Where is the biggest mess in your house? If your answer is “wherever the kids are” then this blog post is for you. Why are kids so messy? It comes from learned behaviors to prioritize play and exploration over chores and being orderly. There is some reason for the mess – in the process of making it, kids are developing fine motor skills, strengthening their creativity and learning how the world works through trial and error. However, all these important developmental experiences can be learned while staying organized. Certainly, if your child learns early how to organize and stay organized, they will also gain essential building blocks for success and happiness in their lives. To get there takes three essential actions: persuasion, de-cluttering, and building good habits.
Children learn by observation. If your core beliefs include living an organized life, your children will notice. With patience, over time they will absorb your good habits. In order to accelerate this process, your use of persuasion is key. Make it a game and start de-cluttering with something they enjoy. You could hold a “fashion show” which includes sorting through your daughter’s wardrobe for the clothes worthy of keeping with the surplus going to a hand-me-down bin for a younger cousin. Set up a contest for the best toy award with the loser of each “battle” ending up at the Salvation Army for training. Put on a “magic show” where the stuff that kids no longer play with disappears to the land of Goodwill.
Along the way kids will pick up the virtuous principle of helping those that are less fortunate. Involving kids in the process of donating unused items will also help them think twice before acquiring more stuff, as they begin to understand that nonessential consumer goods don’t have much to do with our well-being. Spending time with others is what gives us everlasting happiness. Our memories are built from what we do, not what we have.
Give children encouragement; tell them how amazing they are at organizing and they will want to do it even more. They will enjoy the results of de-cluttering with more room to play and may even find long-lost endearing toys or money in the process. Children will start to understand why it’s important to not over-stuff their space, instead making sure that everything is in its place where it can be easily found. Your kids really can get over the messiness hurdle and when they do, they will start to put things away on their own. I recommend starting this when they are very young. In fact, de-cluttering is the best babyproofing.
Children usually have a wide assortment of stuff. I recommend using modules for the diverse categories that will come from an organizing session with your kids. Use clear boxes so the contents are easy to see. Put labels on each box as reminders for what is supposed to live in each box. Generalizations such as “for drawing” may be better than narrow categories like markers, pens, pencils and crayons. Modules will serve to help encourage the kiddos to put their play things back in their proper homes. Avoid stacking the boxes: it will make it easier for kids to get to their things, but more important is that storage space finds a way to get filled. For a lesson in restraint, better to limit the number of boxes!
Building Good Habits
In order to build the habit of staying organized, reminders are necessary. Like adults, kids need cues as triggers for their brain to initiate a behavior. Labeled modules are good reminders. Keeping a calendar is another. In order to make sure we actually do something we must schedule it. Even if your kids don’t use a calendar they can still acquire good habits like knowing that after dinner everyday it’s “tidy time” – everyone in the family spends 10 minutes cleaning up. A simple one-pager can be created and printed with reminders about chores for each day: Sunday = laundry, Tuesday = water plants, Thursday = take out trash, etc. If kids need a reminder to help with dinner each day starting at 5pm they can set an alarm on their Amazon Alexa or smart phone.
In order to make organizing a habit, it needs to be practiced regularly. The more it’s practiced the better one gets at it. Hold a family meeting and discuss how important staying organized is to you and what it can do for your kids’ lives. Listen and work out new approaches to stay organized together. Giving kids ownership in the process will make them more likely to follow through. One idea you could discuss is how to improve on putting playthings back where they belong. Don’t be surprised if you child comes up with something brilliant like: “if it takes less than 30 seconds to put it away – just do it!”
Once your child’s room is de-cluttered and organized, check in with them from time to time to make sure it is staying that way. If you noticed things aren’t getting put back, remind them and let them know that next time you’ll clean up those items for them…and they will then need to ask you for these things when they want them, which might take time to do because you are a busy person. They will start to get the picture and put things away on their own.
A valuable lesson that has the potential of reducing your children’s stress and increasing their success in life is for them to learn to better understand their relationship with stuff. Before something is purchased go through the process of understanding the commitment of a purchase. They should ask themselves the following clear questions:
How often will I use it?
When will I no longer need it?
Can I afford it?
Can I borrow it form someone?
Do I already have something like it?
Is there a cheaper alternative?
Do I really need it or is there an outside influence that is making me think I need it?
If your child’s bedroom is already at capacity, come to an agreement that they won’t bring in anything new unless they get rid of something. Don’t let them open the new item until this is done!
Children can and should learn the skill of self-organization. Although kids might need gentle reminders, the days of raising voices to get them to tidy up should be a thing of the past. Schedule a kids room clean up once a month and you’ll notice that after the second and third sweep, they will start to get very good at it. Just like packing for a trip – you’ve done it so many times you can do it in your sleep, right? No? Wait, packing is not so easy for you? Well then, with holiday travel coming up, I’ll show you in my next blog how to make vacation packing easy.