One night, I was tucking my eight-year-old daughter into bed when I stepped on a small plastic ostrich. “Ouch!” I yelped, looking down to see my foot surrounded by a herd of African animals. “Avery, I asked you to clean this stuff up,” I said with exasperation, sweeping the toys aside to clear a path to her bed.
“Sorry, Mommy,” she replied. “I’m not done playing.” My daughter is not a slob—she just prefers a room that’s “played in.” Once Avery gets going with her figurines, they can take over the floor for weeks, with lions lying in wait for zebras—or plastic appendages—at the watering hole. When I ask her to clean up, I’ll usually find her playing in the middle of the mess an hour later. If I nag, pitch in or present her with a compelling reason to get organized (for example, Grandma is coming to visit), she’ll capitulate. Most days, though, Avery would rather pick up dog poop from the yard than zebras off her floor.
Danielle Barnsley-Cervo can relate. The Edmonton mom has shown her son Matteo, who’s almost six, where all of his toys go, but they invariably end up in a jumble of model dinosaurs and Angry Birds obstacle courses in the bedroom he shares with his little sister.
“Matteo still hasn’t grasped the concept of putting toys away after he’s done playing with them,” says Barnsley-Cervo. The bad news? Like Avery, Matteo might never get behind his mom’s dream of an organized room.
Whether or not a child is messy is a personality trait, says Maggie Mamen, a family psychologist in Ottawa. From an early age, children will either line up and sort their toys, or dump them out on the floor. Further complicating matters are parents’ standards of cleanliness. A laid-back parent won’t be too fussed about a rumpled room, but it will drive a neat freak nuts. “The issue is coloured by our own comfort level with mess, but obviously there’s got to be some kind of happy medium,” says Mamen.
If parents can handle it, they should consider closing the door and forgetting about what’s behind it, says Kathy Lynn, a Vancouver parenting speaker and author. “A kid’s room should be their sanctuary; it should be the one place they can go that is theirs,” she says. She emphasizes there’s a difference between messy and dirty. In other words, toys on the floor are OK; wet towels and dirty dishes are not.
“My rule of thumb is, you let kids be responsible for their own rooms when you know they can do the job, because you’ve taught them how to do the job,” she says. If they can make a bed, put away clothes and pick up toys, you can hand over room responsibility (usually around age seven). Then it’s up to them to maintain it—or not.
But a clutter-free bedroom is secondary to the larger lesson of teaching kids about cleanliness expectations in other parts of the house, and beyond home. After all, you don’t want to raise the kid who’s going to drive her college roommates crazy by leaving her stuff everywhere and turning a blind eye to dust bunnies and dirty dishes.
“Children need to learn there’s a time and a place for being messy, and there’s a time and a place for being organized,” says Mamen. One way to teach this is to get kids involved in household chores outside their bedroom, where the standards are higher.
Avery helps out around the house by clearing her dishes and tidying up her art supplies, and understands the importance of keeping common rooms clean. Since she seems to be on the right track, perhaps it won’t kill me to close the door on her messy room (even though it may maim my foot at bedtime).
Can’t handle a messy room? Follow these tips from parenting speaker Kathy Lynn:
• Help younger children get started.
• Break cleanup into parts — clothing, then trash, then toys.
• Establish a quick nightly tidy-up routine.
• Purge excess stuff twice a year.
• Try a new system if things never get picked up properly.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2013 issue with the headline "A fine mess," p. 78.
Looking for more ways to get your kids to help with chores? Check out this video: