No parent wants to live in a home with children who, left to their own devices, do not clean their room. Some parents feel it is their responsibility to continue being the major cleaner for their child, others constantly nag and complain until their child does it, and some just throw up their hands and give up on this issue. As a psychologist, I’m often asked what my opinion is on this.
The state of a child’s room is never the major focus of why a child or teen ends up in therapy, but it is often an aggravation within the scope of the presenting problems. Not only is the fact that the lack of cleaning contributes to an untidy home, but it is often a source of contention within the family that the child/teen doesn’t do what they are asked to do. Now, we have two different issues to deal with–a dirty room and disrespect.
Parents, as head of the household are the ones who set the rules and expect them to be enforced. Room cleaning may be one of the family rules. I am a big advocate of parents establishing family rules to tie in with privileges the child gets such as more allowance, TV time, or being able to have a later curfew.
As parents, we have certain obligations to our children which include love and guidance, as well as providing food, clothing, and shelter. I don’t know anywhere that it is written that we owe kids money any time they ask, a cell phone, numerous video equipment, or a new car.
OK, you ask, do you as a psychologist think a child should be responsible for cleaning their own room. My answer to this is “yes”.
Room cleaning is a chore that should start as soon as a child can toddle around well enough to put their own toys away. A good way to initiate this is for the parent and child to make a game of picking up the toys at the end of the day. This could be followed by the child being responsible for putting dirty clothing in the hamper, then helping to spread the covers on the bed. Parents who tend to have the most success with a child being consistent in cleaning their room are those who started early, worked with their child, and gave praise, and later rewards for their accomplishments.
What about the child who just puts it off, won’t follow through when asked, or ignores the request? In these cases, I think we have to look at what is going on with the child. If there are serious issues withing the family, and the child is struggling just to deal with getting through the day, then the parent may need to pitch in and help. If it is an act of defiance, and there are more serious problems such as drugs or sexually acting out, then the focus may need to be on those issues. I often tell parents, in these cases, to “pick their battles”. When parents ask what to do about the dirty room, my reply is always “that is what they make doors for”. Reality sets in for some kids when this happens when they get up to no clean underwear or that favorite pair of jeans staying in the same heap of dirty clothes by the bed week after week.
Earlier in this article, I made mention of having a check sheet for kids related to family rules. This is something I advocate from an early age. It should include what is expected from the child (pick up toys, do homework, feed the pets, clean room, etc. There should also be a list of rewards that are tied into this. Good rewards are allowance, TV time, later curfew or bedtime, a special snack, or family outing. I always encourage parents and kids to work together to make these lists. Just as important as making the list is following through with it. Parents who are able to be manipulated to “give in” are the ones who tend to have more behavior problems with children. My motto is “if you promise it, do it”.
Having chores such as cleaning their room teaches responsibility. Children who know what to expect and who learn to follow through with assignments carry this skill over into other areas of their life.
Finally, one last thought on kids and room cleaning is that some parents meet with resistance on getting a child to clean their room because their expectations are too high. Just because the rest of the house can pass the “white glove” test doesn’t mean that an eight year old or even a twelve year old can be expected to keep their room to this standard.