My nine-year-old child is untidy beyond belief—even his aunt, uncle and grandparents are shocked. He gets remarks about this from school too—for his handwriting, and his crumpled schoolbag and uniform (crumpled even before he gets off the school bus in the morning). His small cupboard and desk are a mess. He leaves his things scattered on the floor. He often wants to draw or do his homework sitting on the floor because there is no place on his desk or bed. We are tired of telling him, and it makes no difference to him. He is a messy eater too and he breaks toys and other things as well. Please advise.

It is exhausting, no doubt, to deal with a very messy child. Some parents in your situation go the punishment way, and some go the rewards way. Punishments range from taking away all the child’s things other than the bare essentials, getting him to ask for something when he wants to use it, getting him to return it to you, and only then giving him something else. This way you become the custodian of his possessions.

Quite tiring in its own way, but at least it limits the things with which he can mess up his room and the home space. It can go on for a while; his things can be “released" to him when he begins to understand the need to put things away, use them carefully, etc.

Other parents take the reward route, which means the child earns points or smileys or things or favours for putting away his/her stuff and tidying up.

Both methods are ineffective in getting a child to take responsibility for his things, but they could be a beginning, given that you are up against pretty rampant untidiness and carelessness.

You could have him tested for some attention-related disorders, given that he doesn’t seem to be able to follow even a few simple ground rules on handling things and personal tidiness.

One parent of a now grown young woman told me that her child had been pretty untidy, but she had been advised to simply tidy up her room once a day. She stopped expecting her daughter to keep things in order, but did want the room to look tidy for her “own sanity", as she put it.

She found that tidying up got the child used to some order and neatness. On days when the mother did not have the time, or the domestic help wasn’t there, the mess in the room would irritate the child, and she would unwillingly tidy some parts of it, just so that she could at least find her things. Today she runs a tidy home and work-desk, the mother reports.

Gouri Dange is the author of More ABCs Of Parenting, and ABCs Of Parenting.

Also Read Gouri’s previous Lounge columns

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