Tidy Up Your Room: A No Fuss Method that Works

“I don’t want to!” “It’s not fair!” “My friends don’t do it that way.” “Why should I?” “No-one else has to!” “That’s not what I want.” “What about me?” Brat comments often come out of children when it’s time to tidy their rooms.

Even before I wrote my post for worldmomsblog (World Moms Blog – Post Two ) and was pointed in the direction of the flylady (link  here ) by Meg at writewizard, we used a great strategy for getting the kids to tidy-up big messes in their rooms. (OK, so we just didn’t use it often enough! LOL) Here’s my first challenging thought for the day: when it comes to kids tidying their room, the problem might not be what we think it is.

If we are the kind of person who values independence, and know that our success has come from hardwork and self-discipline, we tend to think that these are the prime keys to success for our children too. Often, but not always, we will be the kind of person who does anything to help our kids become independent, right from the word go – we’ll never have our kids in our rooms, let alone our beds, and we’ll use strategies like cry-it-out to teach them to settle themselves. Naturally, we’re also the people who want our children to be able to tidy their rooms – alone.

The bad news is, big messes are highly unlikely to be tidied up by the child alone, without fuss. Often it takes parents resorting to rewards or punishment for even the smallest amount of action. At the end of the day (yes, it does take that long for some kids), we might have a tidy room, but we also have stressed-out, fed-up, disconnected families.

So, first let’s address the issue behind the mess: people who are untidy tend to be overwhelmed by their lives. It doesn’t matter if we can’t see why or how. It could be they are too busy – they’re not getting enough down time. It could mean they are feeling emotionally disconnected from their important people. It could be that too much is expected of them – for children, this means developmentally we are asking too much for them at the age they are at. It could mean that they have scattered thought processes and their brains are constantly buzzing. It could also mean that they have never been taught (in an age appropriate and manageable way) how to be tidy. Tackling these may be the key for preventing a giant mess in the future.

Messiness is a key sign that things might not be great for our kids. (They might be perfectly fine, OK or good, but not great. For other signs of great parenting: Signs of Great Parenting: Pre-School to Age Six   and Signs of Great Parenting: Babies and Toddlers )

So, here’s an idea: remove the main focus from ‘teaching’ independence. People who are really, truly, deeply independent – aren’t that happy or sure of themselves – even if their social-shell portrays something different. (Breathing In and Out: One Idea for Avoiding Burn Out and  Can Your Kids Accept Help? Can You?)

The actual idea for tidying – and please only use it with children aged four or older: your child sits in the room with you, they may not read, play or do anything else to entertain themselves. You start tidying-up – talk them through what you are doing, all the dirty clothes in the wash, all the board-games and cards here, all the lego (etc) in separate piles. Then spend the time separating out things into their proper places, throw out junk. Take a break when you’ve had enough – model how to stop and have a rest. [If they’re moaning] don’t make eye-contact, negotiate with them or engage in any way except explaining what you are doing. [If they’re quite happy to sit there, just chat as you would normally.]When take this approach at our house, it only takes ten minutes or less of whinging time for the nine-year-old Hare to say, “Do you want a hand?” At that point, I give him a specific job to do, for example, “Sort the lego, meccano and K’nex into separate boxes.” He can stop to watch me work again, but it’s so not interesting that he’s soon in action once more. The better emotionally attached Owl gets stuck right in beside me and is unlikely to stop at all! As long as they can’t entertain themselves can’t leave the room – they will (eventually) help out. The more often you use this strategy, the faster their co-operation.

Now we use the flylady’s strategies for keeping on top of the mess. They are smaller goals and more specific than what we’ve used in the past and they’re working – partly because I’m almost out of the baby-coma and can keep things on track (I’m not so overwhelmed by *my* life).

Our kids’ first goal: clear floor and bed before going to school and before bedtime. (As Steven Covey points out in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – kids might not *know* what tidy means, as logical as it seems to us.) Their second: clothes and shoes out ready for the next morning.

What this strategy really teaches children: I am there for you when you have a big job to tackle; I will help you develop strategies to manage big problems in your life; by working together we can get things done fast; and interdependence is a healthier approach than dependence (Mum does it all when the kids are at school) or independence (thou shalt do everything alone).

So, here’s what some of you are thinking:

1. Interesting idea, must give that a go.

2. Oh, good I have permission to help my kid out. And I must check out the flylady, too.

3. That’s too dogmatic and controlling, why would you make your kid sit through all that.

4. “I don’t want to!” “It’s not fair!” “My friends don’t do it that way.” “Why should I?” “No-one else has to!” “That’s not what I want.” “What about me?”

Looking forward to your feedback on this one!

[These bits I have added for clarification, after a great comment from  MamaWerewolf. ]

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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31 Responses to Tidy Up Your Room: A No Fuss Method that Works

  1. hakea says:

    I have three boys in the one room. It gets very messy! The youngest one can up-end a room in five minutes flat.

    It’s their mess, they have to live with it, and they rearrange it almost every day. The only thing we insist on is that there is a clear path from the beds to the door (for safety) and the shoes are somewhere near the shoe rack (preferably on it) as we can’t stand looking for shoes in the morning rush hour.

    I’ll tidy it up when I can’t stand it anymore. I do the same thing – the boys have to be in the room, and they almost always help out after they’ve finished grumbling.

    Are they going to turn into psychopaths or criminals because they have a messy room? No. Are they learning bad habits? No. We ask them to help with chores around the house as part of being a member of the family (ie, no pocket money).

    • It does intrigue me that so many parents become obsessed with their children cleaning up their rooms. I agree, they’re not going to turn into psychopaths or criminals if they’re messy – my own Mum eventually learned to close the door and walk away, I did the same (aside from big tidy-ups) until a week or so ago. What I’m finding interesting is how much the boys appreciate being tidy – the Hare (yes, him!) asked me to remind him to clear the floor each night. Tidiness (non-obsessive) is meant to be calming…I shall watch them with interest…

    • Makes perfect sense to me Hakea!

  2. Elena says:

    I tend not to put too much value on a tidy room, but on the rare occasions that I go in and deep clean, they tend to play much longer in there than usual. I think having the clean spaces is conducive to play, in the same way that I have a much better time cooking when I’ve taken the time to have clear surfaces to work on.

    My almost-4 year old has lately been cleaning up the toys in the living room. He will do it voluntarily, spontaneously, and completely. Right now our house is so small that the toys actually live in the living room (because the two littlest ones live in Mama and Daddy’s room!) so I am curious to see if he does the same thing when the toys live in the playroom/his room shared with his baby sister when we are in our new house.

    • That’s great about your almost four-year-old, our kids have had times of being very tidy too, so I will be interested to see if they can sustain it this time. We tried having a play-room, but the kids kept wanting to be near me and their toys came with them! It’s only since the older two have wanted to do things that the Butterfly was intent on destroying that they’ve played in their rooms for any decent amount of time.

  3. Jane says:

    When my kids would make their rooms look especially nice, I’d cut them some flowers to put in their rooms–or even splurge, in winter and get some from the store. Now in their twenties, they do that for themselves! I do it myself– I think it makes cleaning, a job I don’t like, more rewarding–

    • That is a lovely idea, Jane. The boys thought it was great too, when I mentioned it to them. I love having fresh flowers in the house as well – it does add a special something.

  4. Your reference to independence was interesting. Made me think. We co-sleep (he is growing out of that on his own now), our son always wants to “help”, and he has never been much into playing on his own (he likes companionship), so far he generally picks up well as he thinks he is “helping” which is nice. Not that I assume this will last 🙂 So, in retrospect we haven’t pushed the independence “concept” too much. Then again, why should we as parents be doing that so young in their lives? What do you think? I could never do the “cry-it-out” thing…. seemed horrible, unnatural, and inhumane. His teacher recently noted that he liked to play with others, which was a little different for most 2 year olds…..I’m no expert, but he never did go through the “independent” play stage. Hmmmm. Anyway, great post, and I will keep strategy in mind for when he no longer WANTS to clean his room…..but then again, I like the close the door idea! Thanks for your wonderful writing!

    • I think pushing independence is one of the key reasons many kids/teens/adults are in a mess. We don’t prevent our kids from doing things, but we don’t push either. We tried cry-it-out and controlled crying for a year or so, but it was revolting and we have paid the price with having an anxious/angry boy for a few years while we re-parented him (mostly good now). Our kids are now ALL in bed with us (two queen sized beds to manage) and the older two are kind of making moves into their own beds and rooms, but being aware of their need to feel completely secure *first* has made us unperturbed about the whole thing. People think their kids become ‘independent’ not realising they actually move from one group (the family) to another (their peers). The more their dependency needs have been met, the more likely the group they *chose* to hang out with is one with a healthy sense of interdependence. The kids who naturally move into a hyper independent group…well, I think I need to write a whole post about that soon! Mathais helping could well continue: through keeping it normal to help (by not praising, but thanking); keeping the tasks small; and by teaching him what tidy looks like – for our kids it’s tidy bed and floor.

  5. janektcs says:

    When my daughter got her own apartment, she said, “I never thought I’d say this, mom, but I’m really glad you taught me how to clean the house!”
    I never thought she’d say it either! I was teaching full time and writing my first book when I taught the kids to help me clean– out of desperation, mostly–I couldn’t do it all myself and my husband was working more than full time, too. I think that giving kids jobs that really help us (in the long run,even though it takes time to teach them at first) becomes much more valuable to them because they see that they are important contributors to the family.

    • I agree, Jane – I don’t think I was actually taught the nitty-gritty of small daily routines (though my Mum might disagree). I am also an all or nothing person, so go heavily into the baby-coma when I’m pregnant and during the first two years – nothing but survival tasks happen for that time. Now that I am coming out of that state for the last time, I am really enjoying reclaiming our house. I have always considered our boys to be more happy and helpful than the average kids, but am astounded at how well/easily/happily they have taken to the small routines of tidying and cleaning I have set up. I look forward to sending three truly sensitive new-age men out into the world one day! 🙂

  6. MamaWerewolf says:

    As both a preschool teacher and the mother of a Kindergartener (in a Steiner school, too!) I spend a good portion of my day thinking about a) supporting autonomy and b) keeping the environment inviting and accessible. I completely agree that getting in and doing the majority of the work yourself is necessary (the first few years, anyway)- with your child in the room. What you are doing is modeling both how to clean and that cleaning does not have to be a miserable activity.

    You can have a little more fun with it though! If I were sitting in a room avoiding eye contact and meaningful conversation with someone (especially someone I like so much as my child) I’d go crazy! Chat with your children as you clean – just be sure to hand them things to put away – or point out specific things for them to pick (“You put that pile of books on the bookshelf while I put the clothes in the laundry basket”).


    • You’re right, of course. I was thinking more of a strategy to avoid conflict if they’re sitting there moaning! I prefer our children to come to wanting to clean for themselves (which they do naturally during those toddler years), rather than directing, at least in the beginning. Now the older boys have realised that them helping out makes things go much quicker they don’t take too long to offer to help. Thanks for your input, great to have a different angle on things like this. 🙂

      • I’ve added a bit to the post, for clarification on this point. Cheers, again. 🙂

        • MamaWerewolf says:

          absolutely! that initial jumpstart is tough! it’s also different with a girl who temperament is to be a people pleaser (she’s a bit sanguine and a bit melancholic). we have reached the point where cleaning various parts of the house is a pleasant social activity together… not quite there in the classroom yet… 😉

          thanks for your thoughts! I’ve been enjoying your blog!

          • I’m pleased you’re enjoying the blog. Thanks for contributing, it makes my day more interesting when people do. 😉
            Melancholic kids *do* tend to be people pleasers, it’s that extra sensitivity they have – they just seem to be more aware of where other people are at emotionally at any given time. And they are such sweet children (except when stubborn!). Great to “meet” you. I really enjoyed your post about your daughter’s *interest* in werewolves. 🙂

  7. There’s definitely strong inner conflict in me about independence. I seem to need a lot of personal time and space, and my little one’s independences allow a bit of that.

    I have to fight with myself to allow more interdependence, especially if / when it’s really about connection and security, and not just laziness. I am both surprised and not surprised when I get so irritated at how easily upset she is by things that happen alllllllll the time. I was parented by one who got thus irritated when I got thus easily upset. So I have both perspectives now and it is sometimes a fight to choose the child’s perspective.

    If I didn’t know how beautifully and easily and smoothly she puts away her works at (Montessori) school, perhaps I would be less irritated at her apparent inability or unwillingness to do the same at home — at school she must put one thing away before getting out the next thing, and so she doesn’t get overwhelmed like at home when she gets out a zillion things and then has to face them all at clean-up time. We supposedly have the same rule at home, but enforcing it is challenging — especially when I think it’s perfectly fine to combine different things in one play.

    Perhaps this is one of those areas where I need to accept that she is not going to cheerfully clean up everything herself and do it the “right way.” And if having things in their right place is important to me, than I’m the one that needs to get them there.

    • Hi Marcy,
      It’s great that you can see patterns from your own childhood being relived by your daughter – that’s an important first step to take with all of this. I too, think it’s perfectly OK for kids to combine toys. Now that the boys’ rooms are tidy (using the approach I mentioned here) we do something I’ve adapted from flylady.net called a two minute room rescue. If they have left one toy in a mess and are on a break from their current activity, they have two minutes to have a quick tidy-up. It usually takes less than that for them to do what needs to be done to get to a stage of ‘clear floor and clear bed.’ It might be useful to check out the posts on my…if you read nothing else, read these…page. All the very best, and thanks for commenting. 🙂

  8. Just wanting to add that a current challenging behavior is instant anger, showing in tone of voice and banging things — what she’s playing with, her bare hand on the wall, door, table, or floor — and sometimes hitting us.

    She does well in some respects — she is very articulate about it. “I’m NOT happy about this AT ALL!” or “This will NEVER work” is better than “I HATE you” or the like.

    But we’re tired of having this response so often to such ordinary things, like clean-up time, or when she wants to do something we don’t want to do, or has to wait, etc.

    Sometimes showing sympathy and respect for her desires and frustration helps, but many times it doesn’t. We’ve also talked many times about alternatives — banging her blanket on the floor, punching her pillow, taking a break, deep breaths, counting to ten — but these alternatives are rarely accessible to her in the moment.

    My guess is she’s like me and it’s less about skills and having access to skills, and more about willfulness and having a hard time accepting unpleasant realities.

    • I think with this one, Marcy, you might need to look at another approach. If I could, I suggest you check out my post on Attention Seeking. I think the trick I have outlined there, with regards to eye-contact will help. (As a starting point anyway.) All the best, and let me know how it works out. 🙂

  9. janektcs says:

    My twenty-three year-old, the one who is now glad I insisted she learn how to clean, was the biggest complainer when she was 8! She had every reason you’ve all mentioned here to explain why she shouldn’t have to do it and she was stubborn, too! So take heart! I think sometimes, within reason of course, it’s okay that they don’t agree with us about what’s important!

  10. adhdwith3 says:

    My youngest one is so messy. You are right though. If I want the room clean, I have to get right in there with him.

    “Let’s pick up all the socks. OK good, done with the socks, now let’s do books . . . ” It’s time consuming, but it’s not just a room I’m cleaning–I’m teaching a boy.

  11. faemom says:

    I’m totally giving this a try. I have to remember to get them to tidy up. Sometimes I forget until it’s bedtime, and then it’s too late. Ugh.

    • I often let our kids play until it’s too late to tidy up – the yard is still a mess! (More space= more room for *projects*) I use this strategy when I have to do a really BIG tidy up, otherwise we’ve adapted the flylady’s idea of a room rescue and get them to do a quick two minute pick-up at random moments throughout the day. I didn’t even try to get on top of their mess until my brain cells started to return, once the Butterfly got to 18 months. I seem to be an all or nothing person, and with a baby I have no brain left for tidying!

      • faemom says:

        With a baby, who has any room left any their brain for anything? My worry is if I don’t establish good habits now, they will never be established.

        • I’ve kept pretty minimal house habits and routines up until now (myself and the kids), and the Hare (9) and the Owl (nearly 6) have been very messy children. In the last two weeks or so, since I started flylady, we’ve put a few really strong routines in and they’ve taken to them like ducks to water. To the point that the Hare got up, made his bed and got dressed this morning without being asked, the Owl put his pjs away and got dressed without being asked, and they were ready 20 minutes earlier than usual. With very little bother. Plus both of their rooms, with a bit of guidance from me, have remained tidy for two weeks! My message: give yourself a break for the next 10 months or so, get that gorgeous baby of yours into toddlerhood and *then* worry about it.

  12. megamulliny says:

    “It could mean that they have scattered thought processes and their brains are constantly buzzing”

    This is definitely my problem and I want to learn how to keep a tidy house before my son is old enough to notice! Thanks for the great advice 🙂

  13. Rebecca Huff says:

    I have a hard time going in everytime my daughte rmakes a messof her room, and cleaning it for her. It was her who made the mess, so she should be the one to clean it, not me. Let me tell you , my children do NOT have toys in their rooms. She only has bed and clothes, and any junk she brings into the room. Play room is downstairs. I have seriously considered just letting her live in her slovenness. Right now, I tell her a quarter for every time the 20 min timer goes off. next it will be something else. I give “tickets” to instant good behavior, and reward with toys that htey turn their tickets in for. But my daughter, I cannot find the motivation for her. NOTHING motivates her consistently, it’s awful that way. She simply does not respect authority, nor is she going to do what she does not like to do…. and this carries over into school too….UGH! if ONLY I could change her pattern of behaviors!!! listening to these stories, it’s like hearing my own child!! but none of these things work for my daughter. “Deep cleaning”, and she doens’t miss what she lost, and a week later, her room looks the same…..

    • It was sad for me to read that you are having such a difficult time connecting with your daughter. Thankyou for reading this post and sharing your story, I hope you manage to find some resolution soon.

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