STYLE Savvy: Organizing with Kids

"Organizing with kids" by Lisa Hess (

Copyright 2018 Lisa Hess. All rights reserved.

Last night, I was the last one in my house to go to bed, as usual. (There’s no need to feel sorry for me — I’m a night owl who treasures the quiet time when everyone else is asleep). As I walked through the kitchen before heading upstairs, I saw a pile of my daughter’s things, ready to be loaded into the car for her trip up to campus. I’d walked around the pile (with mild annoyance, I might add) several times already but, in the quiet house, its significance hit me.

She’s going back to school.

This year’s trip back is, admittedly, one of the least emotional. We’ve done this before and, this time, she’ll be in the United States. We’re easing in, with a trip to bring most of her stuff up one weekend and actual departure for the semester the next.

And the prep is easier than ever. At 21, she has set up a dorm room four times already — three times at the start of fall semester and once at the start of a semester abroad. She knows what she needs, she knows how to pack it and she knows how she wants things done. My job is to support her, not nag her, and do what she asks me to do, taking the subordinate position in this organization game.

If you’re the parent of younger children, you might think this day will never come — that you’ll be consigned to picking up plastic toys, empty snack wrappers and wayward backpacks — or reminding your kids to do so — forever.

Often, when kids struggle to organize, it’s for the same reasons that adults do — the tools aren’t working, aren’t a good fit for them or they haven’t developed the habit of consistency. When we help our children to build on organizational habits that are easy for them (putting the same toy in the same place every time they’re finished with it) and that come naturally for them (personal and organizational styles), we lead them in the direction of being self-sufficient.

If we want our kids to become self-sufficient organizers, we need to not only teach them good habits (like assigning consistent homes to their things), but also to start with their organizational successes and build from there. If we fail to do this, we may win the battle (a temporarily tidy house), but lose the war (raising kids who know how to pick up after themselves without us following along behind them). If we respect our children’s styles, placing ourselves in the subordinate position by acting as organizational facilitators instead of organizational dictators, we build their skills and their faith in themselves in a side-by-side process.

Here are three key things we can give our kids when it comes to organizing.

Give them ownership. We may think we have the perfect tools, containers or answers for them, but only they know if they’ll really use it. And if they won’t use it, we’ll only end up back where we started … and a little poorer. Help them figure out their styles (but don’t label them — ask them where they think they fit instead) and offer suggestions, but let them have the final say. I can promise you it won’t work every time, but getting organized is a learning process. We sometimes learn as much from what doesn’t work as we do from what does.

Give them encouragement. Hard as it may be if you’re parent for whom organizing comes easily, try not to judge. Most kids know that cramming all their papers into a small space, collecting every rock and crayon or dropping their shoes in the middle of the floor isn’t the ideal organizational system. Gently redirect (if you can) and figure out a home and a system that works for both of you. Ask your child where he or she would put things…or, if possible, locate a container in the spot where he or she naturally drops stuff. Notice when something gets put where it belongs, returns home uncrushed and unfolded or can be found when it’s needed. You don’t have to throw a party. A smile will do. Maybe even an acknowledgment or a hug, if that works for both of you.

Give them a timer. When you’re a kid, fifteen minutes on the playground goes by in 30 seconds and fifteen minutes spent organizing takes an hour and a half. Agree on a stopping point — whether it’s in minutes, items put away, or a bite-sized task completed — and then stick to it. Believe it or not, the kid who’s allowed to stop when the timer goes off just might keep going. For some of us, getting started is the hardest part. If they’re allowed to stop before they get frustrated, it’ll be easier to get them to start the next time.

For you fabulous Type A parents who organize as easily as you breathe, this is going to be a challenge. Baby steps are growth, but it takes an awful lot of them to cover much ground. Start small, involving your child in tasks where success is easy to see — a backpack, a drawer, a bookshelf — and work from there. Better that you successfully organize one shelf and walk away happy than tackle an entire bedroom and end up yelling at each other. No level of organization is worth sacrificing your relationship with your child.

One last thing. When you’ve put your child in charge, don’t go back and re-do what he or she has done. Nothing wrecks confidence faster, not to mention inspiring a complete lack of cooperation the next time around. For your sake as well as your child’s, assist when asked, then walk away.

Remember, you’re in this for the long haul. Kids are finding their way in so many areas, and organizational skills rarely make the top of their list. Slow, steady, consistent progress and an understanding of their styles can help them to not only look neater, but understand themselves better as well.

And that is a gift that’s perhaps even nicer than a LEGO-free living room floor.

Copyright 2019 Lisa Lawmaster Hess


About Author

Lisa Lawmaster Hess has contributed articles to local, national and online publications, and blogs at The Porch Swing Chronicles, The Susquehanna Writers and here at She is the author of two non-fiction books (Acting Assertively and Diverse Divorce) and two novels, Casting the First Stone and Chasing a Second Chance. A retired elementary school counselor, Lisa is a lecturer in psychology at York College and enjoys singing with the contemporary choir at her church.

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