Clean Up That Mess! Getting Kids to Clean Their Bedrooms

“Clean up that mess!” Getting kids to clean their bedrooms could very well be the factor that unites all cultures in every location in the world. It is extremely unlikely that the “clean up that mess” refrain is not heard in places as far-flung as Siberia, Japan, or Denmark, let alone in Texas, where granted, the messes are probably bigger than in other places. So what is it that is so hard about cleaning a bedroom anyway, and why don’t kids want to do it?

A question for the ages.

One week, I counted the number of times my wife recited the “clean up that mess script.” When I got to that fifth diagonal tally mark, I suggested she try varying the tone. She was not amused.

I offered to take over for my wife to give her vocal chords a bit of a vacation. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s just see how effective you are in getting the kids to pick up their rooms.”

“No problemo,” said I, affecting a nonchalance I did not feel. “Watch how the master does it.”

The next day was a Sunday. “Perfect,” I thought. “No school today. We’ll get those rooms into tiptop shape by sundown.”

At 8 AM I woke the kids, “I’ve got a big, hearty breakfast for you, kids. Come eat while it’s hot. We’ve got a big day ahead of us.”

shutterstock_77747272Somewhere in the vicinity of where I think my eldest child’s bed must be, under a mound of candy bar wrappers, colorful rubber bracelets begging me to save the seals, Pringles cans (jalapeno flavor), a poster of Miley Cyrus licking a hammer, the cat, and some dubious smelling gym clothes, I hear a muffled groan. Nothing from daughter number two, but I do see her foot sticking out of a similar pile on the opposite side of the room.

“Big day ahead,” I repeat superfluously. “Come and get it.”

I go down to the kitchen. I figure I’ll feed them well—the way to kids’ hearts being through their stomachs, or thereabouts, and then I’ll have this very reasonable talk with them about the state of their room.

Except they never show.

I go back up. “Time’s a tickin’,” I tell them with a jolly lilt, hoping they can’t hear the desperation creeping into my voice. My wife has gone out for the day, knowing I’m taking over her parenting duties for the day. She will be back at 4. Not enough Clorox in the world to make it happen. The mess is just too big and the kids are so well, ASLEEP.shutterstock_119325310

10 AM has come and gone. I go back upstairs. I cajole. “Who wants tickets to the Justin Bieber concert? Aaaaaaaall you have to do is get your room clean!”

Younger Daughter calls out from under the covers, “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew. Justin BIEBER?? No one likes HIM. He’s like so YESTERDAY, Daddy.”

Elder Daughter does her sister one better and sits bolt upright in her bed sticking her index finger down her gullet while issuing gagging sounds for dramatic effect.

By now I’ve had enough. “Get UP. CLEAN UP THAT MESS. RIGHT. NOW.”

At precisely that moment, the wife walks in, complete with smug smile plastered across her face. “Why, D-d-d-dear,” I stammer. “A little early, aren’t you?”

“I just figured that right around now you’d be needing me. You don’t quite have the right intonation. Try it again,” she encouraged, “The sound should come from deep within,” she said and then giggled. Loudly. And at length.

By now I felt a total fool. And then I laughed. And laughed some more. Before we knew what was happening, our two daughters were laughing with us. We were, the four of us, rolling on the floor. The spell had been broken. We were ready to tackle the mess. Together.

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We came up with a plan:

Divide and Conquer: We told the girls to imagine their room divided into quadrants and to tackle only a single quadrant at a session. That made the task more manageable from a psychological standpoint.

Show Them How: There’s a right and a wrong way to clean, just as there’s a right and a wrong way to do everything. Even if you’ve been showing your kids how to clean their entire lives, they may need a refresher course. The “wax on, wax off” scene from Karate Kid may offer inspiration here.

Don’t Make it About You: Cleaning their room is for their own benefit. Don’t fall prey to the martyr mommy (or daddy) script. And for heaven’s sake, don’t clean their rooms FOR them. You can help them, as long as you’re chilled and they know you’re doing them a favor and that ultimately, it’s their room, their responsibility.

Tie Responsibilities to Privileges: There is everything right with telling your child that she’s free to go hang out with her friends as soon as her room is clean. Or you can say that she can have time on the computer, as soon as her room is straightened. Cleaning isn’t a punishment, but privileges are earned through good works and after carrying out basic responsibilities. It’s as simple as that.

Relax—They Grow Up:  Like I said, it’s universal, the messy bedroom syndrome. Just as universal is the fact that kids grow up and move into homes of their own. Most of the time, they become just as house proud as their parents and learn to keep things neat and tidy with time and experience. In the meantime, it’s okay to pick your battles and to look the other way on a day when you’re feeling frazzled or stressed. You can totally talk to them about their rooms on a different and better day. For now, a few deep breaths (and eyes closed shut) will get you through. Tomorrow is another day.