messy room

As a mom who has waged the Battle of Clean and Tidy on many different fronts –and against numerous foes—for more than two decades, I found this NY Times “Home and Garden” article about kids’ messy rooms to be both entertaining and enlightening.

How I can relate to the “fury and frustration” of venturing into a child’s bedroom (or playroom) to observe that not one square inch of the floor is visible. Or finding a long-forgotten drinking glass tucked beside the sofa with something black and fuzzy growing inside it.

I chuckled at passages such as this:

After consultations with dozens of parents, teenagers and professionals who specialize in adolescent mess, there is some good news: although teenage tidiness may be too much to hope for, sanitation is a possibility.

I laughed again (but sardonically this time) at the following: “sometimes teenagers really don’t know how to pick up after themselves.”


Try training your children, starting when they are old enough to pick up a block and put it in the toy bucket (about 6 or 7 months of age). Of course it’s a game at this point—parental participation mandatory—and will remain so until well into the preschool years. A 2-year-old is capable of understanding that he must pick up his toys when he has finished playing. (This is the point where mothers of 2-year-olds are laughing sardonically at me.) Note, I didn’t say he would actually do it; just that he’s capable of understanding what it means to tidy up. “Training” is doing it with him (see “game”, above), not for him.

Even if parents have missed the Early Childhood Training boat, however, all is not lost. The NYT article offers a 10-point guide to assist families, including not only practical tips (“break down the cleaning into small tasks”), but also the opportunity to look deeper: sometimes the teen chaos and parental angst over it are rooted in events (such as divorce) or issues unrelated to the logistics of household tidiness.

Teenagers are on a long march toward autonomous adulthood, as psychologists like Dr. Marsha Levy-Warren, the author of “The Adolescent Journey,” point out. And mastering the clean room is a blip on their map.

“Kids are so preoccupied during adolescence with who they want to be that they are inside themselves,” Dr. Levy-Warren said. “They lose sight of what’s outside. They don’t even see their rooms. There’s a lot for them to figure out.”

I can accept that, but it leaves me to wonder what excuse psychologists can come up with for husbands with the same affliction. (Not mine, of course; his mess-tolerance threshold is actually much lower than mine, which is both a good and a bad thing.)  

And while this ongoing voyage of self-discovery theme may be true for some teenagers, it doesn’t apply to all. In our family (by some miracle—possibly genes from the paternal side) my girls have mostly outgrown the “anarchic wasteland” bedroom stage by time they hit the teen years. We seem to have experienced most of our messiness struggles in the 5-10 years-of-age phase.

The NYT piece also reveals: “Part of the problem is that most teenagers have too much stuff.” Is it any wonder? So do their parents. We live in a society where entire TV channels are dedicated to programs about hoarding, de-cluttering and organizing stuff. If the child has a problem in this area, chances are she won’t get help until the parents do.

Therein lies the crux, especially for people like me. While I have high aspirations when it comes to cleanliness, order and household organization, life sometimes gets in the way, and I fall short now and then. The important thing is to keep on trying, and to encourage our children to do the same.

Most importantly, the article wisely calls for mutual understanding and looking at the wider picture, noting that taking a harsh approach is rarely helpful and may even be counter-productive. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff: how much does it matter, and why—especially if your teens’ messy habits are not impairing their ability to function?

We do our best by our parental duty to train our kids in basic life skills (or else, as the article hints, heaven help their future dorm mate—or spouse), but in the end, they are growing to adulthood, and need to make those decisions and cultivate good habits on their own.


Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature...