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Families: Clean Up This Mess!

7 minute read
Eugenie Allen

Meet Gabriela and Nicole Unguez. Last winter their tiny bedroom was such a wreck–toys and books blanketing the floor, clothes spilling out of the closet–that their mother Rebecca laughingly entered the twins in a contest for “America’s Messiest Kid’s Room.” To her great shame, they won.

These days, though, Rebecca Unguez couldn’t be prouder. With the help of prizes including new bunk beds and side-by-side desks, plus the services of a professional organizer, her five-year-old daughters have cleaned up their act–and not a moment too soon. They start kindergarten in a couple of weeks, and Rebecca, a former preschool teacher, is convinced they will do better in school if they come home to an orderly bedroom.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of contenders for next year’s title: 80% of parents surveyed by Ace Hardware, the sponsor of the contest, said their kids’ rooms are messy. Why such chaos? For starters, the average American child acquires $350 worth of toys and video games annually. Multiply that by 18 years, and it gets a little crowded in there. Mom and Dad are probably messy too: 75% of parents in the Ace survey admitted that they could set a better example for their offspring.

The Unguez girls lucked out with all that free gear and guidance. But not all bedroom makeovers require new furniture, in-home consultations and scientific storage systems. More important, say experts, is time spent with your child, helping him organize and decorate a space that not only nourishes his soul but also helps him keep track of his math homework. In the process you may be surprised to find that getting kids’ bedrooms under control means giving kids more control–not less–over everything from the color of their walls to the placement of their furniture to the location of their treasures. Jan Faull, author of Unplugging Power Struggles, says the equation makes perfect sense: “When kids have input into how their room runs, they’re more likely to keep it tidy.”

The dog days of August are the perfect time to do a messy-room overhaul. Even parents who didn’t learn tidiness as children can acquire the skill now and share it with their own children. For in-depth instruction, consult one of the books or websites listed at the bottom of this page. For a crash course, read on.

If you have ever drooled over the items in the Hold Everything catalog, restrain yourself. According to Ellen Langan, the $100-an-hour Seattle whiz who streamlined the Unguez bedroom, overly elaborate storage systems are part of the problem. “There are too many choices!” she says. “Going out and buying more plastic bins isn’t going to do it for you.” Instead kids need to learn to cut back early on, by thinking, for instance: Now that my birthday is coming, which toys will I give away to make room for more?

Parents need to organize what’s left in ways that are simple enough for kids themselves to maintain. Wendy Jordan, author of The Kidspace Idea Book, says preschoolers can’t handle more than three or four places to put their toys; 12-year-olds, on the other hand, adore tiny drawers and shelves.

Once the giveaways are gone and there’s a place for all the keepers, it’s time to decorate. But beware of the fantasy bedrooms served up by the shelter magazines and kids’ specialty catalogs. The market for kids’ furniture and accessories has never been hotter, but many design experts don’t like what they see. Says Ro Logrippo, author of In My World: Designing Living and Learning Environments for the Young: “These phantasmagorical theme rooms where everything matches really stifle the imagination.” Rather than imposing the perfect tableau on a child who probably doesn’t want it, parents need to allow a room to evolve around their child’s development, interests and personality. And they should keep it flexible. (Stay away from those fairy-tale built-ins.) The Unguez girls, for example, got special spots for their expanding dress-up collection, furniture that can be separated if they ever get their own rooms, and Pepto-Bismol pink walls–their choice–that are easily changed. (For more on personalizing your child’s space, see Logrippo’s website, msro.com/ro.

Some of the best ideas for kids’ bedrooms come from the kids, so make sure to ask them what they’d like. When Anna Kasabian interviewed children for her charming new book Kids’ Rooms, she asked them to draw pictures of their ideal bedroom. While many kids longed for bold new colors and patterns, they also wanted special places for their favorite stuffed animals.

One of the most intriguing ways to interpret a child’s needs is through feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of arranging a person’s belongings to place her in harmony with her nature and surroundings. Nancilee Wydra, author of Feng Shui for Children’s Spaces, explains that childhood is already such a “yang,” or active, state that parents need to balance it with “yin” spaces and objects, such as small hiding places and low beds. (For more, visit nancileewydra.com.

Whichever approach you choose, you will need to adapt it to your child’s age. Preschoolers who have barely given up their cribs are nonetheless able to choose from a couple of paint colors or sheet designs (carefully screened by you, of course). They’re also old enough to have well-developed play habits and perhaps even a collection or two, which will determine how you arrange and furnish the room. Best of all, they’re still easily persuaded that cleanup can be fun.

Older kids, while less malleable, are capable of more complex decisions. Jan Faull, who conducts parent-education classes in Seattle, explains the school-age child’s thinking: “If I’m in grade school, I pretty much know how I want my bedroom to run efficiently. So if I think it makes more sense to put my shoes along the wall than in the closet, parents need to respect that.” Kids this age still need to be reminded to keep their rooms neat (15 minutes on a kitchen timer can make light work of the chore), but they also need the freedom to make mistakes. If you redo their imperfect housekeeping efforts, says time-management guru Emilie Barnes, eventually they’ll stop trying, and you’ll wind up doing it yourself.

And then there are teenagers. “I believe my 17-year-old daughter’s entire wardrobe is on the floor,” author Jordan says ruefully. If your teen has poor housekeeping habits, exhortation alone probably won’t get her to improve. But money might motivate her. Jordan recommends giving teens a modest budget for their bedrooms, with the stipulations that they can’t do anything permanent or destructive. (You decide whether painting the room black meets those criteria.) If that doesn’t work, author Faull advises, back off. “There is so much for teens to rebel about–their bedroom is not a battle you want to be engaged in,” says Faull, who has two adult children living on their own and a teenage boy at home. When she goes into her son’s room to remove hazardous waste, she looks beyond the chaos to marvel at his skillful setup of lighting and sound equipment.

When conflict arises–and it will–try to remember that one day you may very well miss the mess. Barnes says that when the last of her five kids left home, she yearned for signs that they were still there. “I used to walk by their empty rooms and think, ‘I wish I saw a crooked bedspread.'”

Rebecca Unguez isn’t feeling nostalgic: her nest will be full for years to come. Along with the twins, she and her husband Gustavo have two boys, ages eight and two. While their shared bedroom is due for a makeover, the girls are enjoying the new order down the hall. “Let’s be honest,” says Rebecca. “Gabriela and Nicole are 5 1/2. They’re not going to have a perfect room. But now that they know where everything goes, they put most of it away by themselves.” And that’s about as good as it gets.

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