When You Can’t Walk Into Their Room Without Tripping

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Photo Credit:  Matt Gromes

The newest parenting-related picture to go viral on Facebook is a photo of a huge stack of filled trash bags.  Mom captioned the photo with the explanation that her teenage daughter wouldn’t clean her room, so the mom bagged everything up, and was making her daughter pay her $25 a bag to get her stuff back.  It was hard to tell just how many bags there were, as they were all stacked on top of each other, but there were clearly enough for the daughter to owe her mother at least a few hundred dollars.

As is usually the case, the comments were overwhelmingly positive, and the mother was almost universally praised.    I’m always kind of amazed at the feedback on these things.  I’d like to think – really, I need to think – that there are people out there who don’t feel right about it, but who just don’t know what else they would do in that situation.   Or maybe there are people who want to offer some alternatives, but they are shamed into silence by the “Stop being so judgmental!!” crowd.  (By the way, when you publicly boast online about how proud you of are how you’re punishing your children, you are explicitly inviting feedback.   It’s the way the internet works)

Dialogue is a useful thing.  Lots of parents can relate to the struggle of kids and messes, but not every parent chooses punishment and/or shame as a parenting tactic.  There are alternatives to navigating even the messiest of messy rooms, that do not involve bagging up all their stuff and throwing or giving it away, or making them earn it back.

As with everything else, it all begins with relationship:

1. Recognize that everyone is different.  Personality and individual constitution play a big role here.  Some people are naturally very tidy.  Some make a mess everywhere they go.  I am very much the latter.  And while I’ve come to appreciate how much better I operate in a clean, uncluttered environment, it is something that I have to continually work on.  I am 42 years old, and I still have to make a conscious effort to keep things picked up.  Harping on me or shaming me would not only not encourage me, but would also make me angry, and even less likely to put forth the effort.  Kids are no different!  If you make them feel badly about themselves, they’ll live up to the negative.  Instead, help and encourage them, and see what a difference it makes, both in their behavior and in your own peace with the situation.   Accept them the way they are, and resist the urge to compare and pit one against the other. Comments like, “Why can’t you be more like Henry?” are hurtful, and leave scars that last well beyond childhood.

2.  Adjust your expectations.   I am not a big fan of the phrase, “Pick your battles,” but bedroom cleanliness is one area where it may apply.  It’s okay – and yes, even a positive thing! – for them to have the freedom to keep their own personal space the way they like it. Some things shouldn’t be negotiable, for good reason (for example:  leaving food or trash laying around can attract bugs;  too much clutter on the floor can become a safety hazard)  But there is a whole range of happy compromise in between hospital corners and things-are-growing-faster-than-bacteria-in-a-petri-dish.  Adjusting your own expectations and working with your child, rather than against him, go a long way towards both keeping the peace in the home and your relationship intact.

3.  Model taking care of your own things.   I have found, again and again, that when I’m in a good routine myself, the kids tend to magically follow suit. Show them what it looks like to take pride in your home.  Pick up after yourself. Put things away after you use them.  Don’t grumble about housework.  Treat it as an act of service for yourself, and for your family.  Your kids learn far more from watching you than they do from any speeches you may give them about cleanliness.

4.  Ask them to pick up before things get out of control.  I think we have a tendency … (and when I say “we”,  I mean “I”) … I think we have a tendency to let things fester and not say anything about them while they build.  Then, we inevitably get resentful, the situation gets blown out of proportion, and we finally burst.  We finally say something, or ask for help, and we’re not very nice about it.   It is a whole lot easier – and more peaceful for all involved – to say, “Can you please pick up these legos on the floor so I can tuck you in without hurting my feet?” than it is to deal with the fallout of a room that’s reached a level of “We need to rent a dumpster and fill 87 trash bags if we want to see the floor again.”   Getting into good habits, working together, and talking to your kids instead of barking orders helps the entire household run more smoothly and peacefully.  Plus, it is far less work to deal with little messes as they happen than it is to deal with giant messes that have been accumulating over time.

5.  When it does get bad, ask if you can help.  So, you’re thinking, “Picking up before things get out of control sounds nice in theory, but that ship has already sailed.”  I so get it.  Speaking as both a mom and as a person who has a natural tendency to let messes take over:  I think that when it gets to that point, it isn’t so much that your kids don’t want to pick up as it is that they are overwhelmed at the enormity of the project and don’t even know where to start. The struggle is real!  Ask if you can help.  Break it up into smaller jobs and tackle it together.  Do whatever works well to get the job done.  Make it a game, set timers, play some music.  If they don’t mind you touching their things (some of my kids would rather do it themselves, some welcome the assistance), you can even surprise them by doing it for them.  It’s a huge gift to give them, and my daughter in particular is always so thankful.  Then, once you’ve gotten it under control again, re-visit #4.  Repeat as necessary.

6.  Help/encourage them to periodically cull through their belongings.  The less “stuff” you have, the easier it is to keep it organized.   Every so often (ideally a couple of times a year, or at least before big gift-giving occasions like Christmas) help them go through their things to see if there’s anything they don’t want anymore that they can then sell, donate, or give away. Personality plays a large role here too.  Some kids have no problem giving up toys that they don’t play with anymore, even if they just got it a year ago. Others really like to hang on.    Respect where they’re at, and work with them on solutions.  Help them find new homes for the things they don’t want, and help them organize and store the things that are staying.


It is a frustrating feeling indeed when messes get out of control.  But giving into that frustration and unloading it via yelling, punishing, or shaming your kids doesn’t help anyone… not you, and certainly not your child.   Instead, take a deep breath, – or 10 or 100 – take the emotion out of it, and work together on solutions.   You’re not going to change your child (and really, would you want to??!!), but you can help him with strategies he can use, both now and in the future.

And as for you as the parent?   Remind yourself as often as necessary that kids are all different, and that that’s okay.  Tell yourself that you’ll respect your kids where they’re at.   Work with your kids on keeping their rooms tidy, but recognize that the space is ultimately theirs, and that that’s okay too.  Decide what is non-negotiable and let go of the rest.

And if all else fails, just shut the door.


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Filed under gentle discipline, gentle parenting, housekeeping, parenting

8 Responses to When You Can’t Walk Into Their Room Without Tripping

  1. Janet Person

    As a teenager I had a disgustingly messy room . My mom, bless her, never hassled me about it. Her perspective was that I was a straight A student, held down 2 part time jobs, was involved in drama and my youth group, so a messy room was my version of teenage rebellion and she could live with that! While I still have a tendency to be messy, my oldest always says our house is way cleaner than any of his friends. Having a messy room as a teenager does not mean you will keep a dirty house as an adult. It was amazing that my mom gave me the space and grace in my room. I have to very consciously choose to do the same with my youngest. Thanks for the wise reminder Jen!

  2. Ronnie

    I belong to a FB group where people talk about decluttering their homes. Turns out most of the people on there have trauma from how their belongings were (mis)handled by their parents. The trauma leads to difficulties parting with anything.

    Harsh responses to your kids’ untidiness might *seem* instructive, and they are, but probably not in the way you hope they will be.

  3. Rosemary Suss Gurel

    I completely agree with your article. When my 21 year old was young, yes her room was messy. I didn’t draw attention to it. But when I would walk into her room with her there, I would say (in a friendly tone) something like “I see you keep that area neat and clear of things.” And I would stand there, where it was safe to walk.
    She has grown up to be aware of her environment; she routinely culls out her clothes. And she makes her bed every day.
    My feeling is that the kids’ rooms are theirs. Common space is a whole other subject!

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  5. Lotus Blossom

    This is such a struggle in my family. My kids and I all have ADHD, so it’s like the blind leading the blind when it comes to cleaning. I have started with an online decluttering program and have been fairly successful with it.

    For my kids’ rooms, I try so hard to keep it positive: “if you can put your clean clothes away and dirty clothes in your hamper in 10 minutes, you get a sticker.” Then tomorrow, it’s take care of the clothes, plus put away the books, etc. Clothes should take hardly any time since they were done yesterday.

    I set the timer and call out how much time is remaining to help them be aware of time passing and to get back on track. Seriously, this could be done in less than 5 minutes. No good. I tried it a second time with the sticker. No good. So at this point I said that there is no sticker involved, but that they had 10 minutes. It didn’t work. Now things are starting to escalate, because I feel like we just need to get over a hump and things will be better.

    My experience with having a messy room did not turn out with me being neat add an adult. In fact, because we never really had a consistent routine, I think this has carried into my adulthood (I’m 46). So for me, because of our troubles, it is so important for me to get us all on a schedule so that we always know what’s met so they have a better chance if an organized life than me.. And, while I really want things to stay positive, and I will always do my best to stay that way, at some point, moms and dads get mad.

  6. Heather

    The picture you chose for this article is entirely misleading (and frankly, seems to be click-bait). Your article references a teenager, who would be responsible for (for better or worse) their own choices, while your picture references a toddler, who wouldn’t know better and may not even know how to clean up their toys yet.

    • Pam Clark

      Age should not matter though. Young or old, tidiness and clutter can be part of the whole of the personality. A teen may physically be capable of cleaning their room, but they may not have the same desire that the adult has in doing so.

      Whether the child is able, or not, it is still about partnering with your child in finding a respectful solution. Sometimes, that will be in cleaning up for them, sometimes it will be cleaning up with them, and sometimes it will be walking away and not cleaning up at all. Not out of disgust, shame, harping … but respecting the individual and differing views of what is “necessary” and what is simply a difference of opinion.

  7. Jessi

    I find setting a timer IS helpful, because it is a fun race for us. We all try to beat the timer together. It is the only way my 4 yr old will get dressed in the morning. I let him set the timer and we race. It helps with cleaning too.