Clean Rooms – Guaranteed!

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D,

Every parent I have ever met has struggled with teaching and trying to get their child to pick up their rooms. Many parents end up nagging, frustrated, disappointed and down right angry. Then the kid feels bad. And then the kid picks up their mess because of how their parents feel and how it makes them feel. Then the kid tries to forget the whole thing and go about being a happy kid again.

There is of course another problem. The whole messy room scenario becomes a cycle. Eventually the room is a mess again, the parents get angry, the kid picks it up and then the kid forgets again. Parents get frustrated because their kids are not consistent. It has happened to me.

What most parents don’t realize is that teaching kids is not about reminding, telling kids what to do, or even telling kids over and over. Only a very few kids will learn if you just tell them. Teaching involves practice, supervision, monitoring and a structure that teaches self-disciple. Instead of teaching, some parents decide to get tough. The punishment they dish out can be severe. I can honestly tell you that a little punishment is not all bad. But threats and punishment doesn’t work well with a lot of kids. In fact it makes things worse and creates power struggles, resentment and vindictive behavior.

The "Messy Room" Solution

There is a solution to the messy room problem. It is simple and there is a lot of behavioral science to back this. I developed this approach over 3 months ago and it works for a lot of parents.

If your child’s room is a disaster, buy a 50 gallon plastic storage tub and a 25 gallon clear storage tub. It is important that your child be able to see through the smaller tub. Take the lid off the 25 gallon tub and put the lid away. After your child goes to school, pick up everything in your child’s room that is out of place, on the floor or scattered around the room. Fill the 50 gallon tub with all that stuff and take the big tub out of the room.

If you can, be waiting when your child comes home. Brace yourself and remind yourself to stay calm. Tell them that you have a new idea on how to help them keep the room clean. Be positive and excited. Show some confidence in your idea. Take them to their room and show them how good it looks. Your child may get upset and wonder where their stuff went. Show them where you put all their stuff. The spare room or the garage is a good place to put it.

After your child has calmed down, tell your child that you will help them put everything away in a day or so. After a day or so help your child put everything away. They will probably appreciate the help. Make sure they know where things go. Try to have fun if you can. Get rid of things they don’t need or use.

Go into your child’s room after they have gone to school the next day. Pick up everything that is not put away or picked up. Hopefully it will be just a few things. Put all of it in the 25 gallon clear plastic tub and leave it in their room. Plan on and make time to talk to your child when your child gets home that day. As soon as possible tell your child that you have a great way to help them keep their room clean. Tell them that everything in the 25 gallon tub must be put away before they go to school on the next school day. Tell them you will help them remember where it all goes if they need help. Older kids won’t want help but younger one probably will.

Here is the hard part. You need to tell your child that you will put their belongings in storage for a month, or give their stuff away or sell it if they don’t put it away. Now don’t panic. You don’t have to get rid of everything. You can keep the really valuable things for when they get older or they eventually need it. You can also save anything that is important. In some cases you should let your child earn their belongings back or you can let them buy it back. But whatever you do, tell them that they are basically giving it to you if they leave anything in the tub by the next day. Tell your child that anything that is in the tub and not put away means "I don’t want it."

What happens if they put things away in the wrong place? Anything that is shoved or stuffed under beds, or in closets where it doesn’t belong, is put back in the tub. If that starts to happen, tell you child that anything that ends up in the tub three times in one week is now yours to do whatever you want with it. Be sure to remind them when it is the second time in a row and tell them that three times means that it is yours.

Now will this exact approach work with every child? Maybe not, but the concept will work with nearly every child. You may need to decide on your own consequences. You can give things away, put them away, sell them, let you child earn them back or maybe they can buy them back from Good Will.

The tub is a great teaching tool…especially with children six to 12 years old. The key to making this work is consistency. If you are consistent, and start young enough, you may be surprised. Your child will end up appreciating you for helping them to feel successful. In time you may find there is nothing to put in the tub. One final suggestion, it may help if you start giving your child an allowance for chores and give them a bonus for each day there is nothing to put in the tub.

copyright 2003 to 2008, Michael G. Conner