Cultivating Organizational Skills

Q: After the summer, I find it especially hard to get my children back on schedule. We are not the most organized family to begin with, and I find myself cleaning up after everyone, constantly. The problem begins as soon as the children return from school, and ends at night. I wouldn’t mind it so much — I understand that they get distracted — but after I clean up, the kids continue to dump things again. When I’m on the phone, you can forget about anything getting done. Do you have any suggestions?
A: If a parent simply becomes frustrated due to the infinite distractions in a family of children (bli ayin hara), other methods of getting children to comply may be utilized. Clearly, the simplest method to motivate children to help keep their house tidy is that of positive reinforcement. Rewards for helping can come in the form of privileges, compliments, prizes or money. An excellent form of positive reinforcement is the chart method. Each child has his or her own chart, in which s/he writes down the number of points that s/he has earned for doing various household chores. The parent makes up two other charts: One chart lists the jobs along with the points that each chore is worth. The second itemizes the actual attainable rewards (which the individual child and parent decide on together, such as playing a card game with Mommy on Shabbos) and the point value of each reward. Though we read of the importance of enforcing rules in parenting — like saying “Put away your knapsack” when children return from school — our good intentions often fade once children start to come home. Not only youngsters get distracted, but parents do, too — by the news children share about the events of their day or complaints about an incident involving a classmate or teacher. We may listen to their stories, respond empathetically — and promptly forget about coats and knapsacks and hooks! More focused parents, however, remember to tell their children (again) to hang up their knapsacks after listening to their tales of woe. As a result, less clutter accumulates.

The advantage of these charts over the usual “If you’ll be good for one month, I’ll buy you…” is that a child does not have to wait for a prolonged period of time, during which s/he may lose interest. This method allows for a variety of rewards and children may modify or change them with a parent’s approval. The usual positive reinforcement charts last 1–3 weeks, depending on the endurance and consistency of the parent. These charts reflect a child’s way of accepting responsibility for his/her actions and achievements. Though a few days may pass during which a child may lose interest, the motivation picks up when different rewards are suggested. This system works for most ages, with more elaborate rewards given as options for older children.

Another way to motivate children to help is by giving them definite deadlines by which to achieve the desired objectives. A timer can be placed in the room as a reminder for a child. Some parents count to a specific number, calling out each one with much enthusiasm, as if in a race. Parents also need to try and inject some humor and “playfulness” into the task at hand. (For instance, if youngsters were given squirt cans to use in housecleaning, they might find the work less objectionable!)

Praising a child’s ability to do certain tasks well (folding laundry neatly, maintaining a clean knapsack) makes it easier to get their cooperation at a later date. This also creates a feeling of pride in a job well done. Withholding permission from a child to participate in a desired activity (e.g., going out to play) until a chore is completed is also of help in family housekeeping.

In relation to jobs themselves, it is sometimes helpful to break down seemingly “gigantic jobs” into smaller components. Sometimes a 15-minute work period followed by a short break makes a long job more bearable.

It is also important to remember that a child needs to feel that s/he is successful in the job s/he does. For example, if a child makes his/her bed, but it isn’t exactly the way you would like it done, you can fix it at another time. However, by praising the child’s sincere effort, his/her self-esteem grows, along with a general feeling of competency.

Clearly, keeping up with orderliness in one’s home helps other areas of functioning, including homework, bedtime schedules, etc. Though housecleaning and organizing can appear endless, helpful children become helpful spouses and, in general, helpful adults. Your efforts to motivate your child to be of assistance can be seen as creating building blocks for potentially resourceful people. Time-consuming and tedious as it may sometimes seem, in effect, the work invested in this endeavor reaps manifold benefits both practically and psychologically.

Shira Frank, LCSW, has been working with children, couples and families for over 30 years. She looks forward to becoming part of your family through this column each week.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.