Messy bedrooms and kids seem to go hand in hand. Bill Cosby in many of his comic monologues used to call his mother the best judge of pigsties that had ever existed, and she would judge his bedroom as the worst looking pigsty she had ever seen. It can be difficult to make kids clean messy bedrooms; it’s easier if you establish good habits when they're young.
When children are young, you can institute several rules to help avoid messy bedrooms. Even children at the age of two or three can begin to understand certain things, though they will need help to keep their bedrooms clean. One important rule, especially when a child has many toys, is the following: Put away the current toy before you take out another. It can help to have defined places to store each type of toy like plastic bins and baskets. If a child has little storage space and a lot of toys, it’s going to be difficult to keep things clean.
Think of the first few years as a learning process and do not assign too many chores in these early years. Hundreds of toys littering a bedroom floor may seem overwhelming to a toddler. When a messy bedroom has really gotten out of hand, it may be too much for toddlers to clean on their own and they will need your help. Try to make helping and cleaning a fun experience instead of a negative one. Don’t forget to praise the child quite a bit for being so helpful.
As kids get a little older, you can add to their list of chores and rules about avoiding messing bedrooms. Children as young as four or five may be taught to make beds (probably with a little help), and you can let them know that you expect toys to be put away after use. Discourage things like eating in bedrooms, which tends to create more mess.
Another good chore to teach at this time is care of dirty laundry. If the child’s room is big enough, have a laundry basket in the room. If not, instruct children to bring dirty laundry to a central laundry basket or washroom each day. Children slightly older can begin vacuuming, and even washing windows they can reach with a safe vinegar and water solution.
A simple “we work before we play” rule helps children understand that privileges like TV watching, visiting parks, or having computer time depend upon avoiding messy bedrooms. When children can’t follow these rules, instead of negative incentives, merely state that privileges must be earned and the work before play rule is always in place. Practice what you preach, because children will soon learn to make a comparison between the state of your room and the house and your activities. If you play before you work, don’t expect a child to do anything differently.
When children won’t follow this rule, and messy bedrooms stay messy, there are some solutions to help keep them cleaner. You can, as Dr. Phil suggests, get real with kids. If they won’t clean up their toys within a specified and reasonable time, remove toys from the room and put them in storage for a while, until children can demonstrate their ability to clean up. Really stay on the work before play rule and reduce privileges, but always remember that younger children may need more help than older children. Don’t expect a pre-schooler to fully clean; instead, clean with them.
If you haven’t enforced these rules when kids are younger, messy bedrooms may be a common sight, especially among pre-teens and teens. It’s not too late, but it will take some talking and teaching of a child to help keep rooms neat. Have places to store things like important homework, toys, and books, and have a good laundry basket in the room or teach kids to clean the room of all dirty laundry once daily. Work before play applies to teens as well as younger children, and if necessary, removes play items from rooms like TVs or computers until kids get this concept.
Discourage or ban eating in bedrooms, possibly limiting kids to having a water glass in their rooms, and let them know you expect any glasses to be placed in the sink or dishwasher each day. Teach or reteach making beds, and if needed, have a checklist that children can mark off each day. You may encounter some resistance at first, but most kids are able to come up to task, especially if messy bedrooms get in the way of their usual amusements.