by Carol R. Doss, Ph.D.
THE MESSY ROOM
(Helping Kids Find Responsible Freedom)
Yes, parents, it is your house. You have a responsibility to help your kids grow up into good-functioning adults, but…do you always make your bed?
Ironically, the thing most parents complain about is the state of their kids rooms. They can be dealing with kids who are failing in school, kids who use alcohol and teenagers who steal their cars, somehow the messy room always works its way into the counseling conversation. This is not to say parents don't care about the big things like failing grades and drinking. They are very worried about these things, but it's easy for parents to miss the significance of letting kids keep their rooms the way they want.
One parent embarked on a Great Experiment when her six-year-old daughter, whom she had insisted keep her room neat, said to her one day, "Mom, it's my room. What do you care?" From that moment on, the mom began an experiment that lasted for twelve years. She let her young daughter keep her room any way she wanted to. The only thing she insisted on was that the "shared areas" of the house--the ones where the rest of the family also lived--were kept picked up. No clothes, shoes, or backpacks were to be thrown all over. The girl could keep her room any way she wanted as long as she kept the rest of the house free of her belongings and didn't take food into her room.
Over the next twelve years, the kid lost--and eventually found--shoes, school books and clothes. She would come to her mother in distress, saying "I can't find my---." Her mother would say with a sympathetic face (and this is important. No nagging!), "Gee, that's tough, sweetie… Have you looked in your room?" Whether or not it was the girl's primary shoes or her coat or her schoolwork, her mother never went into her room to help her look for the lost items. Mom went into her room to return freshly washed and folded laundry and to tuck her in at night(as did Dad), but she never rescued--or condemned--the girl for her disorder.
The room looked like an explosion had taken place. It was BAD. It was bad for years.
Then, one day when the kid was getting ready to enter high school, her mom came home and…the room was clean. It didn't stay that way, at first. Soon, the mess was back, but it got cleaned up again and stayed clean longer. Eventually, the kid's room was one of the cleanest in the house.
Her parents had let her decide what worked best for her: clean room or messy room. She decided herself that clean worked better for her.
The moral of this story isn't that the kid ended up cleaning her room. The important thing was that she made choices--messy ones--and learned what the consequences were. She then could decide how she wanted to live.
Think about the messy room as a metaphor for life. Our kids really do get to choose how they're going to live. Starting early can help them.
Aside from keeping food out of the bedroom (might attract bugs), kids need to be allowed to chose their own level of organization. This is more complicated with a shared room, but don't think that harping on your child about picking up his toys makes him a better adult. There are adults who are very neat whose mothers(more rarely, fathers) were on them all the time about keeping their rooms tidy. Then, there are grown-up kids who are very messy still, regardless of how much their parents complained and punished them for messy rooms.
A clean, organized space may help you be mentally organized, but not all people work that way. This is a very individual thing and it certainly isn't worth the significance parents tend to give it. Consider trying an experiment for yourself and focus on the limitations that your kids need you to give them. Keeping their rooms clean probably isn't the biggest one.
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Title credit: Jaye Wells
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