Should you make your child clean his room?

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This is a fascinating piece that appears in today’s NY Times.  CLICK HERE to read this article and reader comments at the NY Times website.  I suppose I never thought about the psychology behind clean and messy rooms.  When my kids were growing up, they maintained the messiest of rooms and I hardly had the energy to fight that battle.  When it got to be so horrible that I couldn’t stand it anymore, I’d put my foot down and we’d attack the mess together.  But with time, the piles would grow again and chaos ruled their rooms.  After my daughter grew up and got her own apartment, she took pride in keeping her place neat and orderly, which was heartening for me to see.  My son is still more comfortable living in a messy room.  I’m not sure if he’ll ever find roommates who will tolerate this preference.  I really missed the boat on being tough on my kids and insisting that they help with the chores, but if it’s not too late for you, read on…

One of the most interesting lines in this article (to me) was this:  “In research P.E.P. found that preschoolers who were given household duties had better relationships, greater academic success and less drug use in their 20s. They advocate parsing the large task of cleaning a room into components, teaching each sub-task at an age-appropriate level. It can take years.”  You can read more about this by CLICKING HERE.  According to this, “the best predictor of an adult’s success in their mid-20’s was that they started participating in household tasks at age 3 or 4.  As a predictor of success, whether children did chores, and the family attitudes and motivators related to chores are more important than parenting styles, IQ, gender, and types of tasks.” Chores teach important life skills such as self-motivation, prioritizing, and organizational skills.  Yikes!  If you haven’t started to insist that your child help with family chores, I recommend that you take a look at the research and get started today.  It can’t hurt and and at least your house will be cleaner.  Here is the article that I recommend you read from today’s NY Times:

Should I Make My Daughter Clean Her Room? by Judy Batalion

I RECENTLY received an email from my daughter Zelda’s preschool director titled “The Importance of Messy Play.” Children learn through process, she wrote. The act of creating is more important than the result. She pleaded with parents to allow our kids space for disarray.

On one hand, this note was refreshing. In our tidying-obsessed culture where decluttering is considered an act of moral courage, I appreciated the director’s encouragement to “embrace the chaos.” On the other hand, she didn’t have to confront 15 more years of the macaroni-and-Lego-based Jackson Pollock-inspired crash scene that was Zelda’s room.

Many parents accept that, in order to maintain their sanity, they must be selective about the battles they choose to wage with their children. But the mantra to “clean your room” seems nonnegotiable, a foundation of good parenting, rooted in common sense. Learning to keep your surroundings in order and take responsibility for your messes are important to becoming a competent, socially mature adult.

For many, however, cleaning is more complicated. The impulse to tidy can be compulsive, a way to maintain control in the face of anxiety. I am a prime example.

My mother was a hoarder. Born in 1945 on my Jewish grandparents’ flight from the Nazis, Mom was a refugee before she knew what home was. Throughout my childhood, she collected Kleenex boxes, newspapers and videocassettes; swivel chairs seemed to metastasize through the house. As an adult, I came to realize that her piles protected her, but back then her mounds of frayed blankets put a physical and emotional distance between us. There was no room to crawl into her bed when I had a nightmare.

Mom’s chaos spilled into my bedroom. I struggled to make a place for my things among her extra clothes and the ceramic pig collection she bought “as a gift.” Report cards were lost in her maelstrom, and so was I. I felt unseen, devoured by her disorder, trying to find room for myself to grow.

I left home and became Mom’s opposite. I taught myself to organize, imposing a minimalist rule on my life that was not an aesthetic choice, but an emotional one. I rented airy apartments I couldn’t afford and arranged them in geometric lines. My mantra was “less is too much.”

I turned to friends for advice. Their experiences seemed as distressing as mine. Alex was traumatized by her order-obsessed mother who regularly “ransacked” her room, heaping all her stuff into a pile on the floor, then holding her under “house arrest” until it was sorted. My colleague Amy described how her parents had forced her to tidy her room, but never showed her how. “It was pointless discipline because it was too hard for me.” As an adult, she remains overwhelmed by cleaning, and believes this extends to other areas of life. “I procrastinate, maybe because I’m not used to breaking things down in steps. I’m not very methodical.”

Others bemoaned the social side effects of not being forced. One, who grew up with a live-in housekeeper, only started cleaning her room in her 20s, after moving in with her best friend, who nearly fled from her slovenliness. Another, a corporate lawyer, envies co-workers’ neat offices, and worries that her scattered piles make her seem disorganized and impulsive, marring her professional reputation.

I also consulted childhood experts. The Parent Encouragement Program, in the Washington area, is devoted to teaching parents how to teach children to do chores. In research P.E.P. found that preschoolers who were given household duties had better relationships, greater academic success and less drug use in their 20s. They advocate parsing the large task of cleaning a room into components, teaching each sub-task at an age-appropriate level. It can take years.

I related more to the idea that neat spaces reduced stress. Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist, told me that visual clutter causes anxiety. Our predecessors surveyed the savanna for danger; we, too, want a clear sense of our surrounds. Clutter also blocks from view the objects that are important for identity formation, she said. “An 11-year-old physics enthusiast should see her calculators, reminders of her ambitions.” Many preschools, influenced by Montessori, advocate barer walls for reduced distraction to allow more focus on important tasks.

But there were also dissenters. Tamar Gordon, a psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders, thought people could be too hung up on cleaning. “What’s important for children is structure,” she said, “not necessarily the same thing as a clean room.” She explained that some kids are naturally neat, freaking out over a spot of paint on their hand, while others barely notice their visual environment. The parents’ job is to assess their child, and teach the opposite: Sticklers needed to learn flexibility, messy kids, regimen.

In all my research, I found no proven correlation between keeping a neat room and leading a functional, goal-oriented life. Lessons like respecting shared space and managing time can be achieved through homework or scrubbing the kitchen. And according to the clinicians I spoke to, the family friction that erupts when parents force messier kids to be neat can cause real destructive stress.

Alan Kazdin at the Yale Parenting Center explained that there had been no clean-room studies because the issue was not critical. “It’s normative for adolescents to be super messy,” he told me. “We don’t know why.” Parents should consider whether their child’s messy room is indicative of other problems (at school, for instance) or impairs daily function (mice, allergens, impaling hazards). If it’s the case of an isolated messy bedroom, let it go. “It’s important for teenagers to have areas of control. Parents believe in a slippery slope, which just isn’t true.”

My childhood friend Sarah, now a successful children’s author, was always messy. Her mother never forced her to clean her room (though she made her help with communal spaces). Over the phone, she told me that her family still called her “Tornado Sarah” and that she felt lucky to have relatives, and editors, who helped her tidy up. Her disarray, she thinks, might be linked to her creativity. “When I start a new project, I’m not worried about jumping in or making messes. I don’t focus on getting it right,” she said. “I just throw ideas around.”

It made sense. Making Zelda clean her room might satisfy my organizational needs, but it probably wouldn’t make her a superior person. O.K., I admit that when Zelda dumped a box of musical instruments onto her glitter-strewn floor that evening, I panicked. But as she danced around, banging her drum, I let it go and joined in, saving my energies for the battle of bedtime.


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