Maybe it’s the toothpaste tube without the lid. Or the counter that never gets wiped. Let’s not even talk about your preteen’s bedroom. There are mouldy dishes lurking under a pile of sweaty clothes, damp towels and strewn papers.
How did your once reasonably tidy child turn into such a slob? And what can you do to bring the messiness down to a level both of you can live with?
Messiness is a common developmental blip among preteens, says Toronto parenting expert Alyson Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids. It’s pretty normal for previously organized kids to become quite lackadaisical. It can feel to parents like their kids’ brains are missing in action.
In fact, that’s actually partly the problem. “Kids are beginning a process whereby the brain is being rebuilt,” says Schafer. This means that, along with moodiness and a sudden inability to communicate civilly with their parents, kids can become quite absent-minded and seemingly oblivious to house rules, such as putting the hair dryer away or dirty clothes in the hamper.
Schafer says other factors are also at play. Peer pressure may exert some influence: It’s cool to be sloppy and aloof, especially around adults, while being neat can be a bit nerdy. “Kids this age are often quite busy — homework demands and extracurricular activities may be increasing — and keeping the house tidy just isn’t a priority for them.”
Some children are just messy by nature, says Schafer, and that can lead to a clash of styles. “I’ve got one kid who’s like me,” says Schafer. “We’re the make-a-big-mess-and-then-blitz-clean type. My other one is like her dad — consistently neat and tidy.” If you’re lucky enough to have a child whose style matches your own, arguments over messiness won’t come up too often. Nevertheless, you probably want to draw the line at slovenliness.
Whether the issue is dirty dishes in the den or wet towels on the bathroom floor, here are some ways to encourage kids to pick up after themselves:
Pick your battles “Separate in your mind those issues that are interfering with your quiet enjoyment of the house and the ones that aren’t,” says Schafer. If your son leaves his clean clothes in his laundry basket and it doesn’t bother him, maybe it’s not something you should take on. But if the milk gets left on the counter overnight and you can’t have milk on your cereal in the morning because it’s spoiled, then you should talk about it.
Resist rewards and threats “We have all the research to prove without a shadow of a doubt that rewards are demotivating,” says Schafer. And if you threaten to ground your child unless he tidies up the movies in the family room, there’s a real possibility he’ll just get mad and the movies will stay a mess.
Make an agreement Schafer says the secret to agreements that work is to negotiate the terms and then follow through if they aren’t met. First, ask your child to commit to the task. Discuss a time frame. It’s better to ask him to commit to cleaning up the CDs on the weekend than insist it be done right this minute. More time gives kids this age more control. Schafer also recommends asking kids to come up with a related, respectful, reasonable consequence if the job isn’t done that’s agreed upon in advance.
Most of the time, says Schafer, when kids have created the consequence, you don’t have to use it. If the agreed time comes and goes, says Schafer, be a broken record: “You can continue to repeat without arguing, ‘We had an agreement.… We had an agreement… Yes — but we had an agreement.’”
While you’re negotiating, try your best not to lose your cool. Because the thing is, losing it over a congealed cup of tea isn’t worth it when there are so many other issues with kids at this stage that really do require your energy. And take comfort in the fact that most teens will grow out of extreme messiness — probably right about the time they’re ready to head off to college.