The piles of dirty laundry, the bed that hasn't been made for weeks, the damp towels harvesting mold in the corner. You call it a health hazard; your preteen calls it his room.
Strangely enough, that mess means your child has reached a new level of maturity. Christian child psychologist Todd Cartmell says, "As kids grow up, they naturally desire increased control over their lives. Even though they don't 'own' their room, they still view it as their property and private space. Often, with increased autonomy, the child wants to see what happens when he takes liberty with the room." Cartmell says it's part of the natural process of growing up.
All the same, young adolescents need limits to help them start taking responsibility for their belongings. But Cartmell says parents need to keep their child's growing independence in mind as they set these limits. "By first recognizing kids' autonomy needs," says Cartmell, "parents demonstrate respect and flexibility while still upholding standards and consequences. This models leadership that balances strength with warmth."
Cartmell encourages parents to lay out clear, realistic expectations for preteens. As you do, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Let your child know that you recognize his growing need for freedom and that you'll do your best to respect that need. For example, don't throw away anything that belongs to him; instead, give him guidelines as to the kinds of things he can keep in his room, then ask him to sort through his stuff himself. Give your child a detailed explanation of what you consider acceptable daily "neatness." Write it out so there will be no confusion. A simple list might include making the bed, picking up clothes from the floor, and not leaving food or garbage lying around.
- Agree on a weekly "straighten-up" day that includes a more thorough cleaning such as wiping down the furniture, emptying the garbage, putting away the laundry. Write these cleaning tasks out, too. Sign off with a parental room check.
- Explain that keeping things clean and orderly reinforces self-respect and shows respect for those you live with. Hold yourself accountable to the same expectations you have of your children. Colossians 3:17 tells us to handle all situations—even messy rooms—in a way that glorifies God. This means not only how we look after our belongings, but also how we handle problems together. "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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Summer 2002, Vol. 14, No. 3, Page 22