Monday, July 25, 2011

The Art of Clean Bedrooms

Our house doesn’t have a lot of clutter, and our teenagers don’t have anything on their floors except furniture and musical instruments.  It’s not because we’re cleanliness fascists, or that we keep our house like a museum.  On the contrary, we have a steady flow of friends visiting, having a meal, or staying overnight, and it is a constant chore to stay ahead of the little things that collect around the house.  But when parents come to pick up their children from our house, they are always commenting on how “clean” the house is, and begging for our secret to keeping the kid’s rooms clean.  In fact, many parents sheepishly admit to us that they’ve given up the battle over room cleaning, and just close the kid’s bedroom doors while pretending that they don’t actually have bedrooms.  Since we value personal responsibility, we have intentionally trained our kids to be responsible for the upkeep of their rooms.  We’ve accomplished our uncluttered state using three important guidelines: we don’t let our kids collect too much stuff, we trained them by cleaning alongside them, and we make them responsible for their personal possessions.

From the beginning, we’ve worked hard not to collect extra, unnecessary possessions. In our house, we don’t cover every horizontal surface with “knickknacks,” and we think that garages are for parking cars, not collecting unused junk.  If we had an extra attic or basement room, we would use it for people, by making it a game room or a guest room, instead of letting junk collect in it, and that’s the philosophy we’ve passed on to our children.  About twice each year, usually in preparation for Christmas, birthday gifts, or back-to-school shopping, we go through each child’s room with them, and clear out the old detritus.  If a toy has worked its way to the bottom of the toy chest or the back of the closet, it leaves the house.  We figure that if we aren’t using something, we should make it available for someone else to use.  For teens and adults, we use the 1 year rule, “if you haven’t used this for a year, you don’t need it anymore.”  We usually do this in teams of two or more, for emotional support, and to make sure that items don’t stay because “I’m going to use it now that I remember it’s here.”  In the end, we still hold on to one or two unused items, for sentimental value.  Becky is brutally efficient at this process.  When things are misplaced, she gets accused of throwing them out (she denies that she would throw anything out without permission, and that’s almost always true, except for the sentimental items that should have been cleared out, and will never be missed anyway).  On the other hand, Rick and the kids have a tougher time throwing away perfectly good stuff, so we got into the habit of giving away the more valuable objects. 

We have an agreement that Becky can get rid of perfectly good stuff, as long as she gets accurate receipts and takes pictures of items for the taxes before she gives them away.  As you can imagine, the closet where we stage donations is somewhat contentious.  Becky would rather get rid of it right away, but she’s waiting for a child to spread it out and take pictures before she can donate it.  Plus there’s always the risk that Rick with dig through the donation closet, and save some treasure from being donated for at least another year. 

When it was time to give away our daughter’s Barbie® doll collection, we had a long talk about how she hadn’t played with them for a long time, how dad would probably not get around to listing them on eBay, and how much another girl would enjoy them.  It was a great joy for all of us when we delivered two large boxes of Barbie® dolls to a local neighbor girl, and watched her light up over the gift.  They are probably still living in the back of that girl’s closet today. When we can’t find a suitable neighborhood child, we give away our older possessions to local charities (Rick makes sure we get a receipt for tax purposes).  Perhaps the best experience we had giving away our possessions was when our pre-teen daughter finally parted with her cherished plush toy collection, including those collectable little bears, by personally giving them to poor children in Mexico.  For many of those children, that new plush toy became the only toy they owned.  Their expressions of gratitude touched and impacted our daughter deeply.

For most children, cleaning their room is paramount to being locked away in the high castle tower, with no hope of pardon or success before they are distracted.  Parents send them off to their rooms, where they must complete a tedious task alone and poorly equipped.  When our children became old enough to start cleaning up their toys, we bought giant toy boxes, and picked up toys alongside them.  We would ask them to put a toy in the toy box (which had enough room, thanks to our anti-junk policies), at the same time that a parent was also putting a toy in the box.  Since it was always our goal to make responsible adults, not compliant servants, we worked alongside them, teaching them what it meant to clean a room.  This started with picking up toys and putting them in the box, and moved on to putting books on shelves and making beds, and eventually to putting away laundry and other complicated cleaning tasks like dusting and vacuuming.  We provided adequate storage space, and helped the kids get rid of junk once they ran out of storage.  This approach didn’t always go as planned, but it always remained a priority in our family.   

Each time we asked our kids to clean their rooms, we worked alongside them, training and assisting them, progressively working them into doing more of the job.  Whenever we started training on a new cleanup skill, we had to lower our expectations dramatically for a season.  At first, toys would hang over the edge of the toy box, books wouldn’t be straight, bedcovers wouldn’t be even, and closets wouldn’t close.  We felt the freedom to do extra parental cleaning before receiving important guests, but the rest of the time we just recognized that we were teaching inexperienced cleaners, with less-than-perfect results. 

By taking this approach, room cleaning was an opportunity for our children to spend time with a parent, not a sentence to the dungeon, where they would probably get distracted by a toy, and eventually get caught playing with it when they should have been putting it away.  As much as possible, we tried to have the children put one set of toys away before they started with another, and clean everything up before bed time, but we also tried to leave enough freedom for the creativity that only comes from leaving a major project, like a blanket fort, or a formal tea party, set up for more than one day.  Once our kids hit the “I need my space” pre-teen years, they didn’t really want our help cleaning up their rooms anymore, and have only needed occasional reminders that something is sitting on the floor that shouldn’t be, or that their desks and dressers needed cleaning off.  Sometimes we help them clean out the junk, and sometimes they just want to do it on their own.  This doesn’t mean that our system is perfect, because Becky will still make a tour of the bedrooms every few days, collecting the odd dirty dish or ice pack, just for her own sanity.

What about laundry, the ultimate impediment to clean rooms?  We handle laundry with a couple of processes and rules.  At the end of the day, all clothing either goes into the laundry hamper, or in the case of sweatshirts and jeans that will be worn the next day, either on a hook on the back of their door or into a bin in their closet.  Normally, no one goes to go to bed with dirty laundry in their room.  This generates more laundry for us, but the kids eventually took over the laundry chores anyway.  If any child starts going through multiple outfits per day, they ended out doing one load of laundry per day as part of their chores.  Whichever child was doing the laundry was responsible for putting shirts and pants on hangers, and dumping everything else on the master bedroom floor, although the trip from the laundry room to the master bedroom often requires a reminder. 

At the end of the day, as part of the bedtime routine, each child sorts out their laundry from the master bedroom floor and the hung clothing, and puts it into their room.  If we’ve washed their sheets or towels, they also deal with those.  We started this nightly routine by carrying clothes with them before tucking them into their toddler beds, and now they do it themselves.  In a perfect world, this would happen smoothly every night, but in reality, most nights someone overlooks a shirt or pair of socks in the master bedroom, and we have to call them back to reclaim their clothes. Unless we’re packing for a trip, we don’t fold any of the kid’s clothes; things that shouldn’t be wrinkled, including T-shirts, are on hangers, and everything else gets stuffed into drawers without folding, including the boy’s pants.  When we’ve been short on drawer space, we’ve provided the kids with bins for their closet floors, where they can dump pants or shorts, and close the closet door.  It’s not perfect, but we’ve got the closet space, so we might as well use it, right? This approach can make it a little tougher to find their only pair of black socks for band concerts, and the boy’s school pants may be wrinkled, but there are never any clothes in view inside our kid’s bedrooms.

This doesn’t mean that everything is always perfect, or that we don’t have to enforce a few rules around personal possessions.  Part of respecting each other’s privacy is not inflicting our messes and possessions on each other.   When one of the kids spreads their stuff out in a common area of the house (tables, floors, cabinets or chairs), they need to clean it up when they are done.  This means that homework is cleaned off the kitchen table in time for dinner, game controllers are put away in the cabinet, snack containers are put back, and snack dishes are put in the dishwasher.  Kids have an amazing ability to see the smallest bug in the back yard, but miss perfectly obvious dishes, so they often need parental help “seeing” what still needs to be put away while they are cleaning up. When our kids were young, we worked with them to clean their toys and crafts out of the common areas of the house.  Now they don’t want us messing with their stuff, so they do it themselves (with the occasional reminder).  If we find the kid’s unattended stuff laying around in plain view, like shoes blocking a hallway, or dirty dishes on an end table, we discipline them.  When the kids ask for a special privilege, like inviting a friend over, or having a “pajama Saturday,” (where they don’t have to get dressed or ready until noon), we review whether any of their stuff is in plain sight, the status of their room (is your bed made and your floor clean?), and the progress of their chores, music practice, and homework before making a decision.  Minor infractions will have to be resolved before they get a privilege, and major infractions will cost them computer game time or time with friends.

Our kid’s responsibly for personal possessions includes any trash they generate.  The kid’s wrappers, empty container and other trash can be a problem in many places, but we find that it is worst in vehicles.  Parents are amazed that with all of the kids we drive around, we don’t have a blanket of trash on our car floors all the time, but it all comes down to one policy, “give me your trash.”  As soon as our children could unwrap or use up packages, we insisted that they give us all of their trash.  For each item we gave them, we’d ask to have the trash back. This worked especially well in the car, where we always kept a small, reusable trash bag in the front of the car, but it also applied in the store, or around the house.  Whenever our kids found themselves with trash, they knew what do to with it – give it to mom or dad.  Even if there was a trash can close by (that wasn’t too disgusting for a small child to touch), we would have the kids give us their trash.  Over time, we began passing the car trash bag back to them, so they got into the habit of putting their trash into a trash bag.  Now when we drive, the kids either pass their trash forward, or ask for the trash bag, and we almost never have trash lying around in the car.  We might have pulverized crackers or the odd French fry, but usually not any wrappers or containers, unless we’ve been on a long driving trip, when we usually have to do a thorough post-trip cleaning of the car anyway.

What often surprises parents picking up their children is that we’ve successfully applied our rules to guest children while they’ve been in our house.  We insisted that our kid’s guests help put away one set of toys before getting out another (with adult help and encouragement, as needed), and that they put away what they were playing with when their parents arrive to pick them up.  The kid’s dinner guests have to clean up toys before dinner, and put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher before getting out any other toys.  We don’t worry whether overnight guests have brushed their teeth or combed their hair, but we won’t feed them or let them get toys out until their bags are packed and their bedding is put away (with adult help, if they’ll accept it).  When parents pick up their kids after a major slumber party, the luggage and sleeping bags are piled up in the kid’s bedroom, where there is nothing on the floor except furniture, and the breakfast dishes are put away.  Somehow, however, we always seem to have one lone sock that goes unclaimed each time.  If they left a pair of socks, we’d launder them and donate them to charity, but since it’s always one lone sock, Rick places it in the rag bin after all of our guests are gone, where it stays until Becky finds it and dutifully throws it away.