A Simple Approach to Living With Less

Your Child’s Messy Room is Your Fault


If you are struggling with what to do about your child’s messy room, the person needing a pep talk isn’t your child. It’s you.

The word “fault” implies a sense of responsibility. Kids aren’t born with an automatic sense of responsibility. It’s up to us as parents to teach it to them. Do they need to learn to take responsibility for their own messes? Absolutely! But step back for a moment and think about how that mess got there in the first place.

The Source of Kid Clutter

Kids don’t usually buy their own toys. As the grownups, we are the ones cluttering up their rooms from the day they are born.

We often don’t set very good examples for our children either. Our closets, kitchens, and garages are filled to the max so where will our kids learn that clutter is a bad thing?

If we want something, we buy it. For years my kids thought the magic plastic cards we had in our wallets had an endless supply of money tied to them. If we don’t teach our kids about spending limits, how will they learn to avoid their own debts?

When it comes down to it, it’s our responsibility to put limits on our children.

The Day Mama Bear Cleaned Out the Den

Our internet was out this past week (did ya miss me?) and despite the initial frustration, it prompted me to examine some areas of my life that I had put on ignore. One of those areas was my boys’ room. They are nine and twelve and share a bedroom that also serves as our schoolroom.

Cleaning their room before school is one of their daily chores. I don’t know about you, but when my kids “clean” their room it never really feels clean. They manage to get the floor vacuumable but the clutter is still there. It’s perched on shelves, on top of dressers, and stuck between their bed and the wall. Thanks to IKEA more mess and trash is easily shoved into adorable red, blue, and white colored bins everywhere.

Last week, I had finally had it. I’ve done the nice motherly thing of cleaning out their room with them, evaluating the things they want to keep and what to give away, and organizing the entire contents of their room. That type of cleaning never lasts. That’s when it hit me…

My kids have too much stuff!

All the things I preach here on this site, somehow I had let slide with my kids:

So I attacked their room. With cardboard boxes and garbage bags in hand, I locked my kids out of their own room and didn’t emerge for several hours.

I removed roughly 80% of their stuff. A large portion was trash and a couple boxes where put up in the attic for a time when they can take better care of their possessions.

Did they like me cleaning out their room? Not really.

Did they interrogate me about what I threw out? Yep, they did. My reply was to challenge them to tell ME what was missing and then we’d discuss it. Of course, they couldn’t identify a single thing.

Is my method a little harsh? Maybe. But I couldn’t shake the realization that it was my fault my kids had a messy room.

By removing the majority of the stuff in my boys’ room, they have enjoyed playing more and clean up is a breeze. I feel better about not fussing about it and I’m sure they don’t miss the constant reminders about cleaning their room.

Whether you have a toddler or a teen, if their messy room is a problem then you need to take control of the situation.

What are your thoughts? How do you handle your child’s messy room?

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Article originally published on 02/08/2012

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  1. Amanda @ Better Is Little says

    I have done this myself. Actually we have to do this quite often as we have 6 children in 3 bedrooms. But you are so right about practicing what we preach. If we want our children to not be clutter lovers, we ourselves need to practice it.

    • Faith Janes says

      Thanks for commenting, Amanda. I love the name of your blog!

      It’s always been a challenge with my boys and neither of them wanting to take responsibility for who messed up their room. So removing most of the stuff has really helped with that problem too.

      • Do you worry that by being the one who decides what to get rid of, that you might be creating an issue where they become more of a hoarder as “their” stuff isn’t safe, even from one who is supposed to be bringing positive into their lives? Would it cause them to feel a loss of control as at this age children have little enough control over their lives as it is? That the message they get is not the one you are meaning? Going in and removing their stuff, while no doubt effective for a while, seems like it would erode their self confidence as our actions speak louder than our words and that action would seem to me to say “you are not capable of knowing what is good and what is junk”. And I am not trying to bash you here, I do actually wonder as I am currently trying to work with daughter on these issues.

  2. My strategy is to never let things get that far. My daughter is three (and I’m glad we were already minimalists when we had her) and she doesn’t have her own room, as we live in a one-bedroom apartment. She does have dozens of books, she has blocks, duplo lego, brio train, craft supplies, a rocking horse, a tepee, a bunch of stuffies and clothes for them.. I really do not want to deprive her. But I’ve found that she is quite the little minimalist on her own, she will turn down things, and even tell me she wants to give something away to another child.
    Her stuff doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t take long to put back into it’s place. Something I need to involve her more in. What I sometimes do if she refuses to pick up toys or paper scraps with me, is to ask her a few times and tell her that the toys in question (or her scissors or pens) are going away for a day or two if she doesn’t clean up with me.

    • Faith Janes says

      That’s great! I definitely wish we had figured out the blessing of minimalism when my boys were younger. It’s a lot harder to break bad habits that form good ones.

  3. I have similar thoughts on a regular basis. But….I think it’s actually my mom’s fault they have so much!! I’ve been removing things from their room for years now and very rarely do they ask where it has gone. I have a huge box in the garage full of stuff I’ve taken – now i need to get that box out of my garage.

    My girls are very good about paring down their own possessions and generously giving them to others, but often one girl is willing to let go of something and another is not. Since they share a room and are close in age, most of their “stuff” is also shared.

    You’ve given me some inspiration to get serious about this again. And yes, I did miss you last week!!!

    • Faith Janes says

      Thanks, Jill. It’s nice to be missed. 🙂

      Even though your mom is the one giving them things, you are taking responsibility for deciding if it gets to stay or not. So good job on that! I know plenty of people who wouldn’t get rid of something purely because it was a gift.

      I too have one son more willing to part with things than the other. Makes life interesting. I allow them to have a tiny drawer of “treasures” that I don’t question. But when stuff ends up shoved under the bed or constantly left out, they clearly don’t appreciate it or need it so that’s when I step in.

      I’ve also tried confiscating things left out and make them earn them back, but that really only works if it’s something they really use or like. If it’s just something else adding to the collective mess, that tactic doesn’t seem to work for them.

      • I actually have 4 or 5 brand new things from Christmas and my oldest’s birthday that the girls don’t even know about – it was just too much stuff from Grandma and I decided what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Thankfully we don’t live by Grandma, but this past year she has been wanting the girls to open their gifts via Skype….makes it a little harder to keep the gifts unknown : ) When this happened on the most recent birthday (last month) I took notice of what my daughter was most excited about. I put the rest in the box in the garage and she’s never mentioned missing them – I’m sure she doesn’t even remember she got them.

        • Faith Janes says

          Great way to be proactive, Jill. Limiting their gifts and noticing what they really enjoy playing with are both excellent ways to get ahead of the clutter problem.

  4. As I’m the minimalist, our oldest (3.5) sometimes fights me tooth and nail when it comes to getting rid of things. This past week, I got rid of their bookcase that kept the toys uber-organized. He didn’t care about getting rid of some of the toys (used the 4 bins in the Expedit bookcase to hold toys & books…two for each boy, 1 for books, 1 for toys), he was upset that I was selling the bookcase! At the end of the day when it sold, he didn’t look back. I’m thankful for being a minimalist before having kids…now if I could just convince family that the boys have enough! That is the hardest challenge (although my mom now keeps the toys she buys at her house because she knows I’ll get rid of it before it’s even taken out of the package).

    • Faith Janes says

      Convincing the rest of the family is always tough! But I love how your mom keeps the toys she buys at her own house. Of course, we live with my mom so I can’t steal that great tip but I still think it’s awesome! 🙂

  5. So true! I recently did a major purge of my kids toys before Christmas and their room managed to stay in reasonable shape for a few weeks. And then Christmas and a birthday came around and it’s starting to get crazy again. I need to go in a purge some more.

  6. We try and keep our children’s stuff to a reasonable level but it can easily get out of hand especially with 4 birthdays within 5 weeks of each other. I have done several things when purging. Sometimes I do it without their knowledge, sometimes we pick things to give to a specific family. I have also done a “buy back”. Even just a few dollars for a pile of stuff seems to break the emotional bond and makes the transition easier.

    This year we asked all the grandparents to give things that can be consumed – candy, bath crayons or bubbles, baking mixes (for our little chef), gift cards to favorite restaurants. Hopefully this year will be less cluttered!

  7. So true, and I myself have been guilty of enabling this behavior.
    We recently asked our kids to come up with 20 things each to donate to charity.. Which was a nice start.

    So many kids toys have so many little pieces, that they just scattered everywhere.
    Less toys, and more organization, is the only way to go. Everything *has* to have its place.

    The comments that folks are leaving about grandparents are right on as well. We always get so much junk on the holidays, most of which never really gets played with. This year, we are going to push hard for 1 or 2 gifts (without little pieces) or even better — a nice check for the kids’ savings accounts.

  8. I know this is true: Yes, my child’s clutter is my fault. But Faith, could you have a bit more creative with the title instead of smearing it in my face and causing my defensive wall to build? Every day we do only what we can do. And I will say this, my 13 year olds room is cleaner/less cluttered than my 8 year olds room and my 8 year olds room is cleaner/less cluttered than my 6 year olds room. I think younger children need to have the freedom to be creative with their toys and this sometimes means being able to leave them out. Now that doesn’t mean they can leave a trail in the hallway and not pick up things in public/communal space in the house. But for now, their rooms are their rooms and I will help them organize and declutter as seems appropriate. That said, any time an event arrises and we can clean off a bookshelf and donate some books or some toys or clothes-we do! Like you write, first we need to work on ourselves. I can’t yell at them about the mess, when I have my own-thanks for your postings. I enjoy reading them!

    • Amanda @ Better Is Little says

      I actually liked the title! Definitely caught my eye and immediately caught my attention! 😉

    • Faith Janes says

      Hi Rita. Thanks for commenting.

      The title may be a little harsh but not only am I reminding myself that my kids’ mess is my fault, I also want to tell it like it is. I see far too many parents just throwing their hands in the air and convincing themselves a messy room is just how it is.

  9. Yes, you were missed! 🙂

    Great post. Very true, all of it. I was just thinking last night that I should take today to get in to my girls’ room and start purging. Unfortunately, they both ended up home staying home. My two-year-old son’s room is always immaculate, I think because we haven’t allowed the cycle to continue with him.

  10. I think kids need guidance to learn how to find balance and declutter their items. Parents are the best examples of this. I also agree that we as parents are guilty of buying most of the stuff that is driving us crazy. It is our own faults and we should stop buying as much. We create our own frustration.

  11. I love this post & so very true. We are the parents & they are kids, we are ones in charge, yet we blame them for the cluttered room when really we probably bought half the stuff (grandparents the other half at least, if not more), it’s up to us to teach them & lead the way in a less cluttered life. Thank you for more inspiration=)

  12. Totally agree with this! When I started my new project (The Stripper Project) this year, one of the first things I did was empty out a huge amount of stuff from my teens’ rooms. They were overwhelmed with the stuff in their rooms and weren’t able to get on top of keeping them clean. Now they have the things they really want in their rooms and they are doing much better at keeping them clean.

  13. Amy Heath-Carpentier says

    Faith, I love this post! About every 3 months I shove my 8 year old out of his room (and the house) for a few hours and go nuts organizing, purging and such in his room. Mainly we end up with too much beautiful art and nature table/found objects that must be cleared through. At first, I would take a garbage bag, a recycling bag, and a bin to his room. I’d sort accordingly with the things I thought he might like to see again in the future going into the bin. Then the bin goes into the basement where I try to sort through them regularly, consolidate, and such. My 3 year old daughter hasn’t accumulated as much thus far. I really do believe that kids function better with less. If you haven’t read the book Simplicity Parenting, I’d recommend it for additional motivation for keeping kids rooms uncluttered! Blessings :0)

  14. So true Faith. Since my boys have only toys they play with and every toy has it’s ‘home’, tidying up is easy for them. Legos in one box, wooden block/trains in another box, cars on garage, animals in little box, any little treasures into each child’s ‘private box’, anything they want onto display onto their shelves.

  15. My daughter’s room was chock full of toys (and, later on, trash) from about age 4 to about age 9 or 10. Getting her to clean up or clean out was a Herculean task for. I did throw my hands up when she was 8 or so. Then she discovered the downside of a dirty, messy room: bugs. She does not like them. Never has. Between discovering trash attracts them and clutter allows them hiding places (plus a moment of “I want to be like my super awesome older cousin who I idolize and she told me she likes when my room is clean”), she suddenly started cleaning up.

    Well, she came to me complaining about how much time and effort it was to clean up. I pointed out it would take less time to clean up if she had less stuff. Now, I thought I was pretty good (at the time) about de-cluttering (ignore the whole I would just buy stuff to replace the other stuff- ultimately a bad method, I know). However, my then-10 year old purged over the course of a year more than 3/4 of her stuff. By herself. And it was her own choice. And she still does it to this day (she’s 13 now).

    And buy stuff? Rarely. The child is turning out to be something of a tightwad too. If I knew how this had come about, I would offer amazing tips on this bit of child-rearing. Alas, I don’t because I am baffled. Pleased but baffled. If anything, I should be taking lessons in minimalism and thoughtful spending from my teen. Talk about humbling. :]

  16. So true. Good habits make rooms cleaner and life easier.

  17. How I’d love to do this with my husband’s ‘office’! 🙂 My son is just 2, but we’ve already started implementing many of these things. For Christmas and his b-day this year we didn’t buy him any gifts. Grandma took care of that, and even then we got rid of about 75% of it before it even got to his bedroom. (G-ma is a bit of a shop a holic, and the gifts aren’t always very well thought out….she buys just to buy.) And he really only is interested in playing with his little plastic animals and reading books at the moment. He doesn’t want anything else! In fact, if I would let him go outside as much as he wanted, he probably wouldn’t want ANY toys! I’m all about keeping it simple!

  18. I really enjoyed this post! Thanks for laying it out like it is. Generous grandparents and family or not, the bottom line is that it’s our responsibility. Time to take drastic measures before I drown in kid-clutter!

  19. Camille Noonan says

    I love that you asked THEM to point out what you got rid of! That’s an excellent approach! I am about to head up to my daughters room and do the same until she gets home (or I’ll lock her out if more time is needed!) Thank you for the modivation!

  20. Thank you!! It is so nice to hear someone else express what I was thinking

  21. Tara McKone says

    Love this discussion! Thank you for sharing!

  22. natural mom says

    My husband buys all sorts of knickknacks, holiday junk, crafts, gems, board games, puppets, etc. Every time I donate the junk, husband buys more!!!!! It’s a vicious cycle of rampant consumerism – no self control!

  23. Clutter/mess does not equate to success or failure in life

  24. Pamela Silver says

    Thank you so much for this interesting and helpful article! I have two teenage boys and they are not very interested in cleaning their rooms. It is hard to communicate with a teenage anyways, so I hope that I will find the right way to explain them why they should keep their rooms tidy!


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