Monday, June 11, 2007

Teaching Children Responsibility: Is Your Room Clean?

Children Cleaning Their RoomsI’m going to start off with a question I’ve struggled with: What do you do when your kids don’t clean their rooms?

If you have children that are old enough to think of their bedroom as their own personal space what are your rules—if any—for cleanliness? I know some children are naturally neat and some are naturally—well, let’s call it Organizationally Challenged shall we? Me—and I know this will come as a shock—I’ve got to have it clean. I’m more comfortable when everything is in its place, when the dishes are done and put away, when the room is inviting to use because there is no clutter to distract me and I know right where something is when I need it.

Feeling this way I’ve wondered what the best policy is when teaching a child to keep his or her room clean. I had an acquaintance, a woman very much like me, who’s house was well-ordered but she regularly cleaned her children’s bedrooms. She unashamedly admitted it but also added that when her children moved away from home they too began to keep their spaces clean because they’d been used to it for so long that suddenly when mom wasn’t there to do it they felt the need to step up and take charge.

It seemed to have worked for her but it sounded fishy to me. I had a hard time thinking that if I took over responsibility for my children’s cleanliness that they would naturally absorb this and on that magical day they left to seek their fortunes would turn to me and say, “Thanks for cleaning my room Mom, I’m always going to pick up my socks in gratitude for what you’ve taught me.”

I guess first you have to start with the question of whether having your home clean is important to you. If that’s not a priority than I suppose it doesn’t matter what condition your kids’ rooms are in but most people I’ve met have at least some threshold, some standard, some basic expectation of cleanliness for their children. Maybe you require everything off of the floor, maybe you require being able to see the floor, maybe you just want to be able to have enough clearance to shut the door but the question is how do you enforce your expectations?

I can’t bear to have rooms—even my kids’ rooms—dirty and cluttered but I can't justify taking over what I feel to be their job at keeping it clean. My husband suggested something to me early on in our parenting career that I thought was brilliant and have whole-heartedly adopted with our children and has worked pretty well. It can be adapted to various circumstances and levels of strictness and cleanliness. I’d like to introduce you to The Mad Bag.

My Mother-in-law invented The Mad Bag though I was never really clear on its etymological history—whether she used it when she was mad or it made the kids real mad when she brought it out or whether “mad” meant crazy was all rather fuzzy but the point is this: When her kids left things around the house she’d bring out the bag, scoop up the items and pop! They were gone.

It’s so simple it’s brilliant, I should design The Mad Bag and market it to the masses but the theory is this: if your children care so little about their things as to leave them lying about they forfeit a right to ownership. I don’t know if she kept things for good or if the children could win back items for good behavior or buy back the items with money but I’ve adopted it to fit our needs and it’s worked well.

When the kids leave for school I do a sweep of the upstairs bedrooms to make sure things are tidy and if I see things on the floor that shouldn’t be there they’re mine. Clothes lying in the bottom of the closet? Mine. Underwear that didn’t make it to the hamper? Mine. Clothes draped in unusual places? All mine, and sometimes when I’m feeling especially feisty I take toys as well. I keep them (sometimes it takes the child a while to realize something’s missing) but once they’ve discovered it gone they know where it is and when they come looking for it they don’t get it back until they can keep things in order for three days with no slips. No slips.

It works pretty well and keeps things clutter free though sometimes, and this happens with me too, things start to build up until the drawers and corners have too many things tucked away and I do a forced “Clean Out Your Dresser Drawers Or I Will” Day.

My own mother did a similar thing. When we came home from school we would take off our shoes, coats and backpacks by the front door. Then after our snack we’d pick things up and put them away. If, however, we failed to clean up our things Mom would scoop up the stuff and throw it outside. Just like that. On the lawn. In the snow. Sometimes we wouldn’t discover we’d lost our shoes and coats until the next morning when we were getting ready for school and let me tell you, something about finding your shoes and coat under three inches of new snow has a way of chiseling responsibility into your brain.

So what do you do? If your kids are old enough are you battling this too or do you just go along with your kids’ unique attempts at feng shui? Now’s the time to give any suggestions that might be helpful or tell what has or has not worked for you. I could use all the help I can get.

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April said...

I have had similiar ideas to your "Mad Bag" but I can't bring myself to do it when I think of the hours of work my husband has labored to secure clothes and such for them. We keep the wardrobe simple so if we loose to many pairs of pants, shirts etc. we will need to buy this a problem for you? Toys are different but again hard to do when it feels like more of a consequence to your husband then the children. What are your thoughts on this?

Something that has helped is to have a regular routine of clean up before meals. If messes are not picked up completely before lunch they do not eat (this has never happened), before dinner same thing and again before bedtime (we discipline here-there is no meal) It is not an easy thing and my children are still young however, I believe we are making strides.

Thanks for this post, I look forward to the insight from other commenters. And sorry for my "book".

Robin said...

I have a reasonable tolerance for clutter, as long as it isn't actually dirty and doesn't descend into utter chaos, and my 6.5 year old son is reasonably cooperative about cleaning his room when he's reminded that whatever is left out goes up to my room for an indefinite period of time. My problem is a different one though. My 3.5 year old daughter is often the one that makes the mess - not just in her room or the living room, but in his room. He doesn't mind her in there playing with his toys, and I want to foster that sense of sharing and openness, but then I end up doing most of the cleanup because it doesn't seem fair to make him clean a mess he didn't make. I do make my daughter "help", but that generally entails her rediscovering whatever toy/game/something else with 4 billion pieces that it was and wanting to start playing it all over again, which means that I still end up doing the lion's share of the cleanup - preferably when she's not around. The girl has an uncanny way of knowing that the final piece is about to hit the box and comes running to dump everything out again about 3 seconds before it does. There's got to be a marketable skill in there somewhere...

la bellina mammina said...

The Mad Bag sounds like a good idea though I dn't know if I can bring myself to do it.
We have a housekeeper so all the rooms are usually clean, but when it comes to the boys room, I usually tell them that they won't get their dinner, or we won't go out or do certain things that we've planned on doing if they don't tidy up.
That usually works for me.

Izzy said...

Have you been spying on me? This particular issue is becoming...well, an issue around my house. My daughter is almost seven and for a couple years now, we've tried to get her to learn how to pick up after herself, even a little bit. And she will with some nagging but if she's managed to make a big mess she just gets too overwhelmed and cries and gets all worked up because "it's toooo haaaaard!"

So then I have to sit in her room and guide her through the process by breaking it down into little steps, which I really don't like to do because I inevitably get sucked into the process and she inevitablly gets sidetracked and starts playing with stuff etc.

If I ask her to pick up a mess in another part of the house, she just takes it and throws it in her room or shoves everything in some spot not readily visible. I know all her tricks by now.

So I do use a "mad bag" technique where I proclaim I'm on my way to grab a trash bag and sometimes it works the way it should but more often than not, she works herself into tailspin and usually just collapes on her bed in tears.

So I'm at a loss. I have no useful suggestions but if anyone has some for me, please share!

Mary Alice said...

No – I think she has been spying on OUR family. Last night during Sunday Dinner we reintroduced our children to the olde chore chart! Since they are ancient children, 17, 14 and 13 respectively, I had thought they would be able to continue with the chores we have spent a lifetime ingraining in them without being prompted. Ummm, sadly, NO, I was mistaken. If they do not have some visual reminder of what needs to be accomplished on a daily basis, they do not seem to remember to do the item. Apparently at this point in their cognitive development, disorder is not dismaying.

So, consequently we reintroduced the chore chart, complete with areas to check off accomplishment. Instead of collecting gold stars they are collecting the check marks for the privilege of going out on Friday night with friends.

snarflemarfle said...

We're going to have to deal with this. DH and I aren't super neat but we do try to keep things picked up.

Since our son is still young (16 months) we at least have him "help" us pick up before his bath. It at least helps me!

As for the mad bag, sounds similar to what my dad would do...except his was called the trash can. I found my shoes (that I'd left in the living room) several times in the trash and was able to rescue them before it went out to the dumpster!

Tim Appleton (Applehead) said...

What ever you do do NOT clean their rooms for them! My dad cleaned ours when we were growing up (3 boys) and we never had to do it(or much else) for ourselves... hence, Stephanie had the pleasure of retraining me at all sorts of different things our first couple years of marriage. I guess that's what she gets for marrying a younger guy! Teach them responsibility when they are young....there is my overcompensating rant for the day....

Jenn in Holland said...

I grew up with a "Mad Bag" too! We had to buy things back with our "family money" which was earned for getting chores done, being kind, etc.
When I became a mom I tried to instigate the Mad Bag around here too and it worked for awhile but I got called on it one day when my Emma said "you're not really keeping those things forever. You will put them in the garage and then you'll forget and then I will get them back anyway!" And she was right. I wasn't very good at the follow through.
Now that the big kids are older (13 and 11) I have to say I give them a lot of leeway in how they keep their own rooms. As long as the door can shut and I don't have to see it, then we all get along. I can't stand it though, just the knowing what's on the floor gives me the heebies. But I have had to learn to lighten up and give them their own space. Really.
Now, I do insist that MY spaces are kept clutter free, so I do nag about the school bags, shoes, dirty socks, jackets etc. being dumped in the hallway. Or on the stairs. Or in the living room. If it's shared space it must be maintained my way. They can keep their own space in any state of disrepair as it pleases them. But my spots need to be clean. I just function better in clean and clutter free.
Maybe it's time again for the mad bag. I don't know.

Jenny said...

Lots and lots of baskets and boxes. We try to make it fun for her to put everything up. So far it's not working.


M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
My Ice Cream Diary said...

After years of tears and spending entire weekends trying to get the kids to finish cleaning their rooms, I realized that they really had too much stuff. My oldest is very good about keeping her room clean, but my two little boys would take FOREVER. I finally just got rid of, or boxed up thier stuff until they just had enough toys in their room that it wouldn't take more than 5 minutes to clean up. Now they don't mind keeping their room clean because it is manageable for them. I keep toys boxed and put away. When they get tired of the toys they have, we switch for a different box. I've noticed that they play with their toys more, too, because there aren't too many to choose from. This also helps because there isn't much out there for my little 2 year old to mess up after all their hard work.

M said...

We have the "Mad Bag" at our house as well. But its enforced a little differently. I set the timer in my daughter's room and whatever is left at the end of 15 minutes, I consider 'left out for donation.' It works wonders.

Also, one thing I haven't seen mentioned here is positive reinforcement. When my daughter (4 1/2) cleans her room or makes her bed without being asked I fall down on the floor in "surprise." I am just SO HAPPY that I can't contain my enthusiasm. 9 times out of 10 she will clean up her room just to have heaps of praise piled on her and see mommy fall down on the floor.

Modeling also works well if you have young children. When I make my bed and clean up my room I am sure to comment on how much better I feel when my room is tidy. How happy it makes me to spend time in my room when its not messy, etc.

dcrmom said...

My kids are too young for me to have a "system" in place yet, but I'm interested in hearing what everyone else does.

My personal experience is that I had a horribly messy room growing up, and I keep a reasonably clean house. I think that your friend's theory might not be so far from the truth, frankly.

At this point, I do elicit help from my 7-y/o son to clean up his room or the playroom. He does a fairly good job and is usually agreeable when asked.

My 4-y/o dd is allergic to cleanup, and it makes me crazy. I have to break it down in small tasks, and I usually do most of it myself.

I have no problem with toys left out "disappearing" after fair warning, and I might implement this in the future.

chilihead said...

Excellent idea. So far, the kids clean their rooms themselves and they do a fair job. Wild Thing's closet is the biggest problem for us.

I like the idea of the Mad Bag, but I fear I may lose my shoes if I'm not careful. Those things seem to walk all OVER the house.

Summer said...

We tried a toy jail, a big box inthe garage where toys that were left thrown about went. The result: they didn't really care and just found something else to leave laying all over thehouse. *sigh*

Daisy said...

Your "mad bag" makes me sound like wimpy mom. I will add, however, that I have a strict laundry policy. If it needs washing, it better be in the hamper on laundry day. I will not go through the pile of socks on the floor.
I've been impressed by how well La Petite keeps her room at college and at home on breaks. It's definitely a sign of growing up.

Cagey said...

Great ideas! It reminds me of your method of dealing with homework. Being responsible for oneself? What a novel concept! ;-)

I do think that once kids get to a certain age - say tweens or teens, that their room should be to their level of cleanliness (the rest of the house should be to whatever standards YOU hold - not negotiable). My exceptions would be dirty dishes. I will never compromise on that because 1) it's gross and 2) a bug magnet.

Leslie said...

Julia is three and already seems to have a tendency toward order and cleanliness. When I was a child, I did not. I was messy. My room was messy, but it was my room and I could keep it the way I wanted. It was my area and the mess had to stay there. There was trouble if it leaked out. But soon, I started to experience consequences of the mess. I stepped on my records and broke them. I couldn't find the pieces to my games. My friends didn't want to play in it when they came over. Soon, I got it and started to keep my room clean. It was a good lesson I've never forgotten.

Prahagirl said...

This works wonders on college roommates as well :) Although more modified to a "if-your-stuff-is-in-the-community-areas-it-gets-relocated-to-your-bed-mold-and-all" type of rule. :)

It worked really great!

Melissa R. Garrett said...

YES! I have a "Mad Bag" of sorts, too. Whenever my kids see me traipsing through the house with a box of any shape and size, they get really nervous. REALLY nervous.

We are having a garage sale this weekend while the kids are away with their grandparents.


Marie N. said...

I have used this idea with some success too. Clothes are cleaned up almost all the time. Shoes, less often. I got a sly smile at the thought of tossing them in the snow.

Still, one child tends to be a pack rat, so sometimes we need to go through her room and decide together whether she is getting too old for some of her keepsakes.

Amy said...

Dang, your mom was HARD CORE! Throwing your stuff on the lawn, that is unbelievable!

My mom had to always keep her things tidy and hated it so when we were growing up, she let us do whatever we wanted in our room. There were moldy plates and cups and trash everywhere. We ruined everything and she had a hard time with it, but it was our own stuff and she let us do that in our own room.

I am not at the stage where I have thought about it yet, but you have my wheels turning. I like the bag idea and think that is definitley something we could try....Or I could just start chucking crap in the snow (hee, hee)

An Ordinary Mom said...

The Mad Bag, another brilliant idea from Scribbit. So far my daughter loves to have things clean and even my two year son will help pick things up. However, I am definitely keeping this idea in mind.

mcewen said...

Bribery and corruption wins out here - they're still little though.
They have a schedule board with rocket shapes Velcrod in place for each daily job [chore]. Until each rocket 'lands' indicating completion then no playing or any other preferred activity is available.
Cleaning is a long way away for us, but we do attempt 'spill clean up.'

Amy W said...

I have actually used the "mad bag" with my oldest, who is almost 4. It really does get her cleaning up.

What I really need to start doing is include it in our nightly bedtime routine. Since my kids are younger and thrive on routines, I should really be taking advantage of this.

Morning Glory said...

When our girls were little, we had what we called "The Saturday Box". Anything that was not put away or taken to their room when they went to bed got put in the Saturday Box and kept until Saturday. At that point they received it back and had to put it away. Sometimes that would be their favorite book, toy, jacket, lunchbox, whatever. Sometimes they lost it on Monday and had to wait the whole week. It actually was a pretty effective tool for them as children.

Cleaning their rooms was expected, but they didn't have to be perfect. Just beds made and good walking space with clothes put away. I felt they did learn about cleanliness even though they didn't practice unclutteriness all the time. teenagers, I gave up the fight and simply closed their bedroom doors. They were both instructed in the same way and one daughter was tidy, one was not. The untidy one is still untidy in her own home. But there's love, laughter and a lot of fun in her home.

Sorry that got so long.

Alexandra said...

We always had a very clean house, and it definitely rubbed off on me. I was accustomed to having things very clean, so I carried on the same way when I left home.

We lived overseas and had maids...I learned to clean by watching the maids. There is an art to it...speed cleaning, getting it done efficiently.

Jen said...

We call the mad bag the "Silent Butler." The Silent Butler comes around to clean from time to time, and the toys disappear, usually to be donated. That's for stuff outside the bedroom. A is responsible for keeping his room clean (J is still too young). If A is unable or unwilling to keep his room clean and tidy, then I'm more than happy to do it for him and I charge $1/hour, minimum one hour. He gets no warning as to when I will clean his room; if he's lucky, I might mention his room is looking a bit unkempt. It's still a work in progress; we have sooo many issues with A to work on that bedroom cleanliness is somewhere below "please for the love of God get dressed 'cause otherwise you're going to school naked so help me." ; )

G's Cottage said...

Wow, where would I start? Am I "cleanie" to use Sandra Felton's term? At heart I feel better in order than chaos but I don't see like "cleanies". Knowing this about 20 years earlier would have been a tremendous boost to my self worth. But that's life. I don't see because I grew up in such unbelievable domestic chaos that I developed a knack for tuning out and remembering to only bring a couple of generous, tight-lipped friends around the house.

So while all of us have struggled together to stay on top of the daily clutter, we wash and paint walls, we wash rugs every year (at least) because we like bare feet, we flip mattresses every month and so forth.

Like many other commenters we were more "rigid" in the younger training years and looser when the room was more their domain. Although seasonally all rooms got a mom cleaning to get stuff like pet hair out of the carpet margins, and reset the standards, etc.

We also figured out that too much stuff on the floor was a sign of too much stuff when we noticed that stuff on the floor had been moved out of the way to get to the desired toy/object. We also did not like toy chests for two reasons: they hold too much stuff and nothing can be found without pulling everything out.

We used to have "mad 15s". These were for emergencies when we couldn't bear to go to bed with the family room inundated. Generally it became a crazy race and when the bell went off everyone would be laughing on the floor. But it looked like civilization returned, at least.

Another tradition we developed was each fall to have a toy reduction. As they grew some toys were no longer appropriate, birthdays had brought new ones and Christmas would be bringing more with our extended families. So everybody went through and decided whether something was special to box and keep, pass down, toss if broken, or give away. Sometimes it was hard but usually they were relieved because on their shelves were the things that were meaningful, useful and findable.

As for laundry, I remained in charge but they each had a color-matching hamper and basket. Their clean laundry was sorted unfolded into their basket on the laundry table. It was their job to get it back to the room and into the drawers. Eventually, they were expected to keep laundry moving through the cycle and sort at the end. So they were familiar with the different steps but laundry was still common. Upon graduating from high school the graduate was responsible for doing his/her own laundry but could request a singular item join one of my like loads (if only used one dress shirt a week s/he could add it to our permapress load to save water). It was worth the little bit of water and electricity to not hear "but my favorite _____ isn't clean for tonight."

Over the years our goals and methods evolved as we got more experienced, but we never denied a child food as a consequence of cleanliness or neatness because we believe it sends the wrong message. Hungry children feel deprived and unloved not regretful of their actions; and they can develop lack of trust that the adults in their lives will provide for their needs. (However, willful unpleasantness at the table got them removed but in those very few cases the correlation between what they did and the consequences were more direct.)

And at the moment it looks like we're going backwards but we downsized, and people have been coming and going, and we got bunches of stuff from the grandparents that takes time to sort (and actually pitch). So don't show up unannounced for a while. And ditto on "forgive my book".

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Mary Alice: Apparently at this point in their cognitive development, disorder is not dismaying.

Jenn in Holland: As long as the door can shut and I don't have to see it, then we all get along.

M: When my daughter (4 1/2) cleans her room or makes her bed without being asked I fall down on the floor in "surprise." I am just SO HAPPY that I can't contain my enthusiasm. 9 times out of 10 she will clean up her room just to have heaps of praise piled on her and see mommy fall down on the floor.

Cagey: I do think that once kids get to a certain age - say tweens or teens, that their room should be to their level of cleanliness (the rest of the house should be to whatever standards YOU hold - not negotiable).

Amy: My mom had to always keep her things tidy and hated it so when we were growing up, she let us do whatever we wanted in our room. There were moldy plates and cups and trash everywhere.

Morning Glory: "The Saturday Box" ... Anything that was not put away or taken to their room when they went to bed got put in the Saturday Box and kept until Saturday. ... Now as teenagers, I gave up the fight and simply closed their bedroom doors.

I think these are some of the best ideas in the bunch, and others of you said about the same thing. Mary Alice, I love your way of saying it, that kids go through a stage when "disorder is not dismaying." That's great!

Now the good news -- during their teen years, one daughter was the "good girl" who did whatever she needed to do, the other daughter rebelled against everything asked of her, and my son's favorite way of cleaning was to shove it all into his closet. I learned to keep the door closed to the room of the rebel, whose floor was covered with clothes with (sometimes) dried pizza pieces or unfinished Colas under the layer of clothes. Nobody ever said raising teens was easy.

The rebel is now in her late 40's, married, with three children. All of her adult life, she has kept a beautiful house! She grew up. Granted, it doesn't always work out, but there is hope and I offer it to all of you.

Oh, for the record, my other two turned out to be neat adults, as well.

sara - The Estrogen Files said...

YES YES YES!! A woman after my OWN heart. I do the throw it outside thing and the kids hate it. Mostly it's backpacks that get out there, but it drives them crazy.

As to the taking things away, I do this with laundry that is clean but mysteriously in the dirty bag. It's MINE. I've got to come up with some good ideas for the cluttery toys, too. I'll be looking forward to reading some conclusions from your end.

chelle said...

Adding this one to my list of future parent survival tips!

:: Suzanne :: said...

When I discover disorder in their bedrooms all activity stops until order is regained. Late for a meal? too bad. Late for school? too bad. Late for bedtime story-time? too bad. They only have beds and clothes in their rooms (no toys), so it doesn't take long to tidy them up.

Toys are all in the playroom. I've posted about this at Toy Jail. When we discover we are often sending toys to jail, it is obviously time to thin the herd. Each kid gets a paper grocery bag and instructions to fill it with things to be given away.

Natalie C. said...

What would you do about a husband who is worse than the kids???????? If I took every piece of clothing my husband didn't throw in the hamper, every book & paper he left out, he would still never change. If anyone has coping strategies on that, I'd take them. But at least if you succeed with your sons, you know you are doing your daughter-in-law some major favors!

This is my first visit to your blog. It's great! I will probably stop by again.

Lill said...

I live with 3 people who have ADHD bigtime. We have a laundry basket in each common room and that's where their stuff goes when it gets in the way of cleaning or relaxing. When it gets full, I let them know and they either empty it or I do - on their bed or in my dh's case, on his side of the our bed. It's not meanness on my part. I do it because they've told me that they want me to do it so that they'll notice it and put it away. And they do, or they don't have room to sleep. The kids' rooms are pretty messy, but they use several laundry baskets to contain stuff and put them in the closet when they have guests over. Sometimes, we'll all decide that there's just too much STUFF in their rooms, hoe it out, give some of it away and put some of it in the garage for later. I wash the clothes, dry them, fold them and put them on the folding table. They either find them there and wear them or put them away. I don't care which they do as long as they wear clean clothes. My son (17) does his own laundry, but I often throw some of his in with ours, because he'd do the same for me. I try to remind myself that our relationship is more important and will last longer than stuff does. That's all that clutter is: someone else's clutter where I don't want it. My stuff, as George Carlin would say, is MY STUFF. Their stuff is - well, listen to the cd. I found you via the COFL.
Shine On,

Husbandhood said...

I've tried this in the past and it worked quite well. My son didnt want to put away all his hot wheels cars so I said to him that whatever doesnt get put away gets taken away. He put everything away.

I like the bag idea. I think we would use a rubbermaid tub.

Bernardita Infante said...

Great article! i really like this article because it gives us more knowledge of being cleanliness. This is also the best thing that we should teach our children a responsibility, to clean there own room. and i also believe in that saying cleanliness is next to godliness. and aside from that we are not easly get diseases. If we always clean.:) keep up the good work. thanks for a such wonderful information:)