It sometimes happens that a wave of questions on a certain topic comes at me, as has a recent spate of parental pleas for a final solution to the perennial messy room — a child’s, that is.
My general answer is first to establish specific, concrete standards of neatness and cleanliness (e.g., clothes put away, floor picked up, bed made) along with the understanding that “inspection” will be held at a certain time every day (e.g., after the child has left for school). If the room does not pass inspection, consequences will be forthcoming.
For example, I recently recommended to a mom that if her 10-year-old son’s room did not pass inspection after he had left for school, he should incur an early bedtime, and if the room failed inspection more than once during the school week, his weekend privileges should be restricted. Three weeks later, the mom reported that her constant nagging had stopped; her son had been convinced of the benefits of a neat, clean environment.
The occasional child — usually a teenager — will claim he should be allowed to keep “his” room in any state he chooses. I agree, as long as the child is willing to shoulder his room’s share of the mortgage, insurance and utilities. A child is not a boarder; he is a member of a family, and membership carries with it certain obligations (as do all memberships).
It is irrelevant, by the way, that said child did not ask to be a member. He is a member, period, and because he benefits enormously from that arrangement, he is obligated to apply himself to certain standards, period. Under the circumstances, keeping one’s room neat and clean is a small price to pay (not that it should be the only price). Besides, it is good discipline and can be justified on that basis alone.
When our children were growing up, and after much nagging, Willie and I simply told them that if they did not clean their rooms, we would. Whenever we did so, however, we would feel free to go through drawers and closets and toss anything we felt they didn’t need. It took one, maybe two, of our room purgings to persuade the children that it was in their best interests to do the job themselves. Both of them are married with children, and the word “fastidious” comes to mind.
Along those same lines, a mother recently shared her creative approach to the problem at hand. She was delighted to report that she had just finished cleaning her daughters’ room.
“As I cheerfully went around cleaning up papers and trash,” she wrote, “putting books on the shelf and throwing out stuff I found lying around, I remembered how I had once nagged, begged, yelled and generally harassed my kids to do things around the house. One day, something clicked, and I decided to stop fighting the same battle over and over and over again.
“I started a service in our home called Mom’s Helping Hands. I made business cards on our home computer that listed the services I offer — cleaning rooms, finishing chores, picking up, removing kindling (one of our daughters stuffs paper into every available nook and cranny) and providing reminders. My motto, also printed on the cards, is ‘So convenient you don’t even have to call.’ When I perform a service on behalf of one of the children, I simply leave my card behind to indicate that I expect to be paid.
“Needless to say, the kids hate it, but not enough never to need my services. Of course, the price is often more than they were planning on paying (loss of one or more privileges, usually) but I simply point out that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Our home stays neater and quieter, and instead of high blood pressure I now get a chuckle out of helping the kids with their responsibilities.”
Which goes to show that sometimes the best way to beat ‘em is to stop trying.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).