Messy Room Update: I Let My 5-Year-Old Stop Cleaning Her Room And The Results Have Been Disastrous

messy roomI was so tired of the “Clean your room!” debate. I didn’t like arguing with my daughter every night to pick up the toys she had played with throughout the evening. And my naturally messy little girl was never going to be one of those kids who got one thing out at a time and put it away before moving on to the next toy. I decided to give it all up and let me daughter see what a real mess looked like. So far, the decision has backfired horribly.

It’s been two weeks since I stopped fretting and nagging about the toys and clothes all over my daughter’s floor. True to the plan, she continued to help out with household chores and to pick up her toys when they made their way into the living room. But her room has reached a state of disarray that I did not know was possible. Empty tubs lay overturned on the floor. Laundry, clean and dirty alike, has been strewn an every available surface as my daughter picks out her clothes in the morning or changes into pajamas at night. The room is gross.

The reason I was giving in to this messiness is that I assumed my daughter would lose or beak something and begin to understand why it was important to keep her room mildly clean. I thought the idea of not being able to have friends over to play in her messy room would hang over her head. So far, none of that has materialized.

The few times that my daughter hasn’t been able to find what she was looking for, she’s gotten over the loss pretty quickly. Even her all-important baby blanket didn’t receive more than a resigned, “But I want it…” Then, she moved on and found another lovey to cuddle with that evening. The next day, she located her trusty baby blanket.

The only people who seem annoyed by my daughter’s piles of toys thrown all over the floor are my husband and me. I feel myself getting physically angry when I look at that floor. I’ve caught my husband slyly straightening things up or making the bed. He just can’t help himself. We’re wrecks over this awful messy room. And stepping on some action figure every day is so much worse that nagging about a neat room.

It’s only been two weeks. I don’t feel like I can give up on the plan already without simply confusing my daughter and losing any potential learning experience I wanted this plan to bring. After all, she hasn’t really experienced the negative consequences of messiness yet. Of course, that leaves me partially hoping that she breaks something she really likes in the near future, just so she’ll figure out that throwing things on the floor is not a proper way to take care of them.

I’m going to try to make it two more weeks. I want to give the approach a little more time to prove itself useful. Until then, I’ll just be dreaming of organizing all those bins again. For a girl who used to hate cleaning her room, it is almost amazing how much I am looking forward to putting my daughter’s back into place.

(Photo: John Stebbins/Shutterstock)

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  • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

    Other then the fact that you don’t want your daughter wearing dirty clothes…I’m not sure I get the problem (although, I admittedly have the cleaning habits of a frat boy). She lives in that room, you don’t. She’s still cleaning up her toys in the main part of the house. I mean, unless something starts growing in there (and without the presence of food or moisture, the chances are slim). Sorry, but I just don’t get the big deal. Close the door?

    • Lawcat

      Well, she might “live” there, but its still Mom and Dad’s house. I also have the cleaning habits of a frat boy, but its at least in my own home.

      The only thing that really ever worked for me was peer pressure. I think you should re-think the “no friends” policy…or maybe recruit grandma to help.

    • Not a parent. MockMyInsights.

      Sure it’s still their house and if she wasn’t cleaning up the communal areas, I’d understand. But this is all in her room, where (theoretically) Mom doesn’t have to go if she doesn’t want to. And if Mom stops putting away her laundry, or other things that makes her daughter’s life easier, it might incentivise the girl to clean her room.
      I too, was a messy child, and am a very messy adult. And honestly? My mom tried everything from bribes to taking things away, to peer pressure. No dice. The only threat that ever worked was when she threatened to take away my books. (And even then, I only did the minimum amount of cleaning) If she doesn’t want to clean, she’s not going to clean. You just got to make her learn to live with the consequences…and it sounds like this mom is. She’ll clean when she wants.

    • Jen

      I was just going to say that. My mother’s rule was “when you get your own place, you can keep it the way you want. My roof, my rules.”. I got it then, I get it now, when it’s someone else’s property, you abide by their rules.

    • bookworm85

      Wait a minute. She lives there (in quotation marks), but it’s her parents’ house? Where else is she supposed to live? It’s not like she has any choice – it’s her house too until she’s old enough to live legally on her own. I don’t have the answer to whether or not her parents should require her to clean her room. But personally, I like for my children to feel like where they live is their home as much as mine. My kids (3 and 6) chip in with age appropriate chores (including putting away toys, tidying their rooms, clearing their dishes, cleaning up spills). I never call them “chores” though and they get no reward beyond a thank you. If they whine about it or try to get out of it, I explain that we all share the house and all have to contribute to keeping it up. Maybe because they feel some ownership they’re generally pretty cooperative about doing their part. I don’t know.

    • Blueathena623

      Yeah, I’m wondering what my response will be when my kid gets old enough to make his room messy. I know it will bug the crap out of my neat freak husband, but I think I’ll be more of the “close the door, don’t mess up the rest of the house” type of parent. Honestly, if I didn’t, I would be a huge hypocrite since I’m messy, but keep all communal areas of the house clean. My office, however, looks like where junk goes to die because it is MY room and the one place where I can let my messy flag fly.

  • Iwill Findu

    My mother went for the gross out factor. She looked up all the photos of dust mites and other miro-bugs to show us all the gross things that life in a mess. I was a little clean freak until I hit my teenage years.

  • (Almost) Reformed Messy Woman

    This is going to be a bit of a novel.

    I was a messy child and my parents gave up on making me clean my room. I never got tired of the mess, I just got used to it. For years, I had such a messy room that my parents finally made a rule that I had to at least leave a path for ingress and egress. I had papers, clothes, toys and all kinds of other junk all over the place. I would lose things and get over it and break things by stepping on them and move on. It was just not a big deal to me.

    I moved on to college and then into my first apartment lacking the skills to actually keep my room clean. Like you, my parents insisted that the rest of the house stay clean, so I knew how and did keep clean the kitchen, bathroom, etc. But my room was always my terrible secret and even when I decided to clean up I was so overwhelmed by the prospect. I remember having to move once when I was about 22 and just sitting down in my room crying because I had no idea where to even begin.

    It wasn’t until I was 29 and going through a divorce that I finally decided to change. I had improved a little by this point, but not by much. It was (and remains) one of the hardest things I have done. Because I’m not a natural cleaner, and because I really can’t SEE the mess, I have to almost be obsessive to stay on top of things, and things can get out of control within a number of days, leaving me overwhelmed all over again.

    I will point out that I am not, and never was, a hoarder in the psychological sense. I don’t hold any attachments to the things and can easily throw things away if I get motivated to do so.

    For your daughters sake, please rethink this strategy if she does not start to improve on her own within a couple of weeks. My mother once admitted that the biggest mistake she and my dad made raising me was not making me clean up because she saw how much I struggled with it into adulthood. I don’t blame my parents for the choices I made as an adult, but I do think I would have been better off growing up not getting used to living in a room the way I did.

  • Paul White

    Man, tough topic. All I can really say is good luck.
    Cleanliness was a huge source of friction growing up. I’m not sure if this approach would have been better or worse (to be fair I was as big a slob as your daughter seems to be so I can see why my parents got freaked on occasion).

  • LindsayCross

    I just want to say, I really appreciate everyone’s advice and personal stories. It gives me a lot to think about. While messy rooms obviously aren’t the most important issue ever, I really don’t like having this constant friction with my daughter over clean up. And I’m so grateful for all the tips and perspective!

    • 1CatNamedThor

      I’d say to her to clean up or you will bag the toys and give them to charity kids and not buy new ones. Let her see you bag some and then follow through. She will freak out and catch on.

  • Jenni

    My parent’s take was that I could keep my room messy, but it still had to resemble a room. No clothes on the floor (they went in the hamper or hung up in the closet), toys put back in their bins (but the bins didn’t have to be put back up), books on the shelves etc.

    One way you could deal with this is to set up a middle ground with your daughter. Make it so she can still have her mess and not cause you to want to blow up the room.

    Or, you could just take away a bunch of her toys. If she has so much junk, then just let her have 10 things to play with. Then, if it is a mess it is still just 10 things. So, her barbies would have no extra sets of clothing and definitely no shoes. That type of thing

  • Zoe

    My best friend in high school had a mother who didn’t make her and her brother clean their rooms. Their rooms were absolute pits, and I don’t just mean mess. They had dirty dishes everywhere and once I found a mummified dog turd under a pile of clean clothes. They just got used to the mess. I don’t see her much any more but I hear her flat is a sty to this day. I hated going there.

    Another friend of mine was so used to having his mother clean his room, and was so lost when he moved out, that about once a year I used to get a call begging me for help. He never cleaned – anything. For 4 years in a row I helped him clean away pizza boxes and beer cans and clothes and PC equipment and all sorts of shit from all over his squalid house (finding dead mice and rats under the junk was not unusual) until one year I got jack of it and told him to grow the eff up. One time only he started dating a girl and brought her home. She took one look at the mess, said she had to leave and stopped returning his calls, guessing – correctly – that if the relationship continued, the cleaning would fall to her. It wasn’t that he didn’t want the house clean, he just couldn’t quite get the idea that cleaning and tidying is something you have to do every damn day. Then, when he did get the urge to clean, it was too big a job and he got overwhelmed.

    I was a really messy kid and my father fought with me a lot. I’m grateful for it now. Maybe my coffee table will have some dvds and crap on it and my study desk is covered in papers, but my bed is made, my floors are swept, my bathroom benches are scrubbed, my dishes are done, and my dirty washing is in the laundry basket.

    Don’t give up on her. She won’t learn from this.

  • chickadee

    I think she’s probably too young for this tactic. I employed it when mine hit the teen years, but with the codicil that when I deemed the room a disaster area (or if I found food) then I could request they clean it. It works well for us. When they were little, though, my policy was to have a weekly room-cleaning for which they were given an hour and a half. After that time I would go in with a trash bag and collect things on the floor of the closet and of the room and things that didn’t belong under the bed. Those things had to be earned back. After losing prized possessions once or twice, they got very good we cleaning when told to do so. They will never be naturally tidy, though.

    • Oz

      My friend had an agreement with her two teenage sons – they keep their rooms clean and tidy to a standard she’s happy with, and she won’t need to go into their rooms and do it for them. She will stay out and won’t need to clean under the beds. Or the top shelf of their wardrobes. Or their dresser drawers.

      As veiled threats go, it was very effective.

  • Jendra

    My husband likes to share how his mother would tell him to clean his room, or she would do it and he wouldn’t like the results. She’d do it with a garbage bag and just empty his room of his toys and such. He learned fast.

  • Angela McAvoy Warner

    I had the same problem with my kids. Giving up and letting them do whatever isn’t the way to go lol. At 5, she’s not old enough to understand what you’re trying to do and she will just get used to the mess. I told my daughter that if her room wasn’t clean she couldn’t have friends over, and if it went more than two days being really messy, on the third day I would go through her room with a trash bag and pick up everything that was on the floor and under her bed, and those toys went to charity. No earning them back (unless it was something we spent a ridiculous amount of money on) and no cleaning once I stepped in there with the bag. It worked FAST! After two rounds of loosing toys, she started cleaning and I haven’t had an issue with her since. She cleans her room right before she goes to bed and she’s very happy that she doesn’t loose her toys anymore.

  • MissEm

    So speaking as the messy kid (compared to my poor sister who flips out over the littlest thing out of place) I can honestly say my parents did everything to make me cleaner and it didn’t work very well. I’m not dirty messy, but through high school and college I had way too many books and random hobby paraphernalia for my tiny room, so the end result was utter chaos. Yet my apartments in college and after have been VERY clean because I have SPACE. I have bookshelves and closets and bins to put all the various crap in! Amazing how, now that that’s the case, everything stays tidy (except for my clean clothes never getting folded because I HATE folding anything). My mom always acts amazed when she walks into my apartment because it is spotless. Other than the corner with my two parrots but that’s another story.

    TLDR: Maybe your daughter has too much stuff, so the prospect of cleaning is more overwhelming because cleaning is a game of tetris. When there’s enough space and bins, it suddenly becomes way easier. I’d say try putting some of the stuff into storage so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. Might not work for a kid this young, but I just had the epiphany as an adult that I didn’t hate cleaning, I just hated feeling overwhelmed by having too many things with nowhere to put them.

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