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Taming a Messy Bedroom

Creative Ways That Parents Can Help Their Child Get Organized
messy room

Ten-year-old Jessica is a bookworm, while her brother Trae, 11, loves building things. Their mom, Shrenia Bockholt of Waller, Texas, happily encourages these hobbies, but she's understandably tired of stepping over the paperbacks and Legos that constantly clutter the kids' bedroom floors.

Meghan Shortt, 10, says she doesn't really care about the messy state of her bedroom and doesn't like for her mom to bug her about cleaning it. Perhaps, she says, a whole new room would motivate her to be neater, because then she'd want to take care of it.

The Bockholts and Shortts aren't alone. For countless families, particularly those with preteens and teenagers, messy bedrooms are an ongoing source of conflict. Fortunately, there are some painless, inexpensive and even creative ways that parents can help children get and stay organized.

A Family Affair

"No matter how you plan and organize their rooms, some kids must take everything out and spread it all over the floor and bookshelves and make a big mess," says Deborah Wiener, an interior designer and mother of two boys. However, involving children in the organizing process and showing them how organization can protect their belongings and make their lives easier will increase the odds that they'll maintain order, she says.

Start by determining what the problem areas are. Does your child have too much stuff? Not enough storage? Or has she outgrown the entire set-up of the room?

Pamela Butz, a mother of three from Mechanicsburg, Pa., notes that clothes, shoes and stuffed animals are the biggest sources of clutter in her daughters' rooms. To keep things from spiraling out of control, she says, "Once or twice a year I rearrange their rooms to give it a fresh look, and that's when I enlist their help to go through things they've accumulated and clean out. It's always a fun project. They get a 'new room,' and I feel a little more organized."

"When Meg gets something new, I insist that she go through her drawers to get rid of clothes that she doesn't want or that no longer fit," says Donna Shortt, describing another clutter-busting approach.

Unused toys and too-small clothes can be donated to Goodwill, a homeless shelter or even to family and friends who have younger kids. If there are items that aren't used anymore, but the child isn't ready to part with, either put them aside in a box or move them to a high shelf where they will be visible but out of the way.

Keep or Can?

On deciding what should stay and what should go, Dr. Carl Hunt, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, reminds parents that a child's bedroom, in addition to serving daytime needs, should also be a restful place to sleep. "The most important goal in making the bedroom maximally restful is to remove distracting items," he says. "Children need some deceleration or quiet time so that they are indeed ready for sleep when the designated time arrives. Having access to a TV in the bedroom, for example, is counterproductive in this regard. Other technologies inconsistent with quiet time include electronic games, computers and cell phones."

Once you and your child have decided what items will remain in the room, you can begin planning how to store the remaining clothes and toys, as well as things like papers, sports equipment and craft supplies, which can also add to the mountains of clutter.

What works for one child may not work for another, even within the same family, as Bockholt has discovered. "Both kids have a clothes hamper just inside their bedroom doors," she says. "Trae utilizes his, but I get the impression that Jessica's must be invisible, because it only gets filled when she's informed that it's time to shovel out her room."

The Case for Space

Professional organizer Stephanie Denton often finds that preteens have outgrown their bedrooms, which can contribute to the disorganization. "The bedroom may have been set up for them at a younger age and hasn't changed," she says. Just because a system worked when you bought it doesn't mean it is necessarily the best system now.

It is a good idea if you have adjustable closet systems to move the shelves and bars every few years to meet the child's needs. Perhaps the child has more shoes and sweatshirts now and less dresses than she did a few years ago. If your child is now doing homework in his room rather than at the kitchen table, make sure he has a desk, chair and storage for books and papers, or he'll just end up sprawling everything out on the bed and floor.

Rolling plastic storage carts are particularly handy for school supplies, craft items and small toys like Legos or action figures and can easily be rolled in and out of the closet. Corkboard can be painted to match the room's wall color and be used to cover an entire wall to display posters, artwork and photos.

A stylish, more grown-up alternative to a toy box is to place an upholstered ottoman on rolling casters at the end of a bed. It will provide lift-top storage and additional seating. "You can cover the ottoman in a fabric that goes with other furnishings, and when it gets ruined – and eventually everything in a kid's room gets ruined – you can recover the ottoman," Wiener says.

Keep your child involved in the process by letting him help you shop for any new furniture or containers that are needed and by showing him how the new storage systems will work to his benefit. If he has many baseball cards, for example, show him how a binder filled with plastic sleeves will make it easier to locate a particular card, share his latest finds with friends and keep his collection safe from spills, tears and tattering.

Then let him personalize the binder by decorating it with baseball theme pictures, so it will become as special to him as the cards themselves. Similarly, plastic containers can be personalized or color-coded and used for storing action figures, CDs, jewelry and stuffed animals.

Pace Yourself

Don't overwhelm yourself or your child by trying to tackle an entire room in one day. Instead, start with the areas that are most important in everyday life, focusing on a desk over a box of trinkets, for example.

Although your children may initially resist tidying up their messy bedrooms, the benefits – short and long term – are clear. The immediate payoff is that when busy families are pulled in so many directions, being organized can help reduce the overwhelming feeling that there's not time to do it all.

"And it's a good opportunity to teach skills that are life skills," Denton says. "I have clients who are corporate executives who say they wished they would have learned this when they were younger."

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