And my homework? And my backpack? And my favorite shirt? And the Happy Meal toy I got when we went to McDonald’s with Grandma last summer? Maybe I should feel flattered that somehow my children think I know where everything is. Truth is, I don’t feel flattered. I have a number of other reactions when the questions begin that range from minor irritation if we’re not in a hurry to utter exasperation if we are already five minutes late.
A few months ago it occurred to me that I could teach my kids how to manage their own stuff. I realize this is not a revolutionary idea. Considering that I’m a professional organizer, it probably should have occurred to me sooner. But since I am also a clean-freak parent, there were lots of times it was sooo much easier to just do it myself. On the billionth morning of having to track down shoes in order to leave for school, however, I had had it. What’s the deal with the shoes? And how all of a sudden was I in charge of ten pair that weren’t even mine? And why were my kids mad at ME that they couldn’t find them?
In addition to my own frustration, I could tell that my kids were often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of STUFF making it into their lives. Between school papers and too many clothes and toys from gumball machines, they were having a hard time knowing where to put things. So it all landed precisely where all little kid stuff lands: either on top of the dresser or the bookshelf or under the bed or on the floor or at the bottom of the backpack.
Here’s the good news: I implemented a system with my kids that has changed the way we do business. And it hasn’t just helped with the shoes. It’s helped with the homework, backpacks, clothes, toys, special treasures and all the rest of the stuff of childhood. I’m going to share the basics of this system with you as well as provide a link for a one-of-a-kind product designed specifically to help you teach your kids how to organize. School’s out in about a month, which means we’ll all have lots of end-of-year papers and clothing and THINGS to sort through, so this is a great time to learn how the make the process easier this go ‘round. Let’s begin with the foundation.
Why Teach Kids to Organize?
There are a number of answers to the above question, ranging from, “I wish my parents had taught me how to organize,” to “I’m really tired of being the one taking care of everything.” Both ends of the spectrum and everything in between are valid. We all have our own reasons. Here’s one I find compelling: only 10% to 12% of the population is born “knowing” how to organize. That leaves 90% of the world with NO CLUE how to organize, very likely with no one to teach them how to do it, functioning under the weight of thinking that they should intuitively know how to organize. You and your child are very likely among this 90% of people who don’t come by organizing naturally, but who can be taught because organizing is a SKILL, not only a talent.
In my profession, I work with people who are desperate to learn how to organize and who have a lot of shame surrounding the fact that they just don’t get it. I often hear comments like, “I’m sorry my house is such a mess,” or “I’m so embarrassed you’re seeing this,” or “I’m so out of control.” Here’s the best argument I have for teaching kids to organize. When you teach a child how to organize, you are teaching a life skill that will help them function better in the present and contribute to a more successful future. You reduce the chances that they will feel shame and guilt over not knowing how to manage their stuff. You will save them hundreds of dollars as adults because they won’t need a professional organizer. AND. If you follow the guidelines below, there’s a good chance they will actually LIKE organizing so they will actually DO IT. How’s THAT for amazing?
The other amazing part of this whole scenario is that the system I’m going to share will guide you through the process of teaching your child to organize even if you have no idea how to do it yourself. Bonus!
How to Approach the Process
Before you begin using the system outlined below, I encourage you to follow four important guidelines to help make organizing with your kids fun for BOTH of you. They are—
Be nice. This may sound elementary, but by the time we decide to teach our kids to organize it’s usually because we’ve had it up to HERE with their stuff, and we’re feeling kind of grumpy. Approach teaching your kids to organize as you would any other new skill—with kindness. Remember how nice and excited you were as you taught them the ABCs or how to ride a bike? The same rules apply.
Approach organizing as a process. As I stated previously, I’m going to teach you a system for helping your kids organize. There are specific steps to this process, and it’s OK if your child doesn’t do every single step with you. If you notice that your child is “checking out” at any stage of the process, he or she has had enough and needs a break. You can finish the step yourself of save the project for later. I recommend breaking each project down into the smallest possible chunks so your child can see the step through to completion and feel a sense of accomplishment. Kids are generally able to do about 30–60 minutes before they are completely DONE.
Be a good example. If you want your child to eat healthfully, you can’t eat junk food all the time. The same holds with organizing. If you want to teach your child to value organization, you have to be willing to model good organizing practices. That doesn’t mean that your house has to look like a magazine shoot. It does mean, however, that they need to see that there are benefits to organization, like being able to find your keys when you need them and knowing where the tape and scissors are.
Make it fun! Done right, organizing can be a really good time. No kidding! You will get to spend one-on-one time with your child going through special things that bring back really great memories. You can play music and have treats and offer encouragement and praise. You can plan a special outing to celebrate your success. As you follow the steps below—in order—you will see how easily they lend themselves to a kind of game. Make it fun!
The Clear & SIMPLE™ Systems© of See It. Map It. Do It.© and S.T.A.C.K.S.©
The Clear & SIMPLE™ Systems© of organizing were developed by Marla Dee and are more than a compilation of helpful hints; they outline proven steps you can apply to various organizing projects. So, whether you want to teach your child how to organize a backpack or toys, the steps are always the same. I’m giving you some abbreviated tips for getting started using these systems; the product I alluded to earlier provides much more detail for each step of the process. It also gives you detailed instructions for your role as a parent as well as helps for making the process easy and fun. I encourage you to check it out!
The first step in the organizing process is to See It. This step generally takes about 10–15 minutes. See It means that you and your child take a look at what kind of chaos and/or clutter exist and figure out why it does. Your child can See It in a number of ways, but one of the most simple is to let your child draw a picture of the space you want to organize. You’ll be amazed at the things that show up in the picture!
You can also turn over the digital camera and let your child go at it. This is a wonderful way to document the changes that will occur in your child’s space. Both kids and adult love before and after pictures. Even if your child doesn’t want to take pictures, I encourage you to. What you see will be very revealing.
If your child is more verbal than visual, you can ask questions:
- What’s working for you?
- What’s NOT working for you?
- How does your room make you feel?
Be prepared for some insightful responses. When I asked my daughters what was working in their room, Sarah said, “The hamper.” When I asked Hannah, she said, “Nothing.” Nice. Hannah was particularly candid—and insightful—about what WASN’T working: “I get more and more stuff and there’s no place to put it.” She nailed our lack of accessible containing—the number one problem in her room before we fixed it.
“Map” is an acronym for “make a plan.” When you Map It, that’s what you do. You can help your child make a visual map by asking her to draw what she’d like her room to be like. Or you can ask questions again:
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- What do you want your room to be like?
- How would you like your room to feel?
Hannah included in her verbal map a lava lamp, hammock, bead screen and big screen TV. We can all dream, can’t we? She also said she wanted her room to feel “cute and comfortable.”
As a parent, your part in mapping comes in the form of scheduling and financial preparation. Plan to do your project at a high energy time of day when you will be free of distractions, and put it on your calendar. And please make sure that if you anticipate needing containers or additional furniture that you plan financially. We’ve all experienced getting halfway through a project and having to put it on hold because we ran out of cash. You will have your best organizing success if you can take the project through to completion with as few delays as possible.
Do It with S.T.A.C.K.S.©
The acronym S.T.A.C.K.S.© is the acronym we use for the actual doing of the project. It stands for Sort, Toss, Assign a Home, Contain, Keep It Up and Simplify. I’m going to give you an overview of each of these steps and again encourage you to contact me for more information on the fabulous kit that gives you all the juicy details.
After you’ve completed See It and Map It, you get to start Do It with a sort. All you do at this stage is put like items together. Make no decisions. Just sort. I strongly suggest sorting into banker’s boxes (available for about $1 a piece at office supply stores) so you don’t end up with mounds of unruly piles. Every time you begin a new category, place the items in a new banker’s box and label it. Your child can help with this step by placing items in boxes and placing labels on the boxes. At the end of your sort, you can place lids on the boxes and stack them against a wall to await the next step.
The Toss step is where you and your child decide what to keep, donate or throw away. Go through one box at a time and make these decisions. Before you being this process, discuss with your child which charity you would like to donate items to. I recommend selecting a charity where your child can give to other children. Encouraging your child to give no longer needed or wanted items to another child can be a powerful teaching experience.
This step tends to be one of the more challenging in the organizing process. If you have a child who has a really hard time letting go, the above suggestion of choosing a charity really does help. I have a client who is taking his children on a tour of the children’s hospital where they are donating items to give his children a concrete idea of where their no longer used items will go. It’s much easier for a child to let go knowing that something once loved will go to someone real.
Don’t be afraid to “be the parent” during this step. It really is OK to remind your child that they haven’t worn, used, or played with something for ages. Often they’ll concede. If your child is particularly attached to a certain item, it’s OK to keep it. We all have things to which we feel an emotional attachment. Start a special treasures box to place these items in.
Assign a Home
After you and your child have decided what to keep, you get to decide where everything will go. Giving your child as much input as possible in this process with increase the likelihood of things actually getting put away. Your job is to make sure that like items are grouped together. No storing the lip gloss with the underwear.
Make sure you make it easy for your child to put things away by putting them in accessible areas. For example, if you expect your child to hang things in a closet with only a high rod, you may need customize the closet or at least provide a stool.
I’ll talk a lot about fabulous containing ideas for kids in future articles. For now, you need to know that in order to make putting things away easy and fun, get containers that make doing so easy. As a general rule, choose smaller rather than larger containers. No monster toy boxes! My favorite kid’s containers are 15-quart clear Sterilite tubs available at places like Target and Wal-Mart. They are great for toys and arts and crafts supplies because they hold just the right amount of stuff and are easy to put away.
My all-time favorite containing tip is to place books in dishpans or plastic bins rather than on bookshelves. You have probably noticed that every time a child wants a book, he or she wants to look at the picture on the front cover to find it. That creates the crazy pile by the bookshelf that somehow never seems to get put away. If you place books in dishpans, children can flip through and see the front covers without ever removing the books from the container. Hooray! No more book piles!
Finally, to make containing easy on yourself, follow this simple rule: MEASURE. Measure, measure, measure. Measure your piles, measure drawers, measure shelves. MEASURE. When you go to the store to purchase your containers, you will have a lot more fun if you know that the things you’re buying will actually hold the things you want them to. Allow your child a certain degree of choice in selecting containers. If your child has special treasures and collections, you can let him decorate a papier-mâché or shoe box to hold those special things.
Keep It Up
Keep It Up has to do with the maintaining of the space. It’s in this step where you will label. Label EVERYTHING. Then, when you tell your child to “go clean your room,” she can because she knows where everything goes! During this step, you can also work with your child to establish routines to help maintain the space you’ve organized, whether it’s the toy room, the bedroom or the backpack.
Does it seem to you that your child has a whole lot more stuff than you had? You’re probably right. Case in point, every time you eat at McDonald’s, he comes home with a toy! Children have SO MUCH STUFF that comes at them from so many directions that it’s overwhelming. Help your child make conscious decisions about what will or will not come into your home. Every extra toy requires energy to maintain. If you have too many toys (or clothes or video games or . . .), you might consider giving one away for every new one your child receives. And you can, of course, continually review what to donate and throw away. Especially at holiday times, you can go through clothes, toys, etc. and decide what to let go of before the new things arrive.
So how’s that for easy? We’re done! There are the systems. And you’ll use the same steps every time no matter what the project. With kids, it’s a given that you’ll be going through their things over and over again. Think of how good they’re going to be at organizing by the time they leave home! By teaching your child how to organize, you are teaching a skill that will have a positive impact on the rest of his life. You will experience less frustration and irritation. Your child will experience an increased sense of control over his environment. And both of you will know where the shoes are!
Kelly Pratt is a Clear & SIMPLE™ Certified professional organizer and creator of Clear & SIMPLE™ for Kids, the only organizing product on the market designed to teach school-aged children the skill of organizing. For more information about Kelly or Clear & SIMPLE™ for Kids, you can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.