Helping Our Kids Get (a little) More Organized

Tips for teaching children to keep their rooms tidy — or at least less messy

“My kid can’t keep their room clean for five minutes!”

I’ve read comments like these online and have heard them directly from parents so many times. Exasperated, they ask me, “why can’t they just clean their room when I ask them?!”

I’ll provide some strategies to help make this easier for everyone, but first, I want to clarify a few things.

Kids do not share our priorities

Nor are they supposed to. Children do not have to care about the same things we do. They’re kids and we’re adults. Our brains and our lives are very different.

It’s developmentally appropriate for children to care more about playing outside with their friends or playing video games than about cleaning their room.

While we need to help our children learn to take responsibility (at an age-appropriate level), the real job of childhood is to play and have fun.

Let’s remember that because we all forget sometimes (myself included!) when we’re staring at the disaster that is our child’s room, not 24 hours after we did a major clean-up for them because we couldn’t stand looking at the mess anymore!

The Simpsons created by Matt Groening — (image created by author)

If we’re overwhelmed, they’re even more so

We may lose patience because we’ve asked our kids eleventy-billion times to stop throwing their coat on the floor — that’s what the coat hooks are for! We may feel overwhelmed when we look at their bedrooms and play areas and see an unremitting sea of stuff. The mess has been building up and now we don’t even know where to start.

That’s exactly how our kids feel — but with immature neurodevelopment, because they’re kids. When we see a pile of dishes and groan, feeling like it’s going to take forever to wash them, we know this isn’t true. It may feel like a slog, but it will eventually be done, and we’ll appreciate having a cleaner kitchen at the end of it.

These mental processes require a level of forethought and cognitive maturity our children may not yet possess.

If we look at a pile of laundry and say fuck it because there’s just too much, we can’t be bothered, and we don’t even know where to start — well, that’s sort of what our kids are thinking too — (their thoughts may or may not include the f-word, depending on the child).

“I don’t know how!”

Sometimes we ask our kids to please clean up the mess they left from their latest project and they tell us “I can’t, it’s too much!” or “I don’t know how!” It’s tempting to respond with something along the lines of, “you knew well enough to make the mess, you can figure out how to clean it.”

The truth is, they may really not know how. Kids, especially kids with ADHD or other neurodevelopmental differences, have a really hard time with knowing how to get started. When a task feels overwhelming, they probably do need some help, or at least some guidance.

There are a few ways we can approach this:

  • Help them, at least in the beginning, until they feel more confident they can do it on their own. Sometimes they really do need the help, and sometimes they just like having company while doing an unpleasant chore.
  • Make it fun, play some upbeat music, or make a game of it.
  • Designate specific places for their belongings. As the saying goes, “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” It makes it a lot easier for children to clean up when they know exactly where each thing goes.
  • Out of sight, out of mind. It’s easy to forget about something if it doesn’t enter our field of vision, especially for those of us with working memory issues. Using open shelves and clear organizers or drawers helps everyone remember where things are — and where they go when we’re done with them.
  • Break tasks down into concrete, manageable parts. Instead of a general “go clean your room!”, a lot of kids need more specific information as to exactly how you want them to do this.
  • Provide checklists, or visual guides to show children what each step looks like. You can add a picture of the finished product, so they see what they are working toward, and what a “clean” room looks like.
Created by author

Pick your battles

I don’t like cleaning up after my son because I don’t want him to grow up thinking there’s a magical cleaning fairy who follows him around and makes messes disappear (that would be nice, however).

I want him to develop life skills so that he has the ability to do these things for himself when he’s older.

Have you ever met adults whose parents, for whatever reason, did everything for them when they were kids?

Many grow up to expect their partners, roommates — anyone but them — to fill in the role of doting parent because they were taught to expect this, and because they weren’t taught the skills needed to do these things independently.

That said, not one person is fully and completely independent in life. We all need and receive help sometimes, even things we are capable of doing for ourselves. Sometimes my husband is too tired to cook dinner, so I do it. I hate grocery shopping, so my husband usually does that for our family.

If my son was up late for basketball practice, I don’t mind giving him a little extra support getting ready for school in the morning because I know he’s tired. It’s important to be fair and understanding, and to pick our battles.

If he’s laying on the couch reading a book while I’m working, and he asks me to stop what I’m doing to get something for him, the answer is probably going to be something like, “I’m not available to help right now”.

The key is striking a balance between doing kind things for one another, helping each other, while also instilling a sense of responsibility in our children.

The balance will be different for each family. There is no right or wrong, just the approach that works best for your family’s needs, wants, and goals.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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