Clean Up!

How to avoid clean room fights with kids
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Getting kids to keep their rooms clean is an ongoing struggle for many parents. Kids often view their bedroom as “their space” and feel they should have autonomy. But for the parent, walking past a room with clothes all over the floor, empty dishes, and scattered papers can be maddening.

You can tell your child they need to clean their room or face consequences, which may result in an argument. Or you can keep their door closed so you don’t see the mess. But the best approach is often somewhere in between. According to Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast, knowing how to keep a space clean and organized is an essential life skill.

Start Young

Parents might feel it’s easier to just do it themselves, but requiring young children to clean up for themselves is worth the time investment. “Most toddlers and young children are developmentally at an age where they want to please their parents,” Saltz says, “so this is the ideal time to start teaching them about taking care of their stuff.”

It’s important to be specific. Rather than saying, “Clean your room,” ask, “Can you put the books on the bookshelf?” or “Please put any dirty clothes into the hamper.” For kids who can’t read yet, use color-coded bins, fun colored hangers for clothes, and easy-to-use laundry bins to help them stay organized.

Stay calm if blocks are mixed up with the dolls and the books aren’t straight on the shelf. The idea is to have kids take ownership. Praise their effort even if their execution isn’t perfect. “Positive reinforcement is key,” Saltz explains. “The more you tell a child what a good job they are doing, the more they will want to continue the behavior.”

Respect Their Need for Space

“As children become teenagers, their space becomes a reflection of themselves and a need to individualize,” Saltz says. “While it can be frustrating, parents must decide what is worth fighting about with their child.”

Things like dirty dishes and rotting food are non-negotiable. Chores like bedmaking can be at the child’s discretion; it’s nice but unnecessary. Piles of papers and dirty clothes on the floor are a gray area. If they’re scrambling on Monday morning because they can’t find their soccer uniform or the homework due that day, it causes stress for everyone.

Instead of fighting about a messy room, suggest organizational systems like a filing system for homework so they can find what they need when needed. “A parent might say, ‘Let’s look at the week ahead’,” Saltz says. “Get yourself organized, and I can help too. If you give me your soccer uniform now (or put uniforms in a separate laundry basket, I can make sure it’s washed and ready for your game.’”

If your child still doesn’t clean their room, let them accept the consequences. They may have to wear a smelly, dirty uniform to their game. Or, if they leave their clothes crumpled on the floor, it’s reasonable to say ‘no’ when they ask you to buy something new.

Remember the Longterm Benefits

Many parents are reluctant to require kids to pitch in around the house because they feel they’re already too busy with school, sports, clubs, and social pressures. In a 2019 survey by BusyKid, more than 90% of parents say they did chores as a child, and only 66% of them regularly have their own children do tasks.

If your child is typically too busy to clean their room, it may be time to revisit their schedule of activities. “Consistency is important in parenting,” Saltz says. “While it’s OK to cut your child slack or ask them if they would like you to clean their room when they are studying for finals, on a regular basis, they should be responsible for their own room.”

Parents may think they’re decreasing their child’s stress levels by not insisting on a tidy room. But in reality, clutter makes people anxious, and cleaning can reduce stress. “Not being able to find something you need, like a paper due that day, creates anxiety,” Saltz says. Plus, doing chores helps kids build confidence and self-esteem.

Though they may grumble now at keeping their rooms neat, they’ll be more self-sufficient when they head off to college. They might even thank you for teaching them to clean up after themselves—and so will their college roommate.