How to help kids keep track of their stuff

Another day, another forgotten lunch bag. How can you teach your kids to keep track of their belongings?

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Smelly socks. Mouldy lunch containers. Underwear. A fancy ladies’ coat. As the parent volunteer in charge of the lost and found at her son’s elementary school in Toronto, Christine ten Brummeler thought she’d seen it all. But nothing could have prepared her for the time her own little guy came home from school wearing only one shoe. “I thought, ‘Really? How could he not notice?’ It can be so frustrating when they lose things. It’s a pain in the neck, not to mention the cost.”

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Got one of those kids? Then you’re probably dreading the last-ditch attempt to track down your child’s missing hoodie or late library book before school’s out for summer. But at least you’re in good company. “It’s perfectly normal and common for six- and seven-year-olds to lose things,” says Calgary child psychologist Cheryl Gilbert Mac Leod. “Kids this age tend to be focused on lots of things, and their goals are still very ‘me-oriented.’ When they’re running out the door to play at the end of the day, remembering to put their water bottles in their bags isn’t always a priority.”

While some children are just naturally better than others at keeping track of their belongings, it’s up to Mom and Dad to provide their kids with the right tools and strategies to be successful. “It’s our job to teach good organizational and planning skills. These are behaviours that children need to learn, and they develop slowly over time with practise,” adds Gilbert Mac Leod.

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The number one thing parents can do to help kids stay on top of their stuff is to establish consistent routines. “Repetition helps children remember. If they get into the habit of packing their pencil cases or sunscreen around the same time and in the same order every night, they’re less likely to forget,” she says. “It’ll eventually become automatic.” In the meantime, things like stickers or high-fives can keep them motivated as they get the hang of it.

Another great idea? “Put a checklist above their backpacks or somewhere else highly visible to remind them what goes inside,” says ten Brummeler. The mom of three also helps her boys stay focused during the chaotic morning rush by keeping the entrance of their home clutter-free and creating separate areas for each child to get ready.

Having a designated spot—such as a labelled shelf or basket—for belongings means kids will always know where to look for things in a pinch, and where to put their items for safe-keeping.

“The first time my nine-year-old son lost his iPod, he was very distraught,” says Montreal mom Joanna Boyer.* “We searched high and low. We found it a day later, but from that point on, we decided he’d leave it in the charger at the foot of his bed whenever he wasn’t using it. He hasn’t lost it since.”

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Kids this age still need lots of guidance, so if your child forgets something at school, that’s OK—but it’s not your job to run back and get it for her, explains Gilbert Mac Leod. “We need to hold kids responsible in a respectful way. We can’t always rescue them. So instead of rushing out to the store to replace a lost item, there should be a meaningful consequence.” Maybe your child has to dip into her piggy bank to replace the sunscreen she lost (again), miss a playdate to go with you to pick up a new lunch box, or face the music for forgetting her homework on the kitchen table. “When my son lost a pair of running shoes, he had to wear his brother’s ratty hand-me-downs,” says ten Brummeler. “He wasn’t pleased, but it got the message across.”

The next time your little one’s hat goes AWOL, try not to lose your own cool. “We all misplace things every now and then,” says Boyer. “Most of the time, it’s not worth stressing about.”

Parent tip: Try teaching your kids a catchy song or acronym to recite at their cubbies or lockers to remember their gear. A backpack that’s big enough to squeeze in all of their stuff—but that they can manage on their own—is important, too. Of course, labelling everything is a must.

* name has been changed

A version of this article appeared in our June 2014 issue with the headline “Lost and found,” p. 52.

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