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You know how it goes: the kids are in bed and the playroom is a disaster. Or they all run outside to play, but Legos and video game cartridges are scattered everywhere. Why? Why doesn’t it occur to them to put things away before going on to something else?

You know the answer. Children – most children, anyway – are not born neat. The impulse to put things back is virtually nonexistent in most kids. It’s an impulse that has to be carefully encouraged. If your children leave their things everywhere, it’s because putting them away hasn’t been a priority – for you!

If your children are very small so that playing independently (and making messes independently) is a fairly new thing, then it’s easy to create new patterns. But even if your children are older and leaving a mess seems perfectly normal to them, it’s not too late to break an old habit by starting some new ones. Here’s how.

Have places for things. It’s hard to put things away when you’re not certain where they go. Invest in shelves, colorful bins, and dressers, many of which you can find at thrift shops and garage sales. Since part of the problem of mess-making is associated with dumping out a box to find the one item that’s buried, choose shallow storage and plenty of it. One large, deep toybox is not the answer. Many small drawers and bins is.

Make certain storage is accessible. Tall shelf units make it hard for children to get things down and even harder to put them back up. Make certain that containers and drawers are easy for children to open and close. If you decide to label bins, label them with your children’s abilities in mind, using large, easy-to-read print or pictures.

Edit what’s available. Often there’s just too much stuff: too much to buy boxes for it all, too much to fit on the shelves, too much to have in a room and still have room for play. So move the excess into a closet. Rotate what’s handy for play every couple weeks. There will be less clutter simply because there’s less stuff and children may find it easier to play without distractions when there’s less stuff getting in their way.

Make time for putting stuff away. Too often we hurry kids off to bed or off to Spanish lessons without taking time to put toys away first. But if you want to make being neater a habit, you’ve got to give it some attention. Start by cleaning up at key points during the day: before lunch time, before leaving to go somewhere, before dinner, and before bed might be good points to make it a point to pick things up. It’s easier to clean up at several times during the day – many small messes – than to just once a day put away an entire day’s accumulation.

Teach how. Children who haven’t been asked to put things away may not really know what “away” looks like or how to tackle the job of cleaning up. So just ordering them to put away their things isn’t enough. You have to show them. Get down on the floor and participate. Share the job. Work together to decide where things go. Help them to be efficient by setting a challenge – “how much can we clean up in just two minutes?” Take time to admire the nice neat space you achieve together.

Set a good example. Take a look at your own office or kitchen and see if looks as messy as the children’s playroom. You’re busy – just like your children are busy – and of course you don’t have time to put things away before starting something new. But this is the same excuse your children make. Instead of making excuses, set a good example by being more neat yourself.

Help your child to break her careless habit. Understand that if a child has been leaving strewn toys in her wake for years, it will take time for her to learn to be neat. Don’t expect overnight success and don’t punish lapses too harshly. Instead, teach and reteach. Be firm and clear with your expectations and be consistent in what you expect. A week of consistency from you will get quicker results than a month of off-and-on attention to the problem. And remember to talk with your child about the problem and the solution. Get her on board at the beginning and let her help in keeping track of her progress.

Most children were not born neat but every child can become a bit neater than he is already. Take time to teach what you want to see and see what good things can happen.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

A certain amount of clutter is part of childhood. It’s an artifact of the speed of children’s development and the range of their thoughts and ideas. Trying to keep children too neat squelches creativity and limits intellectual growth. So an obsession with neatness, if that’s your issue, is your issue. Concentrate on keeping things in hand, not with apple-pie-order.

At the same time, great disorder overwhelms a child’s sensibilities. Some children are more susceptible to this than others, and need more clarity in their stuff. Even for more typically mess-tolerant kids, understanding order is the first step towards self-discipline. Montessori knew this. She knew that an orderly environment is essential for intellectual and creative growth.

So what can you do to reduce kids’ clutter without becoming a neat-freak?

Reduce what’s immediately available. With your child, if possible, sort through things and box up stuff that’s not needed right now. Store these boxes in a closet or basement but do NOT fall into the trap of moving toys to rented storage space. No toys are worth their own apartment! The idea here is to make neatness easier by reducing the number of things needing space.

Remove what’s no longer wanted. Be ruthless. Don’t keep things toys or clothes your children have outgrown for your future grandchildren or just because you spent a lot of money on it. Move it out – maybe first to boxed storage but then to Goodwill or to friends. Stuff that is broken and unwanted needs to go to the trash. Don’t save it “for parts.”

Replace the old with the new. If something new comes in, something old goes out, to boxed storage or out of the house completely. Some parents keep a 100 Toys list on the computer – the 100 toys that are in the playroom and a child’s bedroom. When something new is added to the list, something else is deleted. This rule requires a lot of self-discipline but it helps when your child is begging for some item to ask him to consider what he’ll get rid of to make room for the new toy.

Restrain new purchases. Not every nifty thing that catches your child’s eye deserves a place in your home. Resist the impulse to buy souvenirs when you travel or “bribe-toys” to shut your child up on a shopping trip. Avoid the necessity to “collect them all.” Recognize this for what it is – a marketing ploy.
Stuff is just stuff and the lifespan of most toys is pretty short. When you do buy toys and things, buy quality items with real play value.

The secret to an uncluttered life is a shift in perspective. No matter how cute and beloved something once was, your family doesn’t owe it anything, least of all a permanent place in your lives. Permanent places are reserved for the people in your family, and maybe for your pets. Inanimate objects must earn their shelf space or give it up.

Help your children to a proper perspective on “things” and guide them in knowing when to let things go.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

Teachers often decorate a classroom with colorful art pieces from their students. Yet a recent study conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that rooms with too many decorations or distractions could be detrimental to children’s learning.

Have you ever walked into a childcare center or preschool classroom and been overwhelmed by all the colorful stuff on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and even laid across the floor? I have! Now a study by psychologist Anna V. Fisher, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that all that visual clutter might have a negative effect on learning.

Fisher used a classroom of 24 kindergarteners and six science lessons as the basis for her study. Three of the lessons were taught to the children in a sparsely-decorated space; the other three lessons were taught in a heavily-decorated classroom. After each lesson, students were quizzed on the content. The result? Lessons taught in the plainer classroom resulted in higher quiz scores (55 percent correct) than did lessons taught in the visually-busy room (42 percent correct).

Certainly this is a small-scale study of limited scope but it suggests something you might have suspected to be true: that children’s attention can be diverted by their surroundings and can result in paying less attention to what we might want them to notice. In fact, it’s been established that children have “open attention” – meaning they process all sensory information equally – in contrast to adults’ more focused attention, in which we are able to filter out what is important and attend only to that.

It seems to me that it’s not just teachers and classrooms that might be a problem. If your young child seems to have trouble focusing, seems easily distracted, and never listens look around. Is there a lot of clutter?

Goodness knows, it’s hard to keep things neat with children in the house. But if clutter in classrooms makes children perform less well, it seems reasonable to guess the same might be happening at home.  Here are some tips to try:

  1. Make it a habit to pick up books and toys at least before bedtime every day. Together. This isn’t a task for the grownup but something for the children to do, though we know they’ll need your help. Start each day with a clean playroom, instead of with the mess from the day before.
  2.  Keep children’s rooms on the spare side, instead of letting them fill up with boxes and bins and shelves full of stuff. Less might mean more when it comes to attention and good behavior. This doesn’t mean you should throw the excess out but that it should be stored away. Rotate toys, instead of having them all available all the time.
  3. Keep clothes drawers lean too. What’s in a child’s dresser and closet should be what actually fits him now, not what he’s going to grow into and what he’s already grown out of.
  4. Pay attention to media clutter too. If the television is always running in the background, if there’s the “zap-ping-pow” of video games going off all the time, or music is blaring distractingly, tone things down. Teach your media-lovers how to use the volume switch and where the headphones are kept… and even how to turn the sound off altogether.

If sometimes things at home are so distracting and crazy you “can’t hear yourself think,” imagine what it’s like for your children, who have trouble enough thinking even on a calm day.  Control the clutter and your kids may find it easier to control themselves.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

It starts before your child is born, this love affair with stuff. Baby showers are designed to heap stuff in the new baby’s direction. Once the baby is born, more stuff joins the rest. At baby’s first holiday and first birthday, gifts of stuff pile up, all expressions of the giver’s love. And as the years go by, more stuff accumulates. All of it nice. All of it useful. All of it seeming to come with responsibility for its care.

How can you manage the things your child accumulates without hurting the feelings of those who gifted her and also without taking on the role of curator at some personal toy museum? Here are some ideas. These thoughts are about “gifts” but they apply as well to things your children buy for themselves.

A gift comes without strings. This means that once a gift is given, the giver has no longer any claim on it. You are free to keep it, give it away, or turn it into something else as it pleases you and your child. It might seem like there are strings but they evaporate pretty quickly if you understand that they can. The only string is the necessity for thanks. Say “thank you” and move on.

A gift is a message. It tells you something about the giver and something about the giver’s perception of your child. So something your child receives might be not on-target for your child, although the giver thought it might be. The gift might not really be for your child so much as it’s something for the giver, who loves it and wishes someone had given something like it to him when he was young. Gifts require you to read between the lines and understand the message that’s being conveyed. Include this in your “thank you” and move on.

“Oh, Auntie! What lovely colors! How did you think of this for little Sammie?”

Every gift is outgrown. Some gifts never come into their own. They were off-target at the start and they never quite clicked. Other gifts are a hit for a few weeks or months but then fade in importance. Outgrown gifts become clutter. If they can be put away for use by a younger sibling, then there’s value maybe in storing them in the basement. Otherwise, it’s time to move them on.

Outgrown gifts need to move on. Some gifts have a short shelf-life and are not intended to last. These – lucky finds from the Dollar Store and feathers from the side of the road (gifts of birds) – can go straight to the recycle bin or trash bag without anyone shedding a tear. Other gifts, clean and in good shape, can be sold at a yard sale, given to charity, or given to a friend. Somewhere there’s a good home for these toys but your child’s toy box no longer is it.

And then there are gifts that came with Big Messages: the hand-knit sweaters long outgrown, the fancy mobile from the Museum of Modern Art, that expensive German tricycle. Before you give these away or sell them, ask the giver if she’d like to have a Big Message gift back. Remember, these gifts might mean more to the giver than you imagine and she might ask about them even years down the road. The wise parent will be up-front about the need for the gift to go (and maybe exaggerate just a bit the original love for the item):

“Auntie, Sammie loved the mobile you gave him but he’s outgrown it, of course. Would you like it back?”

Make your child part of the process. If your child is old enough to look back on the time an item was fun with the realization that that fun is now outgrown, then your child is old enough to help with the sorting. Clearing out the clutter, and moving usable toys on to others who might like them, is a good lesson in the ephemeral value of stuff and the enduring value of people and relationships. Involve your child if you can. But you may run into some opposition.

A child may cling to an item because of what it meant to her, long after the item has lost its usefulness and long after you think it should go. I have still a red plaid Pendleton skirt I got for Christmas one year because it signified my parents’ love at a time I really needed some validation. Your child might cling to an item too. If so, you can encourage your child to give this item a place of honor or to repurpose it in some way – my old skirt each year encircles the base of my Christmas tree!

The key is to not permit every bygone toy achieve significant status. One or two items, yes. More than that indicates some issue. The issue may be simply a mismatch between your perception of the toys and your child’s. In that case, just wait a bit. But a need to keep everything, even scraps and broken bits, might signal an underlying insecurity, the overvaluing of things over people that can be an indicator of autism, or even an inherited tendency to compulsive hoarding. Keep an eye on your child’s relationship to his stuff and get help if help seems needed.

Things are lovely and getting gifts is a wonderful experience. There’s no need to limit our love of things. But there is a need to not be enslaved by our stuff. It’s good to be able to give it away.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.