how to motivate anyone to clean their room

“Set a timer, and ask them how fast they think they can do it.” This will work once, maybe, if the child is under the age of five. In response to this timer suggestion, a nine-year-old will reply, “You high.”

“If you want your kid to clean his room, make it a game.” If your child is dumb enough to fall for this, you’ve got bigger problems than a messy room.

While you could turn a blind eye and simply shut a door, which let’s face it is what you do most of the time, you can instead shut your child out of every privilege they’ve ever known until the room is clean. That is, threaten and follow-through with the threat. Does this inspire or motivate? Nay, nay.

When messes are overwhelming, break them down into smaller tasks.
It’s overwhelming, the mix of madness in my daughter’s room, from American Girl accessories to totally random items like birthday party gift bags, Old Maid cards, a collection of bouncy balls, stuffed animals, clothes upon clothes upon stray socks and winter boots, books scattered everywhere, hair ties, parts of science experiments, a doll stroller and crib, wind-up water toys, selfie props, dress-up clothes. My god, do I want to tear through there and just clean it up, but I know better.

After school yesterday, she had a meltdown when I refused to take her to the gym, where she loves to play in the kids’ academy. “Sorry, not happening. It’s a privilege to go there, and with a room like that, you haven’t earned the right to go.” She makes a show of crossing her arms and furrowing her brow. Tough shit, honey. “I love you too much to allow you to live like this,” I say. “A cluttered room is a cluttered mind.” If she ever becomes a stand-up comic, I’m fcuked.

“But it’s MY room, and if I want to live like this, if I’m okay with it, you should be!” She is crying and one eye is turning outward, which since infancy happens when she’s tired, squinting in the sun, or, well, crying. Just then I get my first glimpse of our mother daughter dynamic once she graduates from tween to teen. Not fcuking happening. I need to clip this shite now or the teenage Abigail will be a nightmare. “I’m the parent,” I repeat to myself.

“This isn’t a negotiation, and no matter how many times you whine or cry, I’m not changing my mind. Start with garbage, then make a pile of clothes, then a pile of books, then a pile of toys, then a pile of…” She says nothing. I hand her a contractor sized garbage bag and close the door behind me.

When I return 10 minutes later, she’s still sitting on her bed with her arms crossed.

Be the model for your child, get them started, show them how it’s done.
I inflate the garbage bag and toss in an oversized Barbie vehicle box. I remove all the items from her vanity, save for her hair bows, and make a pile on her ottoman. “Things you’ll take down to the playroom,” I instruct. “Get going,” I say, then walk out.

I then go downstairs to show Lucas a video on mindset. We watch a few clips, then Abby pokes her head down and says, “Done.” This is what she considers done:

Prevent a Messy Room Don't Mess with Mama

I realize that one needs to pick her battles, that rather than go through this fight each time, I ought to simply close her door. But eff that noise. Because the hard truth is, this isn’t a “should,” as in, “Children should clean their own rooms,” and if my child doesn’t, then what will people think? No to the no. This is my belief that when we’re surrounded by clutter, we can’t truly relax. Literally, our eyes can’t relax. Your bedroom should be an oasis, a place to sleep. And being organized and clutter-free is a habit. I want to promote this habit, and it’s MY FAULT that things have come to this.

It’s my fault because up until now, I haven’t laid out any expectations. Sure, I muttered a general “clean your room,” but I haven’t held her accountable. There has been no weekly expectation of cleaning. That’s changing now. I’m whipping out a poster board and grabbing some golden foil stars for a checklist of a lifetime. This mama don’t mess.

A cluttered Room is a Cluttered Mind


  1. OH! I definitely have a comment here! When I was married and we lived in the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, with the perfect matching Mercedes in the garage – I forced clean rooms on the darlings. Yes- they were little …but their rooms were CLEAN.

    Fast forward a bit. We left fancy, schmancy for a safe home. I decided during that transition that I wouldn’t have the perfectly neat house, the perfectly coiffed hair, the super tidy children, but we would have love, fun, laughter and joy. So – the darlings’ rooms were bombed…most of the time. I shut the doors. I kept the rest of the house nice enough…we forwent some nice things and had a cleaning service come twice a month to clean the toilets, change sheets, vacuum the hairballs. It sometimes drove me nuts…BUT! I made the choice. I gave them the tools – I showed them what a tidy living space was like, but I didn’t force it upon them.

    A fascinating development occurred. When my son moved out to his dorm (gosh…7 years ago??) – he went without a lot of stuff. Now – as an extremely successful Magna graduate from college and financial advisor for a huge firm – and he is TIDY!

    My littlest girl, who was recently admitted to NYU Law, Berkeley Law and Chicago Law School had a DISASTROUS room as a little girl. But her mind isn’t messy. She takes complicated patterns and makes order. She’s graduating Suma from college in 3 weeks. Her dorm room is NEAT – almost compulsively neat . She came to this on her own – once again, I modeled it, she now lives it.

    Two out of three are ridiculously neat.

    My middle daughter – that sweet, artistic, healing, totally incredibly woman, is graduating with honors in a few weeks…and she’s messy. Like super nesty, seemingly disorganized, all over the place, millions of bits of projects…but it’s who she is.

    We can fight with them and try to mold them into whatever we want them to be – but in real life, we don’t have that much influence.

    I vote to let it go. Model what you aspire for them to be – and then let them be. They can either remember you as the best, most supportive, amazing, cool, awesome mom who let them find their own way, or the bitchy one with the clean house. I chose the first one – and I’m grateful every day.

  2. Judging by her comment “But it’s MY room, and if I want to live like this, if I’m okay with it, you should be!” and the photos of when she was done, she may like it that way and it may not feel cluttered to her. I have 2 teenage daughters and like the mom above used to help them clean it all the time so it looked how I wanted it to look. Fast forward to daughter #1 freshman year (2 years ago) and a new diagnosis of ADHD and Executive Functioning Difficulty and everything I read says- they don’t know how to organize in a traditional way and they actually find things better when it’s they way they want it to be. (I’m not saying your daughter has a diagnosis.)

    We also don’t allow food upstairs so it’s never dirty, just messy. So….it’s messy. And sometimes the cleaning lady can’t get in there. And sometimes I make them clean it up if company is coming or their laundry is piled so high that it looks like it’s scaling the wall. The only thing I make sure of is that there is a path from the bed to the door in case of fire.

    We all have our shtick and need to pick our battles. This may be yours right now but I agree with mom above- for me it’s much easier to shut the door and enjoy being with them when I know that in a year, the older one will be off to college and it will be someone else’s mess to live with. (Actually she claims she’s neater when she has roommates!)

  3. I say stick with it! Yes, I know, pick your battles and all that… but I think there are so many lessons to be taught in keeping a clean room: Taking pride in your home (kids don’t get this, mine are 16 and 18 and still don’t understand why I care!), having consideration for where and with whom you live, taking care of your stuff, not to mention the fact that someday they are going to have a college roommate who is going to hate the fact that they are total slobs! Expecting your children to clean up after themselves has NOTHING to do with molding them into who you want them to be- they can still be themselves, but they can also clean up their damn mess. You can be an “amazing, cool, awesome, supportive awesome mom who lets them find their own way” and still have expectations about clean rooms, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Just my two cents…

  4. “I love you too much to let you live like this.”

    My mom used to say stuff like that, and look at how great I turned out! That was a joke.

    At any rate, I think there is a huge difference between expecting perfection or a Stepford ideal and expecting a room to be reasonably orderly. I don’t think you are the Stepford type. I also think there is something to be said for giving kids the tools for what you stand for (clean rooms all the way up to religious beliefs) and then when they are old enough, they decide if they are going to accept them or reject them. But you are giving them the information and the knowledge to make an informed choice.

  5. “If your child is dumb enough to fall for this, you’ve got bigger problems than a messy room.”
    What a nasty, spiteful and offensive remark.

  6. Wondering if you watched RHoNY and saw the newest housewife , Jules? I am hoping this was just for television but “negotiating for her son to eat dinner” was appalling, especially when he got his way and ate just the Popsicle for dinner.
    Completely off topic, I know.

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