Why your kid’s messy room isn’t worth the battle

Messy kids: Should you give up on the clean room battle?
Messy kids: Should you give up on the clean room battle? Photo: Getty

"If I have to tell you again to clean this room…!"

Sound familiar?

In our house, it seems like a never ending battle. With four girls aged from six through to 17, I am constantly battling rooms in different states of disaster.

The scenario often begins with a passing comment on the state of affairs, and then following no response a more direct request. After three or four more requests, frayed patience usually leads to tears and tantrums – and that's just from me!

But is it really worth the drama? Should we just learn to live with the messiness and trust that our kids will learn to be tidier as they get older?

Psychologist and parenting author Jodie Benveniste believes that striking a balance somewhere in the middle is the key.

"The tidy room battle can sometimes be a battle of wills. A child's room is their personal space, but their room is also a part of the house, so there can be clashes over tidiness and cleanliness, and being organised," she says.

It can also be a matter of the child learning natural consequences along the way. I can recall countless times our teens complaining they can't find anything in their rooms. With me rolling my eyes and wondering why on earth not!

"If they can't find their homework or their sports uniform hasn't been washed because it's been buried in their bedroom, then they need to live with the consequences." Jodie says.

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For Danielle, mum to now teenage sons aged 14 and 13, apart from learning that messiness comes with consequences she found her sons needed some space and relief from the nagging as much as she did.

"Getting the boys to tidy their rooms was almost like world war three!" she says. "I think they were about eight or nine when I finally realised it was a war I was never going to win. So I gave up!" she says.

"Once I stopped nagging them it was like a magic wand was waved and they started respecting their bedrooms – probably because they couldn't find anything – but I think it's something they just needed to learn by themselves."

But what if parents and children differ in their definition of tidy? As in the case of Jennifer, who reveals her nine-year-old son is the polar opposite of her tidy self.

"As a child I was a neat freak," Jennifer says. "My room was always perfect. I was so pedantic that I would sometimes sleep on top of the covers so I wouldn't mess the bed up! My son is not like me at all in this regard."

While Jennifer's case may be extreme, she has learned to recognise her OCD tendencies are her issues and not her sons, something Jodie points out is important to acknowledge.

"As a parent, it's important not to project our tendencies onto our children," Jodie says. "We need to allow our kids some freedom to decide what kind of space they like to live in." This is something that Megan, mum to daughters aged six and four is beginning to realise.

Megan used to be a self-proclaimed 'tidy nazi' but now when she began working full time she knew something had to give. And it was the pressure of the kids cleaning their room that she had to give up. Now, within reason, she leaves her eldest in charge of her own room.

 "My six-year-old now has full responsibility for her own room and that's seemed to make her take more pride in it."

It seems the topic of clean bedrooms, just like many parenting issues, comes down to a 'pick your battles' scenario. It's important to find a common ground and negotiate about what is expected but also let them learn through experience.

As Jodie says, "It comes down to striking a balance between having unrealistic expectations about bedroom tidiness and allowing kids to live in a complete mess pit. And if keeping a tidy room becomes about control - a parent trying to control the child - then it can lead to defiance. It's much better to guide our kids - to help them make decisions that are based on an understanding of themselves but also respectful of others."

5 tips to combat the clean bedroom battle:

1. TEACH - begin teaching kids about keeping a tidy room from toddler age

2.  TALK - about the benefits of keeping a clean room e.g. Being able to find things, space in which to play

3.  UNDERSTAND – the different standards of 'tidy' that you and your child may have

4.  RESPECT – teach kids to respect others in the house by keeping shared spaces clean, which will hopefully flow over into their rooms

5.  CHOOSE – whether or not the battle is worth fighting

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