When our five children were little, their bedrooms were treacherous labyrinths of dolls, clothes, toys, and art supplies. Still, it was easy to turn cleaning into a game. Then they 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 heat up as the race toward independence prompts kids to assert control in their bedrooms, the one domain they feel is truly theirs. Where you see bad art and clutter, your teen sees his emerging identity. That mess of ripe clothing and sticky dishes could be your rebel's attempts to live his own life instead of bowing down to authority. Come fall, that floor filing system might dismay you, but it could be your teen trying to get a grip on newly complex high school work.
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. Our experts 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 Naomi Steiner, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
Still, she reminds us, you're the parent. "You not only have the right, but a job to do, in making sure that your kids are safe 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.
Too often, parents see housekeeping as their responsibility and treat children like guests, says Sandra Felton, who wrote Organizing Your Day (Revell with Martha Sims. 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," says Felton.
With your child, take everything out of her bedroom and let her help decide what should go back in. Beware of your own shortcomings, warns Sims, professional organizer and mother of three boys. "Parents are often the reason that children's bedrooms are so cluttered," she says. You might love that dollhouse you worked on with your daughter when she was 8, but does she really need it in her room now?
"Just yelling at your kids to clean their rooms is not going to work," says Debbie Lillard, author of Absolutely Organize Your Family (Betterway Home 2010). "They need specific instructions and a 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 seasonal cleanouts for her home. "I put the cleanouts on our calendar, and nobody is allowed to schedule anything for that day until it's all done." Or try helping your kids find a charity where they can donate unwanted items and feel good about it.
"When children reach a certain age, parents have to give them more freedom," Lillard says. "If you push too hard, they're going to fight back."
Listen to your child's rationale for never putting away his electric guitar (he likes to pluck chords between math problems) and for keeping books on the floor (he loves to read lying down).
Then compromise: Maybe the guitar stays out as long as it's close to the amplifier, or the books live in a set of low, floor-level shelves.
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 clothes on the floor, alter your behavior so she's forced to change hers.
Tell her that you won't wash any clothes that don't make it into the hamper—then don't back down. She'll either start complying or learn to do her own laundry.
Gail Cookson of Excelsior, Minnesota, opts for this approach with her 16-year-old. "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 I mean it. And you know what? When her room is clean, she usually tells me how much better it feels."
"Parents aren't doing children a service to let them live in squalor," says professional organizer Joyce I. Anderson, author of Help, I'm Knee-Deep in Clutter! (Amacom).
Change kids' ways with these tips:
Some parents—including Sims'—raise a white flag rather than go to battle. "When my sons hit their teens, I let them live like pigs in their own rooms as long as they kept their doors closed," she says. "With the doors closed, I could pretend their rooms were clean and pristine."
Those of us with smaller imaginations 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 15-year-old son 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."
Take heart, says Felton: "Teens and tweens may want to be independent, but their rooms are still part of the house that you all live in." She agrees with Sims on one key point, though: If you want your children to be tidier, it's imperative to develop a system they buy into.