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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Messy teen rooms


I did it again last night. I went into my college son's empty room to sit on his bed and soak up his absent presence. I find it soothing. My husband stops in the room, too, but for a totally different reason. He likes being able to see the floor. He likes not having to stumble over piles of clothing and squash rackets. Neat and clean is good for his blood pressure.

I'm not gonna say that I miss my teenage son's messy room, but it never did bother me as much as it did my husband. I was reminded of all that last night, so for those of you in the midst of the struggle, here's a column I wrote when we were.

Child Caring
By Barbara F. Meltz


Introduce two parents of teenagers to each other, utter the words
``messy room,'' and watch the rolling of the eyes, the knowing nod, the
instant simpatico. Are there any parents in America who make it through
their child's adolescence without a struggle over the messy room?

That such a mundane issue can cause so much intensity surprises some
parents, especially if the problem starts at age 8 or 9. No doubt about
it, this is a loaded issue. But even though this rite of passage
probably can't be avoided altogether, it doesn't have to be a daily or
even weekly battle.

``The messy room is the drip, drip, drip of daily life, the lightning
rod for more crucial issues,'' says psychologist Laura Englander.

She says that for the parent, it raises questions of authority and
effectiveness: How good a parent am I if I can't teach my child to take
responsibility for his own room? For the child, it's about autonomy and
privacy: This is my room.

What complicates this even more for parents is that there's no right
or wrong. ``This isn't cheating or stealing,'' says Englander. ``It's
cleanliness and pride, personal stuff. If you're a neat person who sees
your home as a reflection of yourself, this is very tough to take.''
Englander specializes in family therapy at Stoney Brook Counseling
Center in Billerica and is in private practice in West Concord.

Teresa Artiano of Plympton knows the feeling.

Coming home from work at the end of the day, the first thing she'd
see at the top of the stairs was 17-year-old Kathryn's messy room. It
became a daily issue. ``It's hard to see a sweater you paid $50 for
rolled into a ball on the floor,'' says Artiano. ``Kids say, `It's my
stuff.' But who paid for that stuff?''

Parent educator Suzie Draper tells parents to call a cease-fire by
letting natural consequences take their course. ``When she wants to wear
the sweater that's now dirty and wrinkled, or she wants you to buy her a
new sweater, or she can't find it because it's buried under a pile,
well, that's too bad, isn't it?'' she says.

After a few weeks of unhappiness with a mess of his own creation, a
child is more likely to buy into a solution, says Draper, who is
cofounder of ``Programs for Parents'' workshops in North Andover.
Problem-solve together by first getting him to state the problem: too
much time spent looking for things, clothes are dirty when she wants
them, the room smells . . .

Use this opportunity for a general evaluation. ``Some kids don't take
ownership of their room because the room doesn't work for them,'' says
Kate Kelly, author of ``The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a
Teenager'' (Alpha, 1996).

A problem that's often overlooked is lack of storage. ``Maybe there
was enough shelf space for a 5-year-old's sweaters, but not for a
15-year-old's, so she's constantly frustrated trying to keep herself
organized,'' says Kelly.

Or maybe she doesn't care about the room because the space reflects
you, not her. First, reorganize it together by going through toys and
clothes, decide what to give away and rearrange the remains. Then
redecorate. ``By 11, a child needs input into a room. If there are still
cowboys riding the border, it's too babyish,'' Kelly says. ``Present
choices you can live with but give her the final decision.'' Don't
invest a lot of money, though: She may want to redo it in 10 months.

This is the time to set cleanliness standards. While you can have
some basic rules -- nothing hazardous, such as candles; no food unless
plates and remains are returned to the kitchen that day -- definitions
of cleanliness need to be arrived at together. Teresa Artiano agreed
that her daughter could be as messy as she wants, Monday to Saturday, if
Sunday is cleanup day, including vacuuming. To minimize stress even
further, however, Kathryn moved to another bedroom, out of her mother's
daily sightline.

When Draper was unhappy with her daughters' rooms, she offered Cara
and Dia, now 21 and 17, an experiment: one week of picking up clothes
and toys at the end of each day, one week of letting the mess accumulate
and picking it up on Sunday. By timing both methods, they could decide
which took less time.

Not only did they see for themselves it was faster to pick up daily,
but because Draper started when they were young, 5 and 9, it became as
much a part of the daily routine as brushing teeth.

Indeed, beginning to set standards for a room during the toddler and
preschool years is the best antidote to teenage tantrums, says early
childhood educator Jaesook Lee, director of the Early Childhood Lab at
the University of Kentucky.

``Singing a song and doing it together establishes cleanup as a fun
rountine,'' says Lee. There's a fine line to be drawn here, however. In
these early years, the process counts as much as the result; expecting
too much will not only lead parents to be disappointed but also lead
children to conclude, ``I can never get it right.''

Lee says that by age 3, a child can help keep her room neat by putting
one item away all by herself -- dirty clothes in the laundry basket, for
instance. By 7, a child can pull a quilt over the covers to ``make'' a
bed, and in subsequent years, you can add responsibility -- ``I'll fold
clothes, you put them away'' -- and choice: ``Do you want to straighten
today or Sunday?'' Even in early school years, straightening should be a
cooperative effort that you aren't rigid about, says Lee.

Despite your efforts, expect times when none of this works.

If your child isn't meeting his part of a bargain at all, maybe
something's wrong with the bargain: He's too tired to clean on Friday
and would prefer Sunday; standards are too high. Retool a contract once
or twice, but if the room continues to be an issue, Kelly considers it a
red flag. ``You shouldn't need to be grounding a child every weekend
over a messy room,'' she says. ``Something else may be going wrong in
the relationship.''

If your child is typically taking good care of her room with
only periodic blips of messiness, consider the context. With a
school-age child, the messiness may be so overwhelming, he doesn't know
where to begin. Be supportive: ``Gosh, things really got out of control,
didn't they? What can I do to help?''

Even in the middle of a mess, look for ways to offer praise, says
Kelly. With a preteen girl, for instance: ``I know all those clothes
are on the floor because you had a hard time deciding what to wear this
morning. Good for you for still getting to the bus on time!'' On the
other hand, don't go overboard. ``Remind her,'' says Kelly, ``that if
the clothes sit on the floor too much longer, she'll have a lot of
ironing to do, and when is she going to have time for that?''

In high school, Kelly advises giving the typically responsible child
even more slack. With exams, crew, college applications, accelerated
classes and life in general, Dia Draper hasn't had time for her room in
recent weeks.

Dia hates that as much as her mother. ``Your room should be a
comforting place and when it's a mess, it isn't,'' she says.
Nonetheless, Dia was grateful when her mother agreed she could let her
room go for a while. ``I needed one thing in my life I could lose
control of and have it be OK,'' says Dia.

Once in a while, what every child may need is the Cleaning Fairy. At
the Drapers', the Cleaning Fairy comes several times a year, magically
cleaning a child's room that is totally out of control. Over the years,
the fairy has also cleaned an out-of-control playroom now and then, much
to the delight of parents.


If you don't make your bed and straighten your room, don't expect
your child to.

Don't always pick up a toddler's or preschooler's room when he's
asleep or not home. He'll think it happens by magic.

Any-age child will get discouraged and figure, ``Why bother?'' if
you consistently correct, criticize, or redo her straightening.

Be specific about what a clean room is supposed to look like. Take
a photo of it clean as a reminder.

If you or someone else vacuums, dusts, etc., agree to rules about
privacy. Remind him to put away what he doesn't want you to see.

Children who have bedrooms in more than one residence need leniency
and support around room responsibility. If she's at your house only on
weekends, don't clean and straighten without talking about it first; it
upsets some children to return to a room that looks different from when
they left.

Don't make an issue of a room without explaining why it's important
to you: that if mice or insects come, they won't just stay in one room;
that it reflects on the whole family; that it's inconsiderate to your
brother who shares this room, etc.

If you hate to look at the mess, close the door to the room.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 03:50 PM
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