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Sometimes it happens that questions on a certain topic come at me in a wave, as has a recent spate of parental pleas for a final solution to the perennial messy room—a child’s that is. My answer is to first establish specific standards of neatness: clothes put away, floor picked up, bed made, etc. This is accompanied by the understanding that “inspection” will be held at a certain time every day, such as after the child has left for school. If the room does not pass inspection, consequences are forthcoming.

I recently recommended to a mom that if her ten-year-old son’s room did not pass inspection, he incurred an early bedtime; and if the room failed inspection more than once during the school week, his weekend privileges were restricted. Three weeks later, Mom reported that her son had been persuaded of the benefits of a neat, clean environment, and her constant nagging had stopped.

The occasional child—usually a teenager—will claim that he should be allowed to keep “his” room in any state he chooses. I agree, as long as the child is willing to shoulder “his” room’s share of the mortgage, insurance, and utilities. A child is not a boarder; he is a member of a family, and that membership, as do all memberships, carries with it certain obligations. It is irrelevant that said child did not ask to be a member. He is a member, period, and because he benefits enormously from that arrangement, he is obligated to apply himself to certain standards, period. Keeping one’s room neat and clean is a small price to pay. Besides, it is good discipline and can be justified on that basis alone.

A mother recently shared her creative approach to the problem. She had just finished cleaning her daughters’ room.

“As I cheerfully went around cleaning up papers and trash,” she wrote, “putting books on the shelf and throwing out stuff I found laying around, I remembered how I had once nagged, yelled, and harassed my kids to do things around the house. One day I decided to stop fighting the same battle over and over and over again.

“I started a service in our home called Mom’s Helping Hands. I made business cards on our home computer that listed the services I offer: room cleaning, chore finishing, picking up, kindling removal (one of our daughters stuffs paper into every available nook and cranny), and reminders. My motto, also printed on the cards, is ‘So convenient you don’t even have to call!’ When I perform a service on behalf of one of the kids, I simply leave my card behind to indicate that I expect to be paid.

“Needless to say, the kids hated it, but not enough to never need my services. Of course, the price is often more than they were planning on paying (loss of one or more privileges, usually), to which I simply point out that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Our home stays neater and quieter, and instead of high blood pressure I now get a chuckle out of helping the kids with their responsibilities.”

Which goes to show that sometimes the best way to beat ’em is to stop trying.

Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, call Elizabeth Stevens at (919) 403-8712.

Living With Children

by John Rosemond
From the January 2008 Signs