Messy room 001

Messy bedrooms: nag, tidy or avoid?

So. Messy bedrooms.

What’s a mum to do? Close the door and let it go; nag until it gets tidied; or just get in there and restore order oneself – because let’s face it, it’s the only way it’s ever going to get done properly and until then, you can’t effing well find anything they need, when it’s needed, or indeed recover the mislaid items of your own property which have been secreted somewhere among the detritus.

(I’m reluctant to make any wild accusations in case it turns out I’ve just lost it myself, but at the moment, I can’t quite shake the suspicion that my missing iPod is languishing underneath something, somewhere, in the devastation zone you see above).

My daughters’ bedrooms are more or less always messy – apart from during the nanosecond of neatness after I’ve been in myself and blitzed them – but right now, a week and a bit into the summer holidays, the Misses P have truly surpassed themselves in their aptitude for creating chaos in their personal corners of this house.

Some people say it’s one of those issues you should probably just chill about. No harm is being caused, and if they choose to wallow in their own untidiness, so be it.

Thing is, I cannot let it go. It’s not that my domestic standards are THAT exacting, really – there are cobwebs and sticky skirting boards aplenty round here to testify to that – but I do feel that a certain amount of order is necessary for a busy family to function. Practically speaking, you need to get those crusty cereal bowls into the sink at some point, otherwise there won’t be anything to put your breakfast in towards the end of the week, and dirty clothes really do have to go through the laundry if anyone is ever going to have anything to wear again. In term time, living among random piles of your own cack becomes particularly impractical, since you need to be able to locate that school tie or crumpled item of homework if you’re going to get everyone out the door of a morning without blowing a gasket.

Anyhoo, seeing as I’m properly flummoxed about the best way to tackle this situation, I asked Sue Atkins – a proper parenting expert, who helped me with my first book, Cool, Calm Parent – for her thoughts. She says she feels my pain because she’s been there with her own untidy daughter, and agrees, for the sake of getting on with life, you can’t really just shut the door and leave it all to fester.  But is it unreasonable of me to want tidy rooms – and unrealistic to expect them to maintain them?

‘I think it’s important they keep on top of messy bedrooms for themselves, not just for the obvious practical reasons but because it’s part of being a family team – and because it’s an important life skill they need to learn so they can look after themselves one day,’ Sue tells me.

Ok, so they really do need pulling up on this. But how? Last time I instructed Miss P the elder to go and tidy her room, she spent ten minutes pushing everything on the floor in the middle of the room to its edges. It was not so much tidying, as shunting the mess into a different area.

‘You need to be assertive and confident when you tell them to tidy up – and very clear about what specifically you want them to do,’ Sue goes on. ‘In fact, it’s a good idea to write it down for them: ‘Put your pencils in the pot, hang your clothes in the wardrobe, put your books in the bookshelf’, and so on. You want her to keep on top of it rather than letting it become really bad, so you could have a checklist up with, perhaps, five basic tasks which she needs to do every day. Putting her PJs under the pillow, for example, making her bed, and putting her dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Give praise or a reward if she keeps at it – but not money. I don’t think kids should be paid for keeping their own rooms tidy. After all, we don’t get paid for cooking their dinner, do we?’

Seems like wise words to me. I have in the past flirted with the idea of using cold hard cash bribes to get their rooms sorted, but now I come to think of it, bugger that. I do plan to have a crack at the written instructions and checklists, though. And I guess I do need to chill a bit and let at least some of it go – as Sue suggests.

‘Kids don’t like tidying their rooms, they’ve got better stuff to do. So there’s no point in expecting it to be pristine,’ she says. ‘And you don’t want to end up being a nag about it, because in the scheme of things, it’s not a huge deal. There’s no point in sweating the small stuff, otherwise they won’t listen when it comes to the things that really matter, later on.’

Talking of later on, I am assured by my friend Pippa – mother to two girls of the teenage variety – that I have many, many cycles of wrecked rooms, quiet despair, giving in, and giving up, ahead of me. She has kindly shared these delightful images of her youngest’s bedroom with me, along with a warning that it’s only going to get worse.

‘You think it’s messy now? Wait until they’re older – and smellier,’ she advises me, ominously. ‘I do try and let it go, but I find it impossible not to think about what lurks behind that door. In fact, I obsess about it. Once in a while I give in, hold my breath, and go inside: it’s the only way I can get any of her clothes through the wash or reclaim a cup when I need one. Some of the dirty dishes I find in there should have a health warning – it’s easier to throw them away than attempt to clean them.’   

Hmm. Sounds like I need to overhaul some bad habits round here before it’s too late. Meanwhile, in order to achieve a blank canvas and a fresh start, I think I’m just going to have to don my flak jacket, roll my sleeves up, and launch an offensive.

As the saying goes, if you want a job doing….


Big thanks to Sue for her advice in this post. Check out her website for more information about her work, or take a look at her latest book.

Did you enjoy this? Yes? Cool - please share it :)

  1. At first glance I thought the top photo was my own daughter’s bedroom. Yes, I also have two teenager daughters – the youngest is relatively tidy, the 15 year old is very VERY untidy.

    I was having weekly battles with her to tidy her room, or at least keep it reasonably tidy and nothing worked. Nothing. It just caused lots of arguments and upset between us and I didn’t think it was worth ruining our relationship for the sake of a tidy room, but like you I just couldn’t get past how bad it was. I also tried bribing her, coaxing, helping but it was all in vain. That was until I banned her from taking her friends to her room unless it was reasonably tidy . She now knows the rule and she keeps to it, and even though the room isn’t tidy by my standards it’s still a hell of a lot better than before. Good luck x

  2. I don’t tidy my kids bedrooms. I’ve got enough to do already, plus I feel that at 9 and 12 they should be well on their way to taking some responsibility for themselves. I do help the younger one occasionally by doing a sweep for clothes but they both have laundry baskets in their rooms so mostly I just empty those. Our system is: if bedrooms are tidy by bedtime on Sunday, they get pocket money. If they’re not tidy, they don’t get any pocket money. Crucially, WE DON’T NAG, we leave it up to them. My daughter is very keen for the cash, so now she tidies her room most weeks. My son is less bothered so he still often has bedroomageddon but that’s his choice. Works for us.

  3. Ha, you sounds like you have it completely sussed Joanne. We do need to sort out a better pocket money system than our current one, I must say. It’s erratic to say the least to it’s impossible to use it for motivation! Thanks for dropping in – much appreciated. H

  4. My mums technique included multiple threats followed by the scooping up yet another pile of clean clothes strewn across the floor, piling them into bin bags, then donating them to a charity shop on my sisters behalf.

    What she only admitted years later was that amongst the mess were two pairs of her own shoes that cost her £20 to buy back.

  5. Ha ha – yes Mark, that does seem to be a slightly risky strategy. Mind you I must now ‘fess up that my iPod has been found – under the sofa in the sitting room!

  6. Today I reminded my daughter that she won’t be getting her pocket money if she doesn’t tidy her room to which she retorted that she didn’t want it anyway. Clearly a different tactic is needed in my house. A like the idea of putting up a list of essential jobs she must adhere to each day. In fact, as she herself is a great list writer, she might even add to it herself! Now there’s wishful thinking for you ;)

    • Mine are the same – they haven’t really got to the stage where they appreciate the value of money so it’s no incentive to them either way! Sure it will come in to its own one of these days soon though! Thanks for dropping in Ms C!

  7. My daughter does hers on instruction quickly with little fuss but my son is a nightmare. If I nag him to do it, we will have a full morning of frustration, scary noises coming from upstairs and nothing being done. I usually relent and help and with instruction he gets it done.
    In term time if it’s annoying me I do it otherwise I close the door and ignore. xx

  8. AndyD

    Looks like the inside of my car!

    Well, it was my car until the wife to it over and allowed the children to do as they like to it with complete impunity. And I’ve just been very embarrassed when dropping some print samples as she saw the back seat of the car and gasped…. kids, pfft. Oh, and wife, pfft.

  9. I have often thought how tidy my house would be if my husband and kids weren’t in it. On the other hand, I would rather miss ‘em… !

  10. Mac

    Both my stepson (13) and stepdaughters (11) rooms look like a bomb has gone off in them. I’ve tried all sorts. Nagging and shouting only raises my blood pressure and causes arguments. I’ve decided to close the bedroom door and let them stew in their own filth. Some might say that ignoring the problem won’t make it go away but it’s the only thing I can do. This method does cause a few other problems though. I often run out of bowls, knifes, forks and spoons. The main problem arises when my other daughter (12) comes to stay at the weekend. Initially they slept in the same room, but now I have to set up a spare bed downstairs because my daughter refuses to sleep in the mess. I used to clean the room at the weekend for my daughter to stay but my step daughter quickly caught on to this and made the room twice as bad (if that’s possible).
    The only advice I could give is not to fight and argue. One day they will have children of their own and sound like me.

Leave a Reply