When I began my career as an organization coach, it was my intention to work only with adults. But I was lucky that my first client had two wonderful children, a five year old daughter and a two year old son. During a session, my client’s daughter came home from a playdate and wandered into our work.
Her mom and I were in the middle of deconstructing her daughter’s bookshelf. We were taking books to the floor, shelf by shelf, and sorting them into categories as they came down. While our process was controlled, to the daughter it appeared as if her precious books were all over the floor.
The daughter, an engaging little girl, took one look at her room and said, “Mommy, what are you doing, why are you making such a mess?”
I loved that she was curious. And I loved that she got that something important was going on in her room. And most of all, that she had not been asked to be a part of the process.
Devyn organizes books on the shelf she shares with her sister
“Maeve and I are organizing,” her mom said. I wondered what that word meant to her. I also wanted her to feel comfortable about what we were doing with her things, so I engaged her.
“Thanks for asking,” I said. “Since we are organizing your books, I’d actually love your help. I’m wondering which book is your favorite? Could you point that out?”
She searched, then pointed to The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. Before I could respond with “Thank you for sharing” she had it in her hands then made this little speech:
“This book goes on my bedside table so I can look at the pictures before bed. It doesn’t belong on the shelf with those other books. I don’t know why it was there.”
Gwynne and Devyn work on Next Steps so they can keep up their good work
This charming five year old had gotten to the heart of the matter. She was right, the one person who knew best how to organize the room was the one person we didn’t think to ask.
It was that then I remembered a rule of thumb from my preschool student teaching days: if a child is old enough to speak, they are old enough to express an opinion. And if that opinion affects how they live their lives, it’s helpful to listen.
Shortly thereafter I began offering Coaching for Kids! I helped Tim, a pre-teen, create independence in his room. And Sisi to create a private workspace for her elementary school homework. No matter the age or stage of the child, at every turn I consistently found that the key to successfully organizing a child was to invite him or her into the process. To work with them, and never around them.
Sisi enjoys her new homework workspace at home
With some kids, especially little ones, parents may wish to do some pre-organizing. I took this approach with Dawn, a client looking to bring order to her 7-year old daughter Abigail’s room. It’s helpful to whittle down volume before bringing kids in. But before you go too far, talk to your child about what you are up to.
My client’s daughter was five but her little brother was two, and when we were done with her room we moved on to his. He watched his big sister help us sort books into ‘categories according to her‘, and he was eager to do the same. It’s every parent’s wish that their kids can keep rooms neat and pick up after play. But without having participated in decisions about what goes where, and what stays and what goes, kids have no stake in the game.
As a coach, it’s my job is to see a space through my client’s eyes. To learn from them what’s working, and what needs helps. So I always start with a tour, and it’s no different with kids. Most parents need to put on a neutral hat to do this, but ask your child to take you on a tour of their room. And give them permission to tell you honestly what they like, and what they’d like to see changed.
Avoid using phrases like, “what do you want to keep” and “what do you want to throw out”. This is overwhelming for kids, and these phrases can be leading. Instead say, “I’d love for you to show me how you see your room.” Then give them space to share with you what they see, and listen carefully to the stories they share.
You might hear, “This is a toy I got at Mark’s birthday party. I don’t really want it, it just came in the bag,” or “Aunt Susie gave this to me. I don’t play with it,” or “This is Mr. Bear, he lives here.” Storytelling allows your kids to communicate information freely without pointing fingers. Stories are the reason we have stuff, so replace “Do you want this?” with “Tell me about this?” and engage your child in the story behind an item – their version, not yours.
For complete tips on language to use with kids read my feature article in GoodHousekeeping.com: 9 New Rules for Decluttering a Kid’s Room – And Keeping It That Way.
Sisi sorts books into categories that make sense to her
My philosophy on organizing with kids is called Kid Power. Kid’s love responsibility, and can be great helpers at home, no matter the age, so always invite them to be part of the process when organizing (even during a move). The goal of every parent is for kids to learn to pick up by themselves, and that starts with kids taking ownership of their rooms, and what’s within.
When my client and I organized her daughter’s room with no notice, then put “The Velveteen Rabbit” on the shelf with the other books, we sent a message to the little girl that her way of ‘keeping order’ didn’t work. She showed us she was capable of participating, and in fact, already had systems in place. Kids who value their possessions – including toys, games, books and clothes – treat them carefully. They are proud to use them and proud to put them away.
Natalie and Hannah take pride in the shelf they organized themselves
As a final step, talk to your kids about how ‘everything has a home‘. Kids have a natural ability to personify things, giving dolls and treasured toys a place to live on shelves on beds. So teach then that everything in their room gets ‘a home’ or ‘a place to live’. Then the next time you need them to pick something up try replacing, “Put that away” with, “Can you please put this where it lives?” It reinforces use of neutral organizational language and guarantees results.
A few weeks after working with Sisi, her mom called to share this cute story. After an evening of homework, Sisi and her mom got ready for bed. Sisi noticed that her mom had left a book behind on the couch and declared, pointing to the corner of the couch, “That’s not where books live!”
Kids of all ages are welcome in my organizational sessions. Littles do best when invited into a session for 30 minutes. While older, more independent children can work with me on their own for an hour or more. If you want to get started on your own, try my guide to help your kid organize their closet, or my tips on organizing a jewelry box. Cubbies for Kids are a great project too.
Do you organize with your kids? Share your experience in the comments below.
Photo Credits: Maeve Richmond, Marla Kabashima, Jacquie Butler