Moms, Kids & Housekeeping Wars: Should Their Rooms Really Be Theirs?

This article originally appeared in Better Homes and Gardens Magazine

When our five children were young, their bedrooms were treacherous labyrinths of dolls, clothes, toys and art supplies.  Still, it was easy to turn cleaning into a game and cajole them into making their rooms presentable.  Then our kids hit adolescence and, one by one, banished us from their bedrooms with this battle cry:  “It's my room.  I should be able to keep it how I want it!”

Housekeeping conflicts between tweens, teens and parents heat up as the race toward independence prompts kids to assert control in their bedrooms, the one domain they feel is truly theirs. “Privacy is an increasingly big issue,” notes Naomi Steiner, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.  
Where you see bad art and clutter, your teen sees his emerging identity.  That floor filing system may dismay you, but it could be your teen trying to get a grip on newly complex high school work.  What you view as a horrific mess of ripe clothing and sticky dishes is your rebel's attempts to live his own life instead of bowing down to authority.

Some parents raise a white flag rather than do battle – including professional organizer Marsha Sims, the mother of three boys.

“When my sons hit their teens, I let them live like pigs in their own rooms as long as they kept their doors closed,” says Sims, coauthor of Organizing Your Day (Revell 2009) with Sandra Felton.  “With the doors closed, I could pretend their rooms were clean and pristine.”

Those of us with less imagination or extra messy kids, like Tracy Bernstein of Ardsley, New York, might long for a less laissez faire approach to keep the Health Department at bay.  Her 14 year-old son Nicky is “the classic slob who takes off his clothes and drops them on the bedroom floor,” says Bernstein.  “He can't ever find anything because his room is such a mess.  We live in a small house, so what my kids do in their bedrooms affects us all.”
“Tweens and teens may want to be independent, but their rooms are still part of the house that you all live in,” agrees Sandra Felton, whose first book, The Messies Manual, spun out an entire franchise of books on organization, including the one she recently coauthored with Sims.  She agrees with Sims on this one key point, though:  If you want your children to be tidier, it's imperative to develop a system that they buy into. 

Let go of a little bit of control, pick your battles, enlist your child's help, and be very clear about what you can (and can't) live with, suggest our experts, who emphasize the importance of coming to a joint agreement with kids about basic housekeeping rules for their bedrooms.  “If you're not asking for your teen's input, then it's not really teamwork,” points out Dr. Steiner.  

Still, even when your kids are taller than you are, you're the parent, she reminds us.  “You not only have the right, but a job to do, in making sure that your kids are sage and developing well.  Part of that is helping your kids become better organized.”

Here are some strategies for working with your kids instead of against them:

Think of Your Children as a Team – with You as Manager
Too often, parents see housekeeping as their responsibility and treat children like guests, says Felton.  Instead, think of yourself as a team manager:  “As a team, you have a common goal. That goal is to win the organizing game.  They should help.  You don't need to cover all of the bases and pitch, too.”

With your child, take everything out of his bedroom and let him help decide what should go back in.  Beware of your own shortcomings, warns Sims.  “Parents are often the reason that children's bedrooms are so cluttered.”  You might really be attached to that dollhouse you worked on together when your daughter was eight years old, but does she really need it in her room now?   

Motivate Them with More Than Just Nagging
“If it's you just yelling at your kids to clean their rooms, that's not going to work,” observes Debbie Lillard, author of Absolutely Organized:  Your Family (North Light Books, June 2010).  “They need another source of motivation.”

Your child might be more willing to part with clutter if you hold a tag sale and let him keep the proceeds, says Lillard, who schedules biannual seasonal clean outs for her home.  “I put the clean outs on our calendar, and nobody is allowed to schedule anything for that day until it's all done.”  Your children might also be more motivated to de-clutter their rooms if you help them find a charity where they can donate unwanted items and feel good about it.

Let Go of What You Can
Think about what you really can – and can't – live with.  On the low end of the scale, you might just be aiming to keep vermin out of your house; i.e., you don't want your son to use his bedroom as an extra pantry, like mine did:  In high school, he seemed to think it was too far to walk to the kitchen to get crackers and peanut butter, so he stashed them under his bed. 

In the middle of the housekeeping scale, you might expect kids to put dirty clothes in hampers and clean their rooms once a week.  High end moms will want beds made in the mornings, papers and school books stacked neatly on desks, clothes hung or put away in bureaus – and will probably face more conflicts with teens, says Lillard:  “When children reach a certain age, parents have to give them more freedom.  If you push too hard, they're going to fight back.”

Elevating your child to the status of team player means respecting each other.  Listen to your child's rationale for never putting away his electric guitar (he likes to pluck cords for five minutes at a time between math problems) and for keeping school books on the floor instead of on the desk (he loves to read lying down).  Then compromise:  Maybe you won't mind the electric guitar being out as long as it's close to the amplifier instead of across the room, with the cord bobby-trapping unsuspecting visitors.  And, if your son loves to lounge and read, maybe he'd go for a beanbag chair and a low set of shelves next to it.

Make Consequences Count – For Them
Children are masterful game players, notes Felton.  “They can have you in the middle of an all-out championship contest of wills, and you'll hardly know you're playing.”

Changing the rules of the game might be the most effective way to win the housekeeping wars before they start.  If you scold your teenager daily for dropping dirty clothes on the floor of her bedroom and she just keeps right on doing it, alter your behavior so that she's forced to change hers.  Tell her that you won't wash any clothes that don't make it into the hamper – period.  Then don't back down.  She'll either start complying – or she'll learn to do her own laundry.

Gail Cookson of Excelsior, MN, opts for this approach with her 15 year-old daughter.  “I give her as much space as I can,” Cookson says.  “But, when I can't stand her room anymore, I warn her that she'd better clean it or I'll do it for her, and she won't like the way I do it.  She knows that I mean it.  And you know what?  When her room is clean, she usually tells me how much better it feels.”

Sidebar/Organizing Bedrooms for Tweens and Teens
“Parents aren't doing their teenagers a service to let them live in total squalor,” observes professional organizer Joyce Anderson, author of Help, I'm Knee-Deep in Clutter! (Amacom 2007).  “That sends a message to kids that someone else is always going to be there to wait on them.”
Her housekeeping tips for bedrooms of tweens and teens include:

  • Know your kid.  Listen to the logic behind how he keeps his room, and work with that.
  • Let your child choose the décor, and he'll take more pride in keeping up his room.
  • With your child's help, de-clutter the room.  Start by hauling out sports equipment and other items that belong elsewhere, including family DVDs and books, to appropriate areas of the house.
  • Keep “like with like.”  For instance, provide one shelf for CDs and another for books.
  • If drawers are too much effort for your child, provide bins or baskets for clean clothes.
  • Put hampers for dirty clothes inside each bedroom.
  • Set up a study area with a desk or table and wall-mounted or free-standing shelves.
  • Provide a comfortable chair, lamp and wastebasket.
  • Use vertical space, like wall shelves for trophies, and change these items seasonally rather than trying to display all of them at once.
  • Provide art portfolios for valued projects and, when one fills up, remove it to the attic or closet.
  • Make a firm rule about all dishes and plates being returned to the kitchen daily.