I hate to nag my kids to clean too much, but if I don’t stay on top of it, my two boys’ shared room becomes akin to a war zone. But is it OK to let kids have a messy room? By letting them embrace the mess, am I encouraging creativity and personal expression, or just ignoring my duty to teach them accountability and personal responsibility?
In a room shared by siblings as my own kids have, the mess can get out of control in a hurry. But even kids who have their own room can be prone to disarray, especially when they’re very young or when they become busy teens. Experts say that the all too familiar room-cleaning battle is a multi-faceted issue where your child’s age, personality, and your own expectations will come into play.
At What Age Can A Child Realistically Keep Their Room Clean?
Parenting coach and author Maureen Healy says that kids will usually hit this milestone around age 4. “Every child has a different personality, which must be accounted for — but I would say school-age children can be expected to make their beds, help pick out clothes, and clean up their rooms,” she explains. “They may need assistance, at first but developmentally, they are ready.”
Experts agree that your child’s age should be the starting point for room-cleaning expectations.
“A child’s age does impact their ability to keep their room organized and clean,” neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez tells Romper. “For example, you can’t expect a 1-year-old to be able to vacuum or sweep their room. However, you can assign your young kids age-appropriate chores, such as telling them to put toys away in a basket or teaching your preschooler how to make their bed.”
Why Your Child’s Personality Matters
So, your 9-year-old has art supplies strewn about and your teen has a pile of empty cups stashed on their nightstand. It’s infuriating to you, but what if this perceived messiness is just part of their personality?
Pediatrician Dr. Scott Krugman tells Romper that a child’s unique personality, as well as any neurodiversity factors (like ADHD or autism spectrum disorders) should be taken into consideration. “Children who have difficulty focusing are less capable of being able to complete a large task — such as cleaning a very messy room,” he explains. “Instead, they will need more focused instructions and/or the tasks broken down into smaller parts. For instance, parents may say, ‘Let’s start with picking up the clothes.’”
Parenting educator Laura Linn Knight tells Romper that when it comes to her own kids, her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter need different types of direction in order to clean up successfully — one gets distracted easily, but doesn’t usually require a ton of supervision, while the other can lose steam quickly and needs more help. “Because you as a parent know your child so well, you can navigate how much support you think your child needs in the clean-up process,” she explains. “You can also let your child’s unique personality shine through with the decoration of their room and where/how they want to display their things. Your child can have choice while still following the agreements of the family home.”
Natural Consequences Of Room Cleaning
Knight explains that her kids have set times for clean-up that are connected to different family activities. “We also have an agreement that rooms will not have things on the floor before story time at night and that there will be a bigger clean before Family Movie Night on Fridays,” Knight says. “We do not tie allowance, prizes, or punishment to cleaning the bedroom, but rather, my children know that we will have less time for stories or the movie if it takes too long to clean their room — a natural consequence.”
When your goal is to approach room-cleaning from a place of personal responsibility and accountability, encouragement and incentivizing can be great motivating factors. Whether you go the sticker-chart route for a younger child or choose to connect natural consequences to clean-up time like Knight does, your child’s age will definitely come into play.
“Making sure parents provide clear values and expectations are especially important for teenagers. They want to know ‘why’ you are making a request to clean a room, and ‘because I said so’ is usually insufficient,” Krugman explains. He suggests talking to teens about “how structure, routine, and organization can help them succeed in their lives and in school, and how keeping a room clean is part of the picture,” while making sure that you are modeling the same behaviors in your own life.
“Of course, some children are naturally more organized, while others — not so much,” Healy tells Romper. “Also, it's important to pick your battles, especially when we get into middle and high school. Oftentimes keeping a clean room is less important than being a good human.”
Working Together Can Be A Practical Solution
Experts agree that having a predictable routine or established method for room cleaning can be helpful for kids and that a mess in between isn’t a big deal. For example, you can set a timer for a few minutes’ worth of clean-up in the evening or have one big cleaning day every Saturday to help encourage a tidy space. Consistency is key.
Hafeez tells Romper that kids need specific directions about how much of a mess is OK and exactly what the expectations are. “Walking through a child's room with them and pointing out what makes the room clean can also be helpful to help them distinguish between what’s acceptable and what is not,” she suggests. Keeping your cool is also a big part of working together to keep things tidy. “Calm, explanatory, kind communication is key, and praising your child's efforts such as telling them their room is much cleaner than it was before — after they clean it — can encourage them to repeat this behavior and clean more often,” Hafeez explains.
While experts say that it’s OK to let your kids be unorganized to a degree, setting boundaries and guidelines about tidying up that the whole family abides by can help you all work together to keep things picked up without too much nagging. And maybe make a hard-and-fast rule, like no gross dishes cluttering a desk.
“Have a family meeting and create household rules, which dad or mom must abide by. Maybe no socks on the floor. Or beds made every day. Or so on and so forth,” Healy suggests. “The more parents and children can work together, the better. It's not always easy, but it can be super helpful for the near and long-term.”
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist in NYC and Columbia University faculty member
Maureen Healy, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child and parent coach at Growinghappykids.com
Laura Linn Knight, parenting expert & educator, mindfulness & meditation teacher, Positive Discipline certified, and former elementary school teacher
Dr. Scott Krugman, Vice Chair, Department of Pediatrics at Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai