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David Baxter PhD

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The Room: How involved should you get in the cleanliness of your teen's room?
March 2004
by Holly Bennett - Today's Parent

Fourteen-year-old Dustin Revine has a great housekeeping convenience in his room: his own personal laundry chute. It doesn’t get much use, though — maybe, his mother speculates, because there is so much stuff on his floor that “now there’s an obstacle course to get to the laundry chute.” Actually, the obstacle course extends throughout the room.

Like many parents, Nancy Revine wonders whether she should be more insistent that Dustin keep some order in his room, or let him figure it out for himself.

Parenting a teen is so much about what’s worth fighting for and what isn’t. Ottawa’s Gus Fraser, a retired social worker and certified Canadian family educator, reminds us that “in the range of ways teens can rebel, a messy room isn’t too bad.” Teens, he says, are working hard to establish an identity separate from their parents, and in this context the room becomes a kind of symbolic space: “It’s an expression of my need to get away from the world, to have some privacy, to make a mess and have a mess I don’t have to clean up all the time.”

Does that mean we should totally stay out of it? Most experts say it’s important to find a middle ground. “If your mom’s freaking out because your room is messy, you’re not likely to talk to her about your friend smoking or about going to a party where you know there’s going to be drinking,” says Carla Hitchcock, executive director of the Fredericton Regional Family Resource Centre. “But you can have ground rules, like as long as it’s not a fire trap and there’s a clear exit to the door, and no food lying around because it can go mouldy or attract bugs.”

Creating Ground Rules
Fraser agrees. “Be aware of setting rules that really matter and for the sake of growth, let the rest go. If you’re onto your teen about everything you’re going to nickel and dime yourself to death. I think, generally, people make a rule where it has to be more or less cleaned up, say once a week or once a month, whatever they can stand.” When the mess is getting to her, Revine sometimes exchanges favours with Dustin: “He had forgotten a birthday gift and I had to run it down to him, so I said, well then, you give me half an hour and tidy up your room in exchange. And he did.”

Hitchcock points out that on clean-up day, a kid this age may still need some help figuring out how to tackle the job. “When I worked in a group home, we had a major room cleanup every Friday and they knew exactly what was expected. They knew specifically the smaller tasks: pick up your clothes, dust, vacuum.” It’s important too that kids develop some responsibility for keeping shared spaces like family rooms in reasonable shape; as Revine points out, “Eventually when they’re living with someone, they’re going to have to know how to pick up after themselves.”

Revine also hopes that Dustin will discover that filing stuff on the floor is not the best system. “The other day he was looking for his socks. I had just done a load of laundry, but he had no clean socks. And I said, ‘You might want to go digging in your own room.’ So it’s up to him at that point — that’s what happens when everything ends up on the floor.”

A kid’s room is a private space, but it’s also part of the family space, and so a reasonable balance also needs to be found around issues of access. “You need to knock before you come in, and don’t snoop,” says Fraser. “On the other hand, parents have a right to go in and retrieve plates.” Similarly, he says, a teen should be allowed to decorate and paint, with parents setting the bottom-line limits: no obscenities, no holes in the wall, whatever.

Fraser is a little concerned by the trend in more affluent families for kids to have electronics like computers, televisions and games systems in their rooms. He worries that a child becomes too isolated, or the parents too out of touch with what the child is doing. Again, it’s that fine line between privacy and supervision.

What does the future hold for your teen’s room? Well, if it’s messy now, it’s likely to stay that way until she moves out. But, as Hitchcock points out, “In the long run, when they grow up and get their own house, chances are their rooms are not going to be messy.” And if they are, who cares? With any luck, you won’t have to live there.
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