Help! My Middle School Son Won’t Clean His Room

The messy room is as close as anything gets to a universal parenting challenge.

One psychologist told the Chicago Tribune messy rooms have been the top complaint of parents for as long as such records have been kept. Other articles describe the teen and pre-teen bedroom as a “battleground,” offer advice for “winning the chore wars,” and even reassure parents their child’s pigsty is not a health hazard.

Imagine, then, the shock many parents experience upon first visiting their son’s immaculate dorm room here at The Fessenden School. “How did you get him to do that?” is often the first question out of their mouths—once they recover their jaws from the floor.

Fessenden-boys-with-clean-dorm No, it’s not impossible to get a middle schooler to clean his room. Here are few tips from Fessenden school psychologist Jonathan Goldberg, Ph.D.

1. Don’t punish; remove privileges.

Psychological literature has shown time and time again that punishment is rarely effective at getting children to change their behavior. Removing privileges, on the other hand, is.

When your son refuses to clean his room, Dr. Goldberg suggests revoking his video game privileges, his social media access, or his smartphone. Children may see these privileges as “rights,” explains Dr. Goldberg, but they’re not.

“I often tell parents they need to be a little more unyielding and not give in to the pressures that their middle school children will put on them for having these privileges, even when they’re not meeting expectations,” he says. This is one of the reasons Fessenden has been so successful getting middle school boys to clean their rooms.

“Fessenden has certain unyielding expectations and follows through on those expectations in the way that parents sometimes do not,” Dr. Goldberg says.

2. Start your son on chores at an earlier age.

“A lot of parents try to start chores when their children are 11 or 12, but in truth, you can start chores as early as kindergarten, just small things like working with the child to pick up things in their room,” Dr. Goldberg advises.

Going from zero to 60 in the chore department can be somewhat of a shock to middle school boys.

“If you don’t start chores at an earlier age, you can’t expect your children to simply adopt it later when they’re at a middle school age,” Dr. Goldberg points out. “There’s so much turmoil in their lives by then, emotionally and socially. Those types of things tend to fall on the back burner.”

If you’re not sure which chores to start with, WebMD offers a helpful list of age-appropriate chores for children.

3. Break the task down into ‘bite-size’ pieces.

If you missed the window to start your son on chores when he was younger, all is not lost. You can’t start a middle schooler young, but you can start him small.

“Oftentimes, when children are not performing these activities, it’s because they’re feeling overwhelmed by the extent of them. For some children, they can become very disorganized when there are too many steps to follow at once,” Dr. Goldberg observes.

Instead of telling your son, “Clean your room,” try something more digestible like, “Clean up the floor” or even, “Pick up your books and put them back on the shelf.” Help your son build up to the whole room by taking on one piece at a time.

How do you get your middle school son to clean his room?

Do you have any tips for getting messy middle schoolers to tidy up? How about some horror stories about ankle-deep layers of moldy laundry? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

For more parenting ideas from Dr. Jonathan Goldberg and other experts, see the complete list of Fessy-Den Blog posts.

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