When I can’t cope I clean. And if everything is clean, I organize. Once I overheard my younger son giving a tour of the house and he said, “This is our bedroom. My mom makes us put our stuff in her boxes so everything is her colors.”

I thought I was teaching my kids to clean their rooms. But my kids recognized I was teaching them to make their room the way I like it. I started paying attention to what other kids rooms look like. I noticed that if you go to someone’s house and a school-aged kid’s bedroom is really neat and stylish, that says more about the mom than the kid; it looks like the mom cares more about her own needs than the kids.

I started reading about how to make a kid clean their room, and what I learned is that forcing kids to clean their room is not a good idea. Here’s a summary of what I’ve read.

School-aged kids need to have skills like making a bed, putting clothes away, putting toys away. And a kid should have a general idea of how organized they like things to be. This got me thinking about how when I was a kid, I liked to be super organized and my brother always had stuff on the floor. We’ve been like that as adults too – it’s sort of  our natural way.

So kids have their natural messiness setpoint, just like they have a natural weight setpoint, or a natural happiness setpoint. If the parent’s don’t like that, it’s the parent’s problem not the kid’s problem. The only time it becomes the parents problem is if a kid is not keeping their bedroom how the kid likes it to be – then it might be a sign of depression, and in that case a parent needs to help. (This is true with weight and happiness as well.)

Acting as overlord of your kids bedroom is a high-stakes game. Childhood classrooms reward rule followers who conform to adult demands, so it’s enticing to boss your kid around at home and congratulate yourself for compliance,  but after college, that reward system is over,  and kids from families that celebrate individuality grow up with more creative confidence. The more you expect your kids to conform to your preferences, the less likely kids will be able to assert themselves as adults.

You can give a kid daily responsibilities outside their room so they understand there are higher standards for cleanliness outside their bedroom. It’s much more difficult to instill creative confidence. And kids can practice that by keeping their bedroom how they want. That’s right: it’s more important to use bedroom tidiness to teach self-expression than self-discipline, so leave your kid’s bedroom alone.

Later in life expressing who you are instead of pleasing other people is really important.  As a parent, I don’t want to squash my kid’s sense of entitlement to express who he is. So instead of controlling my son’s bedroom I take super close-up pictures that look like Mondrian at the Tate instead of bedroom decor that I hate.

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2 replies
  1. JML
    JML says:

    I’m messy and my older son is messy. My husband is tidy and so is my younger son. My younger son keeps his things neat and organized for as long as anything can stay neat and organized in our house. I’m always asking my husband if I drive him crazy. He tells me that he saw my room when we first met, he knew what he was getting into. It’s so hard to see something we don’t like in ourselves in our kids. I hate that I’m messy and I don’t want my older son to be messy so I try and fail all the time. But if I can’t fix it in myself, how could I possibly fix it in him? Thank you for suggesting that maybe in terms of messiness there isn’t really anything to be fixed. One less thing to beat myself up about.

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  2. Angie
    Angie says:

    Yes!!! This is my favourite blog post ever!! My 5 & 3 year old girls share a room and it gets so messy and I feel like the worst mother that I allow it to be so for so long. But I see the games they play together and on their own and the vibrant worlds they create while they are making the mess and I think – why would I want to squash that? It’s not as if I’m letting them live like animals and there are rules about food & rubbish (and dirty clothes!). I know there’s an element of finding evidence to suit your own agenda in this, but I’ll be saving this for future reference (particularly when my own mother tells me I should be making the girls clean their room up)!.

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