But It's My Bedroom!

But It's My Bedroom!

How messy does a child's room have to be before we feel steam coming out of our ears?

That is such a personal thing.

Thank you, dear reader, for requesting a post on this very common issue. Let's start where we always do in P.E.T. with our go-to question: Who Owns the Problem?

Does the Child Own the Problem?


Candy wrappers, half filled glasses, stuff under the blankets -- let's assume your child, like mine, can still joyfully hang out in her space despite all that. 

Is it in the No Problem Zone?


You are unhappy! It's under your Line of Acceptance!

Do you own the problem?

Hmmm. Here's our test:

  1. Time, money or energy?
    • Some parents say "Yes! Because I have to go in to clean it and pick up!"
    • Others gently challenge, "But do you really? Can't you just close the door?"
  2. Prevented from doing something you want to do? 
    • Again, one might argue "I simply cannot relax when I know your room looks like that" but a kid might retort "But how is that my fault?" 
  3. Pain or discomfort?
    • No, not really.
    • Here we are talking about physical distress directly caused by the behavior, such as being scratched or having feet in your face. Not liking something or feeling angry does stress our systems but that doesn't count for this question.
  4. Loss of some item? 
    • I can't think of anything but it's debatable -- a parent might argue that now he cannot enjoy being in his kid's space.
  5. Relevant impact on you?
    • A child may or may not accept that there is an impact on you. 
    • Perhaps she would be tempted to ask, "But what's it to you how my own room looks?" Then again, maybe she wouldn't. 

Are you confused yet? Are you thinking: This is too much gray, Catherine! I'd like some black and white guidance please!

Here's an important point: with all of these questions, there is no one right answer. It all depends on the parent/child dyad, the personal beliefs and preferences at play and the state of the relationship.

For instance, I remember that when my children were younger they were more accepting that I really cared about the neatness of their room, and that clean-up time was expected for all areas of the home.  

If you're not sure whether there is a concrete, tangible effect on you or whether your child will buy it, just start off giving a Confrontive I-Message, knowing that the ensuing conversation can give you better insight.

(What we don't want is P.E.T. paralysis and reverting to either authoritarian or passive parenting.)

So just take the plunge! You might say to your child:

"When you leave dirty plates in your room and laundry in places other than in your hamper I feel grumpy because I have to pick up after you and my cleaning takes a lot longer."

Your child -- let's pretend he is really young -- might say, "Sorry Mommy. Mommy grumpy? I can help!"

We learn in P.E.T., though, that there is always the risk for push-back no matter how thoughtfully you have tried to construct your I-Message as non-blameful. How come? Because hardly anyone welcomes the idea that they have prevented someone from meeting needs.

So if your older son replies, "Mom, no one has a gun to your head; I was going to get around to it!" then what do you do?

Shift Gears to Active Listen. That might sound like this: 

"You're annoyed that I'm arguing for a cause and effect that doesn't hold water. It doesn't seem fair, especially because you don't get credit for your intention to do it yourself."

And then Shift Gears to reassert your own needs.

"And yet Monday is my cleaning day and, oh, I just really feel great when the whole house is neat and clean by the afternoon instead of knowing that there are still areas to be dealt with."

At that point, perhaps your son accepts that there is a concrete and tangible effect on you and says, "Fine, I get it. Sorry, I will make sure to clean up my room by Sunday night." And then you are back to the No Problem zone.

But what if he doesn't keep his commitment or he refuses to accept that there is a relevant impact on you? Or if the little boy is having a hard time remembering to clean up? 

Then you both get bumped down to the Both Own Problem box.

Is it a Both Own Problem and, if so, what kind? 

Conflict of Needs

The analysis for Conflict of Needs is the same as the Parent Owns Box: Does the ongoing behavior force you to spend time, money or energy you would otherwise direct elsewhere or is there another relevant impact on you? 

If yes, you can do a Method III Problem-Solve.

For Problem-Solving, the most important step is the first one, where Active Listening your child will make all the difference.

Active Listening influences the child to be more willing to listen to the parents’ thoughts and ideas. It is a universal experience that when someone will listen to one’s own point of view, it is then easier to listen to HIS. Children are more likely to open themselves up to receive their parents’ messages if their parents first hear them out. When parents complain that their kids don’t listen to them, it’s a good bet that the parents are not doing an effective job of listening to the kids.
— Dr. Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 67

For the younger set, it is likely that the needs are simply fun and play, to be in the joyful moment. So when you are brainstorming, evaluating and choosing, zero in on solutions that meet those needs as well as your needs for rest and mutuality. This might mean blasting some music during clean-up, singing in silly voices, or racing against the clock so you can meet under the tree outside for pajama story time. 

For using Method III with older kids, scroll to the example below.

Values Collisions

If it fails the Concrete & Tangible Effects test, it is by default a Values Collision.

What is a value? It's a belief or ideal that shapes our behavior. So often, we want our children to adopt our values in order to have more satisfying, peaceful and thriving lives.

Strategies for Values Collisions include:

  1. Confront and Active Listen
    • Who knows? By listening deeply to your child's perspective, perhaps you will be changed to the point where the collision is reduced to a Values Difference that you can live with.
    • If not, you have other options. The good thing is that you have laid solid groundwork by showing a willingness to empathize and understand her point of view.
  2. Modify Self
    • Maybe you read a Facebook post, watch a movie or meditate in a way that makes you wanna drop this issue for now, enjoy your child's company more or shore up other aspects of your relationship with her.
    • Here are three useful questions from the course to ask yourself when your kid's room looks unbearable to you:
    1. What is my value?
    2. Where did it come from?
    3. Why do I want to keep it?
  3. Problem-Solve the behavior
    • Focus on the behavior that results from acting on a value -- this is different from trying to change the value itself.
    • In our class example, a teen agrees to cover up her tattoo in front of the grandparents but her value of self-expression remains intact.
  4. Consult
    • Share why you think your child's value has a negative impact on his life; in other words, there is a concrete and tangible effect on HIM, not you.
    • In the case of the bedroom, you might explain that some people are able to be more productive in peaceful, uncluttered surroundings. You could share a personal experience of a college friend finding a moldy orange peel on your bookshelf and being grossed out. 
    • This skill forces you to do some homework beforehand! (Read more here, or how I messed up here.)
  5. Model
    • Clean your own room, make your own bed . . . you get my drift.

Example of P.E.T. participant's Method III Problem-Solve*

My daughter and I had a problem about her room.

Instead of just deciding we had a values collision because initially it did not seem like her behavior had a tangible effect on me, I suggested to my daughter that we use Method III to solve our differences. I wanted to see if it was more than a collision about “neatness.” By going through Method III we discovered it really was about needs and very little about values.  

In Step I, we identified she had needs that included: having control of her own life, to be respected and accepted by me and the need to be able to feel comfortable in her own space.

I had a need for a fair distribution of work in the family (the way her room was it took me extra time to find and collect her dirty clothing and bedding when I did the laundry). I also had a need to relax and enjoy our home environment and the need for a good relationship with my daughter.

Since we identified our needs and didn’t get stuck on solutions like how to get her to clean up her room or just shutting the door, we were able to brainstorm a lot more options.

Our solution was that we got her a hamper for her room and she dumped anything to be washed into that instead of on the floor. We changed from a bedspread to a comforter that she could just quickly throw over the bed (the bed is what mostly shows when her door is open). I vacuumed and dusted her room once a week but didn’t touch her closet, desk or dresser. She cooked dinner for the family 3 times a week. My vacuuming and dusting of her room actually took me less time than I had spent before on those three dinners. Our needs were met and this stress in our relationship was gone.

That's win-win, alright!

So, phew, there's a lot of thought that can go into figuring out the messy bedroom dilemma. Some of the work is inner stuff, like figuring out what we cherish more -- our stated value or closeness with our child.

Spending the time to mindfully choose a response -- over a knee-jerk reaction -- is an investment that pays off in closeness and mutuality rather than deeper rifts:

Parents obviously will have more influence on their children if their methods of influence DO NOT produce rebellion or reactive behavior. Nonpower methods of influence make it much more likely that children might seriously consider their parents’ ideas or their feelings and as a result modify their own behavior in the direction desired by the parent. They won’t always modify their behavior, but then again sometimes they will. But the rebellious child will seldom feel like modifying her behavior out of consideration for her parent’s needs.
— Dr. Gordon, P.E.T., page 216

Best of luck as you navigate this issue using the P.E.T. approach as your guiding star!

* From the Instructor Training Manual

Credit: Messy bedroom (http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/08/22/article-2192259-03D4F9CD0000044D-874_468x313.jpg)