Helping Children Learn Clutter-Control Skills

By Kris Imherr
Illustration by Joel Snyder

It's never too soon to train a child in the small, daily routines that keep clutter at bay.

"Mess is stress!"

Like that as a rallying cry for order?

So did Connie Johnson of San Francisco, who credits her daughter, Ariel, for coining the phrase when she was 10. Their family had moved, Johnson recalls—"Everything was everywhere, and it was chaotic"—so she said to her offspring, "We have a problem here, and you need to be a part of the solution."

Her daughter's response—"Mess is stress"—signaled that her daughter understood the situation and could express it in terms meaningful to her, Johnson says.

And it's possible to make clutter control meaningful to a 10-year-old, 6-year-old, even a 16-year-old, says Johnson, a professional organizer, along with her fellow pros. (Yes, there are such people.)

Picking up, putting away—and more—are component skills of organizing. While organizing "is a dynamic activity [that] needs to flow and change as the person does," says Atlanta-based organizer Ramona Creel, founder of, a Web site dedicated to organizing solutions, it is "mostly about building habits. True organization doesn't come from a 'clean sweep' weekend, but from developing small daily routines that keep clutter at bay."

Creel, Johnson, and fellow organizing expert Donna Goldberg, of New York City, offer these pointers:

Get your act together, then your family together.

"You need to look at yourself for starters," says Johnson (owner of Routine Matters,, and a consultant whose stated mission is to help people have the life that works for them), "because it's very hard to teach a child something if you're doing the exact opposite.... [If] you're leaving piles of stuff all over the place, and you're telling the child, 'Go clean up your room,' it's like mixed messages."

But you don't have to conclude, "I have to be completely organized before I can organize my child," she adds.

Instead, she and Creel agree, uncluttering can be a family affair.

"Have a 15-minute period each a.m. and p.m. during which your kids are expected to put things back where they belong," Creel says. You can even make organizing fun. Don't just tell them what to do; let them design [storage] systems themselves. A child is a lot more likely to keep his room organized if he has a say in where everything goes." To wit: Engage your children's interest in organizing their possessions by seeking their input about storing or displaying them.

Define terms and agree on goals.

Make sure children understand, and concur with, your expectations.

Parents need to "be very language-specific," says Goldberg, a specialist in academics ( and author of The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond (Fireside, 2005). Parents "will say, 'Go...clean up the bathroom.' ... Does that mean, 'Get out the Comet and scrub the tub'? Or does it mean, 'I don't want to see your wet towels on the floor'?"

"You have to be very clear when you say to a child, 'This is what you're responsible to do,'" she says.

Because people "have different tolerance levels" for clutter, Johnson says, it's important to use unambiguous terms, describe what you see, and give detailed directions when needed. Many kids, she says, "need us to show, not just tell."

You can advance clutter control, she says, if you help children think how their lives will improve with less disarray: "Say, 'O.K., you will be able to get your homework done faster and go out and play. I won't be [raising my voice], because I won't be tripping over your things. There will be room for everybody's things.'"

Give children space and autonomy over it.

"Neat has to do with how things look, and organized has to do with how things function," Ramona Creel explains. "Parents often get so caught up in having their kids' rooms look 'neat' that they forget that the more important issue is how the space functions."

To that end, "you just have to ask the right questions," she says, including:

  • Can your child find the toy, item of clothing, or book he is looking for when he wants or needs it?
  • Is the space set up to support the activities your child engages in regularly?
  • Does it help him engage in those activities efficiently and with less frustration?
  • Have you set up storage spaces that make it easy for her to put things back when she is done with them?

Often, Donna Goldberg says, "we do not give children enough space.... We have an entire house in which to display our collections.... A child has his one room, and in many instances, it's shared space."

A child may be sharing his bedroom not only with a sibling but also with his unwanted past. Something adults do that sets up children for cluttering, Johnson says, is to "have an emotional attachment to some of their stuff, [and] we don't let them get rid of it."

Unless an object is an heirloom, which can be stored, or a valuable, which can be sold, "if they have the instinct to let it go, we should let them," Johnson says.

Extol their efforts—repeatedly.

Children learning organization are honing skills, so you may need to change your expectations, Goldberg advises. If you instructed them how to make a bed, and they made it, "don't expect it to look exactly like yours."

"Find the one wonderful thing they did in that.... [You] want to constantly find one thing that you can compliment.

"Perfect," she adds, "is never the goal. ... You don't want them to think that they're never doing it right. And they'll continue to do it when they're complimented.... [That's] just human nature."

Step back. Make choices.

We live in an age of a lot of stuff, the experts agree. Adults like to be generous and show love by giving a lot, Connie Johnson says. But children probably don't need nearly as much as they get. If belongings become encumbrances, "a good place to start is just to stop buying for a while," she says, "just to see what it feels like."

Generosity is still possible. "Start substituting physical gifts with more consumable gifts, or with experiences," she says. "I like to give experiences," like taking her daughter on "a really great trip."

"The key to being organized," says Creel, "is in making conscious decisions. Most of the clutter we accumulate—too much stuff, an overloaded schedule, papers everywhere—arises because we don't make conscious choices about how we are going to function."

Dallas freelance writer Kris Imherr also wrote "Helping Youth to See 'the Sunny Side of Life'" in the May-June issue.

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