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Here’s the scenario: your child needs a jacket in the morning because it’s chilly. But by afternoon, things have warmed up, and the jacket gets left behind, either at school or on the playground. Or your child’s jacket starts the trip home with him but on the way it drops unnoticed onto the sidewalk or onto the floor of the school bus.

You spend good money on stuff your child needs and wants. Money – as we are all too aware – doesn’t grow on trees. So you’re quite naturally frustrated and upset when your child’s things go missing and have to be replaced… or when things get broken through carelessness. How can you help your child be more mindful when the only thing on his mind is his friends and play?

Here are some factors to consider.

First, how old is your child?
Up to age six there’s not much hope your child will end the season with the same jacket she began. So lighten up a little. It’s just stuff. Too much focus on keeping track of belongings may make children anxious and obsessive. Instead, outfit your kids from the thrift store or get things that are easily replaced (consider, for example, buying three pairs of mittens all the same at the start of the winter). Expect loss.

By the time your child enters grade school years he can start taking a bit more responsibility. In fact, learning to be responsible is more valuable than any jacket. Help your child to notice what he’s taking to school and notice what comes back. Help him think through where he will put items while at school so he remembers to bring them home. Let kids keep track of their success but go easy on the crabbing over clothing. Even now, shopping at the thrift store will keep you sane.

In the middle school years, establish ground rules for lost items before they go missing. What will you replace without question and what will be replaced once or twice? What items must the child replace if they are lost and the child wants another? Setting the ground rules before a loss occurs puts the child on notice that she is the one responsible, not you.

If your high school student loses anything, you can be sympathetic but not very quick to replace. Instead, suggest (nicely) strategies for “next time.”

Second, why does your child lose things?
Run through this little mental checklist:

___ Does your child have too many things to keep track of? Fewer things increases the value of what’s left. Maybe you need to pare down.

___ Is there no place for things to be? “A place for everything and everything in its place” only works if there are places. Designate a spot where jackets, mittens, backpacks and sports gear live when they’re not being worn. Talk to your child about where she can put something at school or on the playground if she takes it off while playing.

___ Does your child have little thinking ability for remembering? Young children may not recognize their own things in different contexts. A jacket on the playground may be anyone’s jacket to your child, even though he would recognize it if it were hanging in his cubby in the classroom. Little kids may not have well-developed memory capacity. They may not actually remember what they brought to school that day or what it looked like.

___ Does your child have no mental strategies for remembering? Kids may not have well-developed methods for thinking of alternative locations for what’s missing and so may give up when the assumed location comes up empty. My then-eight-year-old grandson “lost” a DVD when it wasn’t where he thought it should be, even though it was lying in plain sight. Kids also may be unable to think ahead and place items in locations where they’ll be seen and found.

___ Finally, does your child just not care? If she has not been held responsible for her things in the past (even though she is old enough to be more responsible) or if you’ve just always replaced lost items, then taking care of things may not seem very important. This is a message you’ll need to retract.

What to do now?
If your child is old enough to start being more responsible for his things, then it’s only fair to let him know. At a quiet time – when nothing’s been lost recently – talk about your wish that he step up a bit. Together, choose one item or one set of items to keep track of (maybe his jacket or his sports gear or his backpack), and set a challenge for not losing this item for a week. Then another week. Then maybe a month. With some success at one item, you can add another.

Realize there will be some setbacks. If your child is especially unfocused, you may need to be more supportive. Talk about where the target item should be put, how to mentally say “I know where it is. It’s in… my closet,” and how to retrace her steps if the target item comes up missing. Being more responsible is a skill that requires teaching. So teach.

And do understand that it is just stuff. Your child and her happiness mean more.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.