Cincinnati Family Magazine

Your # 1 Hometown Family Resource

March 26, 2023


Does your family have too much stuff? Put an end the mess now – without buying a bigger house! You can do it!

Five years ago, I won the CHAOS contest sponsored by my local newspaper. CHAOS is an acronym for “Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome,” because my house was so cluttered and disorganized. When my sister suggested that my husband, Griff, and I enter the competition, I wasn’t humiliated – I just laughed because we were so deserving.

To walk through our house, my family automatically stepped over an assortment of clutter that included everything from cassette tape cases to diaper wipe boxes. If a plastic toy part broke underfoot, we didn’t even flinch. We were used to looking through piles of disarray to find a paper or pencil. If we couldn’t find a something, we usually just bought another.

For 17 years, I rationalized that my work as a freelance writer and library customer service specialist was my main accomplishment in life. How could I find time for organization with two part-time jobs and four kids ranging in age from 2 to 15? So what if our house was filled with a jumbled assortment of junk comprised of mateless socks, computer disks, basketballs, Legos, receipts, newspapers and dishes?

I’ll never forget the night we won the contest. That day, we discarded more than 100 pounds of clutter – just from my living and dining rooms! Returning home after dumping our first 100 pounds of garbage, we saw that our driveway was filled with cars, and our newly-spacious living room was bathed in a warm glowing light.

We opened the door and heard the friendly roar of laughter and conversation. For the first time, our high school age son had invited friends in to play a board game.

That was my first sense that clutter really did affect my children’s lives – as well as mine.

In the five years since I won the contest, I’ve given lots of talks to church and women’s groups. Everyone’s overwhelming question is, “I keep my house pretty clean and can change my own habits, but what can I do about THE KIDS?”

The contest sponsors had an interesting answer to that question. Pam Young and Peggy Jones, two women known as the Sidetracked Home Executives, explained to me that I – and probably my children and husband – suffer from a condition known as being either “organizationally-impaired” or “domestically challenged.”

They believe that disorganization is genetic, and that each family usually gets one “born-organized” child. They feel that “too much clutter” is a problem that at least 60 percent of families face.

They explained that domestically challenged children and adults will always struggle with being organized – but that it’s possible to incorporate behaviors to help move kids and their parents in the direction of more streamlined home organization.

The so-called Slob Sisters and professional organizers Stephanie Denton and Julie Signore offer the following idea for organizing a kid-friendly household:

1. Set the example by becoming organized yourself.

The sisters suggested our family follow the example of the many highway departments, which tag cars that have been left abandoned after 24 hours, and then impound them. They gave us bright orange stickers – and they explained that if any family member saw another family member’s belonging out of place, they should “tag” it with an orange sticker. If it was still there 24 hours later, the person who abandoned it would be charged 25 cents.

They suggested we start with a budget of $5 per person per week, and explained that if we wanted, we could offer 20 minutes of time rather than money. Our kids loved telling on us and each other, and collecting a quarter every time. “In order to help a child be organized it is critical that there is an example throughout the entire home to which they can relate,” says Signore. “If you have unorganized areas of your home, do not expect positive, active involvement from a child.”

2. Choose simple organization policies that kids can understand.

Make it the policy that when you bring home one new toy, one old one goes out, suggests Denton, a professional home organizer who often writes about home organization issues. “Let the child choose the old toy that is discarded, so she will be involved in the decision process. Then let her go to the thrift store and turn the toy in with you so she can experience the physical step of donating the item,” she continues. “This way, kids can see that their old toys are going somewhere where they are needed and that donating them is helpful.”

3. Make your home environment convenient for children to organize.

Denton explains that in many homes, the systems for organization aren’t kid-convenient. “The bars are too high in the closet, or it’s too hard to get the drawers in the dresser to open. The dishes are in the cabinet above the counter, or the shelves are too high for a child to line the toys up,” she explains.

Denton advises making organization convenient for kids by lowering the bar in the closet or getting double bars, using the upper bar for party and out-of-season clothes, and the lower bar for clothes worn every day. She recommends moving dishes to a cabinet below the sink and considering buying plastic dishes to avoid concern over breaking them.

To create an organization-friendly child’s bedroom, she suggests lining the room, (all or almost all the way around) with a low-to-the-ground shelf. “Store parts of one toy or similar toys in clear plastic storage bins, so that even if they are jumbled in the bin, pieces for the same toy or type of toy are together,” says Denton. “You can label the outside with a picture from the box the toy came in or let the child draw a picture to quickly identify what goes where.”

4. Teach children that organization is helpful throughout their lives.

Instruct children that organizing is a valuable skill that will make their lives easier and happier, says Denton. Teaching a them at the youngest possible age to maintain neat and orderly rooms lays the groundwork for many habits they will pick up in later years, says Signore, who adds that teaching organization actually frees up your time, too. She explains, “You will no longer hear a small voice say – ‘Mom where is…’ or ‘I forgot my homework and got another detention’ or ‘Do I have a clean uniform for the game today?'”

Adds Denton, “Organization really contributes to children’s success in school. Remind them that if they know what and where their homework assignments are, their mornings are less frantic, and they may be able to sleep in five to 10 minutes later. Also, they won’t feel that helpless knot in their stomachs from panicking over not being able to find that one important paper.”

At home, it helps if children have a specific place set aside to write and do work rather, than doing his homework on the couch, table or wherever is free that day, says Denton. “Remember that kids have the same ergonomic needs as adults – a desk or table with good lighting and a place to set up and keep their papers,” she adds.

5. Allow children to contribute to the organization process.

Ask your child about her dream of what her house should be like by asking “what could be changed about our house to make you feel more comfortable inviting friends over?” says Denton. “If her answer relates to your home organization, remind your child not to get discouraged by saying, ‘Let’s find the system that is going to work for you.'”

Kids rooms are probably one of the most fun places to organize – but never attempt it without their permission, input and most importantly their active participation, says Signore. She adds, “Never ‘surprise’ children by organizing their rooms for them. Yes, kids are under your roof, but privacy and personal belongings need to be respected – yours as well as theirs.”

Denton adds that almost no child is too young to contribute to the home organization. “A child who is 2-and-a-half to 3 is old enough put some clothes in his basket or drawer,” she says. “You might want to draw up a list of things that kids can do that are convenient for them, such as sorting their clothes between whites and colors, or putting food in the dog dish, with a canister and a scoop. Realize that they may spill or make a mistake the first time.”

6. Monitor the number of toys being played with.

Denton says, “Keep a small toy bin or basket in each room where kids like to play with toys. At the end of the day, toss toys in the bin or basket for a very quick cleanup. If you can see that there are more toys out than will fit in the basket, tell the kids that they need to put some away.”

7. Consider a filing cabinet to manage paper clutter.

Papers can clutter anyone’s life – even a child’s. Consider giving a child her own filing cabinet to store school work, pictures, cards, awards and certificates, mementoes, art projects, report cards, stories, etc., says Signore.

The SLOB sisters offered a similar suggestion – a family filing cabinet with a file for each child where doctor’s appointment cards, soccer schedules, etc. are filed. They also recommended each child be given a large cardboard “memento box.” As an optimistic goal, they suggested that each child plan to leave the house as an adult with his “wedding box” containing all his paper mementoes.

In our family, the perspective of a single box of papers helped our kids judge which art drawings were worthy of keeping. Along with a filing cabinet, the sisters suggest a bulletin board, to post activities within the week and possibly one art drawing to be displayed for that week.

8. Teach children how to use the nearest clothes hamper.

“Clothes often land on the floor because there is no hamper in the immediate vicinity.” says Signore. “The further away you require them to bring the clothes (i.e., laundry room) the greater the odds they will pile up on the floor.” She suggests that parents hold kids responsible for bringing their own laundry to the laundry room on a designated day. “If they miss the day, it might be a great time to teach them how to do their own!”

Signore adds that many parents are frustrated with the “stuff” on the floor. She asks, “Does your child have a waste basket in her room? My experience shows that the missing basket in the room is often the culprit. When dealing with kids, get creative. Install a small basketball hoop above the area for the laundry or wastebasket. This creates a much more interesting and fun way to encourage kids to put socks in a hamper or papers in a basket.”

The SLOB sisters, on the other hand, feel that no laundry should be placed anywhere but the laundry room. They recommend that each family member be required to sort laundry into one of three baskets – one for white, one for colors, one for darks. Each basket should be the size of a load of laundry, and the person who places an article of clothing on top to fill the basket, should then place that load in the washer.

The sisters add that laundry should be folded while warm, if possible. They say that laundry left on the floor – or anywhere other than in the laundry room hamper – qualifies as a belonging left out of place and is fair game for the 25 cent penalty after 24 hours.

Adding a little organization and routine can be life-altering. We’d tried to sell our home twice before we organized it, with a nary a nibble from a potential buyer. After I won the CHAOS contest and set my family down a different path, I was able to sell my house and buy the bigger home my family needed. Incorporating the above suggestions certainly changed our lives, and it could change yours, too.

Carolyn Campbell a freelance writer and mother of four.

Creating SPACE

According to author Julie Morgenstern in the book Organizing from the Inside Out (Owl Books), for each storage area, analyze (take stock and define), strategize (create a realistic plan of action) and attack. She recommends using the SPACE method:


Start by grouping like items together, such as papers, stuffed animals, figurines, Legos, etc.Purge Get rid of excessive duplicates. Does your child really need 6 sets of watercolors?Assign a home Decide where things will go, such as crayons and other writing utensils in or near the desk. Containerize Stackable storage bins, under-the- bed-boxes … the ideas are limitless. Equalize All of the above steps are in vain if you don’t take the time to put things back after use!

Source: Organizing from the Inside Out: the Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office, and Your Life by Julie Morgenstern (Owl Books).

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