By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Debbie,
Is it possible to change my children’s habits of just leaving toys, clothes, and other things scattered around where they last used them? They’ll also just kick off their shoes and drop other things on the floor when they come in the house. Fussing at them hasn’t changed a thing.
Mom of 4, 7, and 9
The best way to change behavior is to make the new behavior easy to do. For this, you’ll be the mastermind who sets up and enforces how to put things away after they’ve been used. Also, those whose behavior should change should agree that they want to change!
Gain cooperation from the children about sorting and storing all the stuff, and maintaining this orderliness going forward. This can be accomplished in a family meeting wherein you stress the efficiency of being able to find what they need when they need it. Get their suggestions for which items should go in which zones of your home, what labels are needed, and what spaces and containers need to be found or created. The project could start room by room, or category by category, or child by child.
If you expect to see big changes in your family, you’ll need to invest some time to make this happen. It’s okay to start small, savor success, and progress to bigger and bigger challenges when making a major behavioral shift. You might use a quick twenty minutes after dinner for the first put-away blitz for a specific room or category. Some families choose a consistent block of time for household chores each week, after which there’s a fun family activity.
Be sure to applaud everyone’s participation, however it’s mostly you that will be doing the initial changes in the environment. You’re providing the structural concept that there will be a place for everything. The children, with your support, will then have to remember to put each thing in its place.
Location, Location, Location
Pick one area or category to start with. Let’s say the children’s shoes by the door. Considering that the weather changes with the seasons and that children’s feet go through growth spurts, every few months you’ll help the children pick which of their shoes “live” by the entrance to your home. Create a shoe cubby from a sturdy box, wooden crate, or plastic bin – this could be comprised of individual spaces for each pair of shoes or one space for each child. Or you might have boots for all on a bottom shelf, sneakers for all on a middle shelf, and sandals / Crocs on the top. If your family doesn’t dress up often, more formal footwear could remain out of sight near where the children would be getting dressed.
Likewise all outerwear should be assessed such that out-of-season jackets, etc. are stored away so that only what gets used this time of year hangs on hooks or in a closet near the entrance. Shorter children would appreciate coat hooks or a lower rod in the closet to make it easier for them to reach.
The logic behind limiting what lives by the front door also applies to limiting other clothing as well as toys and everything else that gets scattered around. Help your children decide which items belong in shared spaces, such as the box of checkers, the markers and crayons, etc., and which need to find homes in the owner’s personal space – under a bed, for example. Designate exactly where every single thing goes when not in use. Obviously, if you don’t have enough spaces for all the things, you have too many things.
Clever solutions exist for storing things near where you’ll need them, including bins, drawers, shelves, and other containers that double as furniture. A window seat, a bench, a sturdy trunk, or an ottoman could provide seating as well as hidden storage. A coffee table could house boxes or baskets containing jigsaw puzzles or children’s books underneath. An extra wide wicker basket could collect outdoor play equipment. A pegboard and caddies could house art supplies near where the children work. A spice rack might be just the right size to display a collection of small cars or fashion dolls. Hang a set of tote bags from pegs on the upper bunk of a bunk bed, with clothing, books, or toys inside.
It helps to label storage spaces if it’s not obvious what goes where. The children may feel empowered to keep things in their place if they do some of the labeling.
You and the children will experience satisfaction with your first orderly space which should motivate everyone to continue with the total organizational makeover. Generally children take cues from their parents about enjoying housework. If you are enjoying the process, and looking eagerly toward completion, it won’t matter if the children dawdle a bit. A few rainy afternoons, or a few early morning spurts with high energy music in the background, might be all it takes.
Remember that new behaviors need practice in order to become habit. Give timely reminders. For example at bedtime you might review the new routine for putting dirty clothes in the hamper and clean-enough-to-wear-again clothes at the foot of the bed. This takes extra vigilance on your part to voice what will soon be spoken by each child’s inner voice. “Dirty clothes go here. Tomorrow’s clothes go here.”
When a new behavior has truly become a habit, even the inner voice isn’t needed anymore.
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