Corral that clutter and make space

As school days approach, parents and kids may want to organize their spaces to start the year off right
Maureen Zimmermanís room in Olney, Md., graduated from childhood clutter and keepsakes and is now ready to handle high school. The pink fabric-lined baskets ($8.50 to $10) are from Michaels and the DVD and CD racks ($10 each) are from the Container Store.

In the bedrooms of teens across the land, bulging backpacks still sit where they landed last June, amidst strewn T-shirts, crumpled shopping bags, old term papers and half-done Sudoku puzzles. Shelves sag with cast-off clothes and outgrown toys. Dresser tops are spilling over with ticket stubs, CDs and nail polish.

Here it is August, and another load of textbooks and homework is about to hit. With just a few precious beach or camping weekends left, some parents are declaring a state of emergency.

Some tips

on organizing

The Washington Post

  • Shopping bags are not for storage. They don't stack, and you can't see what's in them.
  • Set up a time-management center: One place for a calendar with assignments, classes and sports schedules.
  • A large trash can without a lid is an absolute must. If it has a lid, it might never be used.
  • Don't get super-size storage baskets or bins. They become bottomless pits.

— Scott Roewer, professional organizer

"Being a high schooler and a teenager is very hard. And being organized is very hard as well," says Susan Jones, a Chevy Chase, Md., psycho-therapist, life coach and educational consultant. She says teens crave privacy in their rooms, but parents need to be involved if the chaos gets out of control. "This can become a huge area of contention between parents and kids. A room should be a haven but not a garret room in a castle where a kid can go to hide. You should be able to find something in the middle."

Many parents choose to pick their battles and close the door, literally, on their teen's trashed room. But that isn't doing the kid any favors, especially with a new school year looming.

Organization means stuff management as well as time management, and these life skills are closely intertwined, experts say. Taking the time to toss or donate unused items, setting up systems to store what remains and creating a command center for dates and homework will save time — and stress — every single day.

"Teens' lives today are complex and more demanding than they have ever been," says Julie Morgenstern, co-author of "Organizing From the Inside Out for Teens" (Henry Holt, $15). Morgenstern says that although teens are far more motivated in many aspects of their lives than they were a decade ago, they must be shown the benefits of neatness.

Learning to be organized is a process, according to Donna Goldberg, author of "The Organized Student" (Simon & Schuster, $14). With kids spending so much time at school and at extracurricular activities or athletics, evenings leave little time for dinner, let alone searching for a notebook or gym uniform needed tomorrow. "A student's job is to do well academically. Setting yourself up for success is really important," Goldberg says. "When your room is organized, you are actually calmer and you can focus better."

Some teens may roll their eyes at the notion that creating order out of chaos is worth their time.

"My room is usually messy with clothes on the floor and random school papers, but I feel like I have so many other things going on that organizing isn't on the top of my list. So I don't worry about it," says Eric Walisko, 14, who will be a freshman at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va. "Then my parents worry for me, and it gets annoying."

Others may acknowledge that establishing order could help, but can't find the time to achieve it. "Sure, I feel more comfortable when my room is clean and my drawers organized," says Madeline Samayoa, 15, about to enter 10th grade at Falls Church (Va.) High School. "But when I'm tired I just put my clothes wherever they land."

Parents can unwittingly enable messy behavior by buying their teens too many clothes and not following up on the "I'll clean it this weekend" promises.

"Don't just buy more jeans if your son can't find the other 40 pairs," says Ruth Peters, a Florida clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting issues. "If they can't find what they want, let them face the consequences." Peters says lots of kids simply have too many possessions. "I found that when I did the laundry and put it in their room, they just threw it back in the hamper without even wearing it. So I decided to make them do their own laundry."

Experts counsel that there's a difference between being messy and being disorganized. If your teen is late every morning searching for permission slips and history assignments, he is at the mercy of his messiness. But if he can find what he needs in those piles of papers and clothes, he's actually got a system that works — although it might not be pretty. "You have to distinguish between chaos and disaster," Jones says. "Parents need to be able to step in at the appropriate times."

Jones says she has known rooms to get to the level of "contaminated places" where parents couldn't even open the door. Some parents she has counseled believe that being a slob is a willful act of rebellion on the part of a teen.

Jones says that shaming a kid about his or her room is not good parenting. "You need to teach your child to be organized. This doesn't come naturally," she says. Instead, she and others suggest constructive lessons in organization, with follow-up and positive feedback along the way. "Find out who the strong parent is and who has the skills to teach this," she says. "Or hire a professional to do it, or a friend."

Barbara Rohrbach, 17, a senior at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Va., says she has become the go-to room-organizing person for her friends. "I constantly get rid of clothes that I don't want by taking them to thrift shops or consignment shops. I can't leave clothes on the floor because my dog will chew them up," says Rohrbach, who says keeping clutter at bay is an ongoing process. "I love having everything in a certain place. Neither of my parents is very organized. That actually made me realize that I wanted to be."


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