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Tuesdays with Jane: What if you’re an organized parent with a disorganized child?

There are children who naturally make to-do lists, who choose their own reasonable bedtime and stick to it, who get upset when they can’t do their homework right when they get home from school, and who keep their rooms clean—even inside their closets and drawers. If you were one of these children, parenting offspring who show no signs of your natural gifts of organization is as frustrating as roller-skating in a buffalo herd (the title of a really old song…).

Believe me, as someone who was a disorganized child with a librarian for a mother, what worked for you will not work for kids like me! They aren’t lazy or irresponsible; rather, they just aren’t wired like you are. Here are some of my Mom’s strategies that worked with me—and in turn, that worked with my own disorganized kids…

  • Minimize, but be clear about, nonnegotiables. Our beds had to be made. That meant we had to clear junk off the beds. You might think things just got piled elsewhere, but since we also had to prove once a week that things were dusted (shake dresser scarves and rugs), we only let piles get so high.
  • Set deadlines. Instead of “Clean up your room now!” try a note on the bathroom mirror such as “Bedrooms will be ready for you to vacuum thoroughly before supper tomorrow or there will be no screen time (TV, computer, cell phones, games) until they are ready.” Most kids know that rooms at some point need to be shoveled out, but letting them decide exactly when often provides just enough autonomy and choice to get them moving on it…eventually. This even works with teens where, on most days, you’re quietly closing the door rather than having to see the mess!
  • State natural consequences. We never lost a puzzle or game piece, and our Barbie accessories were in collectible condition, because Mom drilled into us, “If you don’t put things away, pieces get lost or broken.” We knew that was true—we’d tried to play games at friend’s houses with broken spinners and cracked “Trouble” dice poppers. While she’d let us leave out our Lincoln Log town with the Tonka Truck garage until we were through playing with our masterpiece of engineering, even if that was three days later, she then encouraged us to get everything back in its rightful place.

If these simple strategies seem like compromise, think of the long-term goals instead of the short-term mess. You want your children to care for things, maintain a healthy environment, and eventually be responsible for staying organized. With those long-term goals, there’s no need to worry about Legos strewn across the living room in a frenzy of building, as long as you and your children agree on when they go back in the box.

Jane is an educational consultant, specializing in teambuilding, coaching, and school staff development. She is also the coauthor of more than 20 books. Jane’s website  is