Q. I have a lovely, happy 7-year-old daughter who refuses to clean her room. I am not talking spotless; I am asking for reasonable neatness.
Most of the time I can't see a single clear space in her room -- littered floors, bureaus, bed, etc. It's a treasure hunt to find her dirty clothes.
I have tried everything. I have begged, praised, cajoled, taken away her allowance, bribed and punished -- making her stay in after school, no friends over. I have tried cleaning up with her, giving her a deadline, setting a clock, offering a reward: Nothing!
She is such a precious, wonderful child -- the middle between two brothers -- and we get along great except for this.
A. Once when one of our teen-agers called the police to report a possible burglary, the officer took one look at her room and said she must be right: It had obviously been ransacked. He apparently had no children.
Messy rooms can be a chronic problem that begin early and linger on. The cause generally depends on the age of the child. Teen-agers may be declaring their independence, but younger children simply don't know where to start or what to do because they haven't had to follow the same rituals again and again. This is what makes them automatic.
Your child won't learn to be neat unless you teach her these rituals. This is a great deal of trouble and will inconvenience you for a few weeks but it's easier than living with a litterbug.
Even if the disorder is confined to her room, it's still a family problem, for her room is part of the house. By keeping it so messy she's polluting both the family space and her own, as surely as someone who smokes cigars or uses foul language.
You can't teach your child to be neat with pleas, threats, bribes or punishments, particularly the withholding of her allowance because that's also unfair. Every child deserves a small slice of the family pie.
Instead, you instill better habits by concentrating on the neatness factor for several weeks, letting other problems slide. A child can only correct one fault at a time.
You also will have to be in the room with your child while she cleans -- not to fuss or to do the work but to oversee it and, incidentally, to keep her from getting lonely or distracted.
You do help her make her bed, because a large tidy space will immediately make the room look cleaner and because it will also give you a place to rest while you tell her what to do next. Explain the how and why of each step as you would to a trainee -- when she's ready for it and without getting mad.
First, have her clear the clutter from the smallest space, such as the night table, and then have her move on to the bureau tops, the chair, the shelf, the desk. By breaking her work into steps, the job won't seem monumental.
The floor, of course, is the biggest job, and for this she needs a leaf rake (really). Have her rake under the bed and from every corner, to a heap in the center of the room. She divides the heap into four stacks -- clean clothes, dirty clothes, books and school supplies, toys -- and puts away each stack, starting with the biggest one.
This will be easier for her if she has her own hamper or pillowcase for dirty clothes and open shelves for toys, since a toy chest breeds confusion. And it will be easier for you if you stash about a third of the least-used toys on the closet shelf for a couple of months. A child takes better care of rotated toys.
While your child is in training, allow her to go to bed 15 minutes later, so she has time to put away anything that's gotten out of place, and to lay out her clothes and books for morning. Be sure to check her work. If it isn't finished, stay with her until it is, without anger, lecture or conversation -- just waiting.
In the morning, she puts away her pajamas and makes her bed so she can have breakfast, and she has breakfast so she can go to school. And you check her room before she eats and make her do it if she hasn't. This may make her late once or twice but she'll soon learn. When you're 7, school is so important you don't want to miss even part of it.
If your daughter is slow one morning, wake her a little earlier the next -- since obviously she needs more time -- and send her to her room a little earlier at night for the same reason. When she has a few good days in a row, however, surprise her with a little bouquet for her bedroom. This is how she learns that the choice is hers, even though you make no threats or offer no bribes.
For the clutter all children strew about the house, consider the Gunny Bag, described in Teaching Children Responsibility by Linda and Richard Eyre (Ballantine, $3.50). Here, a laundry sack that you've decorated like a monster swoops down from the attic to gobble up any clothes and toys that are left about and spits them out on Saturday for everyone to retrieve and put away.
It takes oversight to teach a child what she doesn't want to learn, and humor to make her want to learn it.