take parents a few minutes. Why do most children seem to be born slobs? When will they want to clean and do it well and quick, so parents don’t have to nag, complain and hover?

You may not ever have children who want to clean their messy rooms, but you can have children who cooperate anyway. The first step is to avoid quick fixes, since many backfire or have negative long-term outcomes. For example, if parents “let it slide” until they can’t stand the mess, children feel overwhelmed. If parents nag, they get into power struggles. If parents insist on perfection or having it done “their way,” they have power struggles and discouraged children. If parents clean, children get a maid/butler and never learn to clean by/for themselves. If parents restrict children until they finish, children are resentful and may refuse to clean to rebel or for revenge. If parents throw away toys, children learn it’s okay to disrespect and destroy property because it’s disposable — and may get revenge later.

In general, most young children have not mastered the skill of cleaning. Older children usually know how to clean but don’t, for one of the reasons above. Teens may see their bedrooms as extensions of their identity and one area of their life they can control. Parents of teens need to focus on bottom-line limits, like having a room that is safe to walk in and doesn’t have food trash that poses health risks. Teens can pick up before friends and family visit or every one to two weeks, and sweep/dust monthly.

To prevent problems and develop children’s cleaning habits, try the following plan.

  • First, take time to de-clutter and make space for organizing. Read my article, “Messy Rooms: How Do I Teach Children To De-clutter & Donate Toys To Charity,” for suggestions on how to do this.
  • Then, discuss the value of organization and cleanliness. Don’t lecture. Ask, “How is it helpful to have a clean room?” Let them answer: they find things quicker, the floor is safe to walk on, toys don’t get broken and it doesn’t take as much time to clean.
  • If children haven’t mastered cleaning, take time to teach skills. Work together, gradually doing less each time. Let children clean their way, as long as it is safe, fairly quick and effective.
  • When children are overwhelmed, break down tasks and focus on one area at a time. Define levels of cleaning, like “just pick up” so the floor is clear, “organize” so things are in their proper place and “clean,” which includes vacuuming and dusting.
  • If children don’t know where to start, offer choices. “You can pick up the toys or dirty clothes first. You decide.” Or “Do you want to put away each thing you find or make piles as you go?”
  • Establish routines, such as putting away toys before starting a new activity or picking up at the end of the day, then cleaning once a week.
  • When children are cleaning, avoid nagging, complaining or focusing only on what’s not done. Describe any effort, progress or improvement — even if they are slow or ineffective. Ask them to show you what they’ve cleaned or what they see that’s left to do.

If you do all this consistently for several weeks and there’s no progress, it’s time to do problem solving:

  • Ask how the child feels about cleaning. Write it down. Acknowledge the child’s lack of interest or motivation or how easy it is to get distracted or overwhelmed.
  • Brainstorm ideas for resolving their issues. For example, “What can you do when you find a toy you want to play with?” Or “If you don’t know where to start, what can you do?”
  • Tweak ideas so they are acceptable to both parent and child. For example, “I would be concerned about doing that because . . . How do you feel about . . .?”
  • If children suggest something you think they won’t follow through on, set conditional limits, like “You could do that if/when . . .”
  • Choose a solution or a combination of ideas both of you agrees to follow. You need to agree not to nag or remind. Agree to adjust or change the plan if it isn’t working.
  • Decide who will do what, when, and how — and what will happen if it doesn’t. The best options are logical, like they can’t have friends in the house because it’s too messy or you only wash clothes that are in the hampers on laundry day. In general, you want a “work before play” policy. Then follow through consistently, by saying “When you’ve finished cleaning, you can . . .”

Do not dock children’s allowance for having messy rooms or skipping something on the household chore list. Cleaning one’s room is a responsibility each family member has, simply to contribute as part of the family “team.” (That includes you — as a role model!) When parents pay children to clean, they may refuse to clean if they aren’t paid, don’t care about money or feel manipulated. Then the room is still a mess!

This plan requires parents to teach skills and follow through consistently in the short-run, but the benefits are long-term. Within months (or years with young children), parents can say “clean your room” and children will cooperate and do a good job.

When toys and clutter are taking over, it’s time to take action. Listen to a one-hour recording of a live workshop called, “Tools For Teaching Tidiness” for more tips and practical tools for helping children let go of old toys, be motivated to straighten up their messy rooms, and clean up after themselves.

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Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network , and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop .For 25+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops  and interviews with the media worldwide,  including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series

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