The Messy Room
When your child hits early adolescence (around the ages of nine to thirteen), the freedom to keep a “messy room” often becomes an issue between parents and child. The disorderly room often feels like an affront to parents (and even more so to stepparents) who want a more orderly space in which to live. Their corrective response then becomes an affront to the adolescent who sees a power issue worth fighting for. Who should decide how the young person should live in his or her own personal space?
The Power Struggle
What started as a simple matter of spatial disorder becomes a symbolic struggle over who's in control. “It's my room!” declares the adolescent. “I should be free to live in it any way I want!” “Wrong,” counter the parents. “It's our home, and you will live according to the standards of household order that we set!” So the battle lines are drawn for a conflict of mess up versus clean up that can unfold over many years.
For the adolescent, there can be a lot at stake in asserting the right to the messy room — issues about independence, individuality, and opposition to parental rules.
As a statement of independence, the child seems to say, “I can live in my own space on my own terms!” As a statement of individuality, the child seems to say, “I am going to be different to live with than when I was a child!” As a statement of opposition, the child seems to say, “You have no right to dictate your standards of order in my personal space!”
So, do you want to let the messy room go? Do you want to just accept it as a byproduct of this more assertive and rebellious age? Or do you want to make a supervisory response instead?
Accept it: The messy room is emblematic of the adolescent age, a strident statement that your son or daughter feels entitled to live on his or her own, more independent, terms. “It's my space, it's my decision, it's my life!” Your supervision tells him or her that this freedom is not yet to be.
Supervising the Enforcement of Your Rules
By insisting on regular room cleanup, you let it be known that your child must live on your terms so long as he or she is dependent on your care. You are letting your child know that a “trashed” room causes you to feel your home is being trashed, and you won't have that because you work to keep a home and keep it up. If your child knows you will keep after the small responsibilities like cleaning up a messy room, he or she will also know that you will keep after big stuff like obedience to major rules.
Now your child has a suggestion. “Just close the door and keep out and the mess won't bother you.” Don't accept that offer. If you allow the child's mess to keep you and your supervision out, your child may start keeping things in the room, and conducting activities in the room, that you do not want in your home or in the child's life. At the age of awakening curiosity about the grown-up world, such freedom can be abused — as license to explore and experiment with the forbidden.
If your child asserts, “This is my room and you can't come in without my permission,” your answer needs to be “Yes” and “No.” Yes, you should knock before entering if the door is closed. Yes, you should allow the room to reflect the changing identity of your growing child (decoration within your tolerance for acceptable expression). And yes, you should value this decoration as a window into understanding your child's changing interests and identifications as he or she continues to grow.
Remember that if you have a child with a high degree of ADD/ADHD characteristics, having a simplified and orderly personal space to live in can help that child gain better control over the conduct of his or her life, because a messy room only adds chaos to a life that is already hard to keep organized.
This said, you also have to state conditions under which you will say no to the right of privacy. As you do with freedom for electronic communication, so do with freedom of personal space. Privacy remains a privilege, not a right. Use privacy to conceal or to conduct the forbidden, and that privilege is lost because personal freedom is being abused.
If your child is inexplicably changing for the worse at home and is getting into significant trouble at school or out in the world, but she refuses to discuss with you what is happening, asserting your right of “search and seizure” in her room may uncover private communications or paraphernalia that disclose what is really going on.