When it comes to organizing, my two sons couldn't be more different. Drew, 13, is a neat freak and Justin, 17, is, well, far from being the King of Clean. I have a relaxed attitude about clutter, but I'm not a slob. So how did I wind up living with Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple?
"Kids may react to their parents' lack of organizational skills in two different ways: They'll either become super organizers to combat your shortcomings, or they'll try to be an even bigger slob than you are," says Marla Cilley, who offers online coaching to purge clutter and is the author of Sink Reflections: FlyLady's BabyStep Guide to Overcoming CHAOS.
"There's lots of research that suggests your child's behavioral patterns are set by age three, and organizational skills are no exception," says professional organizer and TV host Peter Walsh. "Children definitely follow your lead. You have to look at what behavior you are modeling for them from a very young age."
The best way to guarantee your children will develop organizational habits is to be consistent with them, from as early as age 2. As they grow older, from 5 to 8, then from 9 to 12, you can modify your strategies for getting kids organized.
Ages 2-4: Keep It Simple
Ever notice how much fun your preschooler has "playing house" with a broom and dustpan, or sorting different-colored Legos and blocks into buckets? Scooping, stacking, wiping and matching are all developmental skills you can further develop into a lifetime of good organizing habits. "Generally, toddlers enjoy being helpful and won't see cleaning as work unless you make it sound like work," says Donna Smallin, author of Cleaning Plain & Simple. "Keep an upbeat attitude, and make sure you give little ones lots of praise."
- Make it a game. Keep a clean plastic dustpan handy to scoop up small toys from the floor, and set an egg timer for five minutes. Your child will love seeing how many toys he or she can clean up before the bell rings.
- Make it fun. Smallin suggests giving your kids a couple of old, clean socks they can put on their hands and use to dust moldings and table and chair legs, while you dust tables, shelves and breakables.
- Remember that cleaning with a toddler is a cooperative effort. Smallin suggests that when you do your nightly household pick-up, give your little one a pillow case to collect their belongings while you round up the bigger things.
- Give your child a job he or she actually likes. "My 3-year-old loves grabbing chunks of soggy clothes and throwing them into the dryer — something about the thud they make landing in the dryer just floats his boat," says Tara Aronson, author of Mrs. Clean Jeans' Housekeeping with Kids.
- Start young. Aronson suggests introducing a chore chart at age two or three. "Start with just one or two chores — like putting socks away, or choosing an outfit for the next day — then adding responsibility as your child is ready for it," she says.
- Store like items together. "Help them sort through their stuff to see what they've got and then use plastic storage boxes, crates or shelving so they can keep track of where everything is," Smallin says.
Ages 5-8: Get Creative
"Children in this age range love to get creative, and if you give them a challenge they'll thrive on rising to the occasion," says Aronson. "They can also start handling a lot more responsibility." Try these activities out for organizational success:
- Make it accessible. For the closet, Smallin suggests hanging a second clothes rod from the top rod so children are able to reach clothes and hang them up. Also, put hooks on the back of the bedroom door at a convenient height for hanging backpacks, jackets and clothes that will be worn again.
- Give them responsibility. Smallin suggests getting stuffed animals off the bed and floor with a nylon hammock that hangs across one corner of the ceiling. Make sure your kids can reach it so they can make a game of putting the animals to bed in their hammock at night — all by themselves.
- Establish zones. Walsh suggests setting up your child's room with a function chart that everyone follows. Art projects are done at the corner table, for example, with all art supplies organized nearby. Reading might take place on the bed, so books are kept on a shelf nearby, or in a box under the bed.
- Establish limits for how much stuff is in the room. "Keep asking questions like, 'Do you play with this any more?'" Walsh says. It will "teach your child the life lesson that they can't have everything they want."
- Get creative with storage space. Children in this age group are collectors and need plenty of space. Raise beds up with bed lifts and add an extra-long bed skirt to conceal under-bed storage space for seasonal items and growing collections.
Ages 9-12: Up the Responsibility
"This is the age where you need to give your children even more responsibility for their possessions, as well as their choices," Walsh explains. "More and more, they're making decisions about what they spend their money on, what's valuable to them and what can be given to charity or sold."
- Teach organizational life skills. Smallin suggests placing a two-drawer filing cabinet in your child's room so they can file graded tests and homework papers — whatever items they deem important enough to keep.
- Let them establish their own routines. Children need to be making more decisions at this age, but they also need to know there's still a time to play, and a time to clean up, a time to watch TV, and a time to do homework.
- Give the gift of a hamper with wheels. At this age, children are old enough to do their own laundry — start to finish. Smallin suggests making it easier on your kids with a hamper that has wheels for easy transport, or at least a removable bag.
- Let them choose. "Bring your kids with you to shop for organizing products that they'll actually use," Smallin suggests. "They're more likely to use what they pick out, not what you pick out for them."
- Sold! Let them sell things on eBay, with your approval. They may learn some harsh lessons about the real value of their "valuables," but they may also cash in on some of their collectible game cards they don't play with anymore.
- Stop nagging. "At some stage, you have to stop screaming at your child to clean his or her room," Walsh explains. "Ask your child, 'What do you want from your room? What dream do you have for your life?' See if, together, you can make his or her room a stepping-off point for their life."