Helping children develop organizing, uncluttering, and other important life skills

When I was in third grade, my classmate and friend Julianne told me she wanted to grow up to be a pediatrician. Today, she’s a pediatrician.

In third grade, I didn’t have that kind of determination and foresight — I seem to recall I wanted to grow up to be a giraffe — and I’ve always been envious of Julianne’s focus. Her desire to become a pediatrician was something that meshed with her personality and was an idea she came up with on her own. However, her parents listened to her wishes and helped her develop the diligence and dedication needed to be successful in school and her future career path.

One of the things they did was create clear goals to help her establish positive habits. In elementary school, she had a chore chart that identified what she needed to do every day (brush her teeth, feed the cat, make her bed, read 20 pages in a book, practice piano, etc.). Her parents trained her how to complete each of the chores, monitored and guided her to see that she understood how to do each of the chores, and then reviewed her chore chart with her each night before bed to see what she had successfully accomplished. If she did the chore properly, she received a check on the list. If she didn’t do the chore, she did not get a check. After accruing a set number of check marks, she would get a reward that she and her parents had agreed upon at the start of the week (extended television time, a book of puzzles). Julianne’s mom also supervised her as she did her homework at the kitchen table after school every day and had her review what she learned in each of her subjects, regardless if she had homework for that subject.

After reading books like Willpower and Top of the Class, I understand why Julianne’s parents’ guidance was such a strong contributing factor to her achieving her life-long goal to become a pediatrician. From an early age, her parents helped her to develop the skills essential for her success.

These books conclude the easiest and best way for children to develop the self-control necessary to be organized, uncluttered, and have positive study and life skills is for parents to:

  1. Set clear goals for young children and/or help them to set clear goals for themselves as they move into middle and high school.
  2. Train children how to reach their goals and complete tasks. (If you want your preschooler to make her bed every morning, show her exactly how to make her bed, and have her practice making her bed so you can see she is aware of your expectations.)
  3. Stay engaged with your child’s progress. When starting new routines and taking on new chores, it may take a few weeks for your child to really master the task. Don’t be obsessive, simply make it clear to your child that you are monitoring his behavior because you love him and wish for him to succeed.
  4. When creating rules, have a reason for creating each rule and be realistic with the rules. Don’t create rules for the sake of creating rules. Have rules that promote positive behaviors and skill building, and rules that are appropriate for the age of your child. A two-year-old child cannot be expected to hang her coat up on a hanger on a closet rod she cannot reach, but she can be expected to hang her coat on a hook that is only three feet off the ground.
  5. Consistently enforce rules and expectations, without exception. If two parents are in the home, both parents have to respond the same way every time whenever a rule is broken or expectation is unmet. For young children, this might be returning to a playroom to pick up toys if they are left out on the floor each and every time it happens.
  6. Meaningfully reward a child when he achieves a determined valuable milestone. Rewards should be established when goals are set so that children know what they are working toward, and the reward should be given immediately when the goal is met. If a child is to receive a pack of stickers after five days of successfully doing all of his chores, the stickers should be given as the last chore is completed.

Personally, the most difficult aspect of taking on these responsibilities is consistently helping my two-year-old son through the process. If I’m tired after a long day at work, I want to take the easy way out and do his chores for him to save time. This isn’t fair to him (he doesn’t earn check marks) and then there is the repercussion that the following night he protests doing the chore because he knows I can do it for him. Being consistent, though, is what he needs to properly develop the skills … so now I’m working on my willpower.

30 Comments for “Helping children develop organizing, uncluttering, and other important life skills”

  1. posted by Lauren on

    Each of these steps is important when helping kids develop life skills. I didn’t have “chores” growing up and I feel like I missed out on learning a lot of the self-discipline, not to mention the specific skills, having these responsibilities promotes. I now have two children of my own and I try to help them develop these skills. For me, consistency is key but very difficult. I agree with Erin that whenever you’re tired or stressed, it’s very tempting to just do everything yourself.

  2. posted by Melinda T on

    This is a great article! This is something me and my 5yr old is trying to do! I agree with you both, when I’m tired or my daughter is, I end up doing it myself. I tell myself that its not going to happen overnight, it is and will be a slow process and with time, she’ll learn to be disciplined and responsible. And I’ll have to look into reading those 2 books! Thanks!

  3. posted by Carol on

    Great suggestions, but don’t be too envious of your focussed friend. I interview lots of people who have known what they wanted to do their whole lives, took all the right courses, volunteered appropriately, joined the right clubs….but I always wonder what they might have missed out on because they were so committed to the goal.

  4. posted by Sage on

    Nice list! I still use a variation of a chore chart every day as an adult. It’s so satisfying to check off the next item. I agree with the idea of showing them how it’s done so you can establish expectations. Yes, the reward should be available immediately after completion of the task.

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Carol — My friend didn’t miss out on much, if anything. She was also one of the top rowers in the country in the mid-1990s (she represented the US in women’s rowing in either the olympics or the world rowing championships, I can’t remember). And, she had a robust social life in high school and college. Knowing what she wanted to do for a career seemed to free her up to follow her other passions.

  6. posted by Gemmond on

    It seems many parents go to extremes with goal setting and rules. Some parents, for the obvious reasons, don’t reinforce things (and I’m not judging here, cause the energy needed to be consistent in all of this is phenomenal for anyone!)consistently while others tend to be so forceful that, depending on the child’s age and personality, the parents’ approach becomes an obstacle in and of itself.

    Few kids of our generation were taught much about goals and there certainly was no “reward system” (you did your chores or else). But we did have rules and discipline (especially in school!) and kids had a clear understanding that they were the kids and NOT in charge of the household. They did not set the rules, nor did they negotiate.

    It brought its own issues and challenges for that generation, but it seems there are far fewer problems in the adults from that era than many kids raised in the 80s and 90s were there was often way too much permissiveness.

    In the end, it’s what the parents model. If you are not disciplined, don’t have goals, are disorganized and disrespectful to your kids and others, your kids are going to absorb that. And unless there is something else to counter it, that’s what they’ll learn and pass on.

    Having the tools to negotiate life is far more important than knowing what you want to do, both as a kid and a young adult or college student. Live, experience and learn. And you’ll figure it out.

  7. posted by Danielle on

    I really wanted to be a plaid Scottie dog! For waaayyy to long! What can I say, my mom told me I could be anything I wanted.

  8. posted by Kris on

    Please allow me to express a contrarian view.

    We raised our children in a very relaxed atmosphere. The only “chore” that they had was to launder their own clothes. They could eat candy whenever they wanted to, do homework whenever they wanted to, go to bed whenever they wanted to.

    Now our youngest is beginning an 8-year M.D./Ph.D. program. On her first exam, she scored in the top 4 percent of her class. She has managed to accomplish this without ever having had a chore chart. (And without her mother having ever read “Top of the Class.”)

  9. posted by terriok1 on

    There has to be some sort of happy medium.

    As a kid, kids could do nothing right.

    As an adult, kids can do no wrong.

    I love kids but we are raising a nation of spoiled children, often ill-mannered that do not know how to fend for themselves. The latter frightens me.

    By far, the most important skill my Mom taught me was to be independent. As the first born, it made the most sense.

    Nothing wrong with teaching kids organizational skills. Terrific!

    But being a giraffe or a plaid puppy shows a lot of creativity. (Btw, to my amazement, kids are not being creative coloring Santa’s suit green- it’s because they forget which color it is supposed to be!)

    Children are best off by far by being intrinsically motivated not being given checks, points and rewards for simple activities. Although to a certain extent, old BF Skinner strategies are effective.

    Kids far prefer a pat on the back- when they deserve it.

    In September, I’d inevitably get students drawing a line on a paper “Look! See, teacher!” to the point where I grit my teeth just thinking about it.

    “My mother did not name me “T-shirt”. Giggle, giggle.

    Also I’d reframe it “Do people really look like sticks with no hands, no feet, no, faces. Well???”

    Later, once they got the idea “Do you like it? Are you satisfied with it? Is that the best work you can do?”

    Ah, they know. And they are not being given enough credit (ie in having the smarts, the gifts, the reasoning). Teach them, show them, demonstrate for them and let them lose.

    Kids learn best by doing.

    Children are positively amazing. When people need help they look around for assistance. I look down… for the most amazing, under-rated, eager, capable Munchkin helpers you can envision.

    Without getting specific there are entire nations of kids being so sadly structured in formal activities and lessons that they have no time to be kids and are so pressured it borders on absurdity. Hardly societies to emulate in child-rearing practices. And it was not so long ago when they were perceived in that manner here in the US.

    If you are really interested, read up on Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget- true experts on children. Both were strong advocates of intrinsic motivation.

    Montessori is particularly good with slow learners and the gifted. Btw, likely the gifted are going to come up with a cure for the modern plague and our education system is so often ignoring and not nurturing their education.

  10. posted by Deb on

    Amen to TErriok1

    How can you know you want to be a pediatrician when you are still a child? Are you sure that was HER goal? Kids will turn themselves inside out to avoid or respond to our unloved dreams.

    Have you read Leo Babauta on having no goals?

    My kids are grown, and I notice that there isn’t a neat straight line relationship between their friends upbringing and their adult selves. Most of the kids I know with structured, goal driven upbringings rebelled big time when they got into their teens

  11. posted by Jenn on

    I read this blog often but I gotta say, this post is creepy. My childhood career goals included at various points: florist (like Janet from 3’s Company), grocery store clerk, lawyer, professional ballerina, high school math teacher. I am none of those, and I didn’t settle on a career until college but as an adult I am successful in my field. I also had many scholastic awards and did well in extracurricular activities. Children absolutely need chores/responsibilities in the home, and they absolutely need activities that allow them to set goals, learn commitment, perseverance, etc (such as a team sport, piano lessons, martial arts), but the idea that a child needs to pick her career path at a young age and follow that path without deviation stifles their abilitiy to thing creatively, to dream, to have ideas.

  12. posted by organizingwithe on

    I’ve found the best way to foster important life skills, as well as a sense of belonging is to have a Family Clean Up.

    Simply put, a few times a week we all pitch in to neaten up the house. We choose between dusting, cleaning the bathrooms, de-cluttering & vacuuming. We ring a bell, first one there gets first choice of jobs, and in 10 minutes the house is presentable.

    Works all around because the kids are learning life skills, and I’m not asking someone to pick up their feet while I vacuum under them. And they realize the house doesn’t clean itself. Everyone does have their favorite job – right now my 13 year old is always choosing to clean the bathrooms! you don’t hear me complaining!

  13. posted by Erin Doland on

    @terriok1 — These guidelines are actually based on the Montessori method. A central idea of Montessori (at least at the preschool stage) is to teach children how to do things so they can do them on their own. The teacher shows the child how to do a task, and then the child tries the task with assistance, and then eventually takes over the task himself. Zipping up his own jacket, hanging up his own coat on a hook, washing his hands, etc. The idea is to train the child on the skill and help him to master it so he can do it independently. My son is currently in an accredited Montessori preschool, and I have a master’s in education where we specifically studied Montessori. The suggestions in this post, for all intents and purposes, are exactly what Maria Montessori suggested. She was very much of the belief that children should learn to set their own goals and guide their own behavior, which is exactly what this type of parenting does.

  14. posted by Nicki on

    Erin, I don’t think Carol was trying to put down your friend. She was just trying to make you feel better about yourself. Is it really so bad that you wanted to be a giraffe at the same she wanted to be a pediatrician? It seems like you both turned out fine.
    I have a B.S. in Child Development and I am also a mother of five (including a set of twins). I found out quickly that my children are ALL different, and what works with one, might not work with another. I like Organizwithe post. In my family, we call it “Life skills” We all pitch in and take turns, and they know to help, because it makes everything run smoothly, makes me happy, and then we have time to do more fun things, like go to the beach. The oldest two are getting ready to go to college. My son has known since he was a little boy he wants to study Computer Science. My daughter has changed her mind many times. She has been so stressed over it, until I told her that she didn’t have to choose a major the first two years. It’s all basic courses the first two years anyway. She was so relieved after that. She is a straight A honors student. I am not worried about her finding her path. If she had a parent that pushed her, I am afraid she would end up committing suicide.
    I am trying to teach my children to be more organized than me, like getting things ready the night before (I am trying too) doing projects earlier than the night before it’s due, putting things away immediately etc. and hopefully they will have better skills than me, but also keep some of the spontaneity and craziness of someone with organizationally challenged. 🙂

  15. posted by Marrena on

    Detractors–Erin is a first-time mom with a two-year-old. Every first-time mom with a two-year-old has lots of childrearing theories. Chill out, she will learn.

    Children are people. Just like people, each child is unique. There is no one approach that will fit all children. Perhaps Erin’s son will thrive with her approach, perhaps not. If he doesn’t, in the next three years he will take matters into his own hands and instruct her.

  16. posted by Linda Varone on

    I am sure Erin also includes a lot of fun, fantasy and hugs in her child’s day.

    Erin recognizes that children gain a true sense of self-esteem when they learn life skills. I imagine her son’s made-bed is askew and lumpy, but he gets a real sense of accomplishment that HE did it himself. The most self-confident kids I know, know how to behave in a friend’s home, how to make their own lunch (when they are older than 2, of course) and how to ask an adult for assistance – instead of melt-downs or whinning.

  17. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Marrena — This isn’t my advice, it’s the advice of the scientists who wrote the book Willpower and the doctor and lawyer who wrote Top of the Class. It’s also very similar to the advice I followed when teaching English to hundreds of high schoolers for many years based on the work of dozens of educational scholars.

  18. posted by Leslie on

    I taught in a Montessori school AND was a co-writer on a book that combines parenting with organizational leadership.

    That said, my child self is wishing I grew up in an environment where everything was laid out so clearly. I didn’t. My mom tried to find a happy medium where everyone could find a place to “fit in”.

    Today, I don’t know how families do it. Particularly those with multiple jobs and seemingly little time. My mom struggled as a stay at home mom with 3 children. Today, I see families who don’t even bother to try for family meals as it’s too hard to get everyone together at the same time because of work/school/activities schedules. And yet, other families do manage it. Is one family better organized or are their priorities better organized?

    Kudos to those who succeed and are happy with the results.

  19. posted by bytheway on

    No matter the parenting philosophy, what I take from this post is this: make sure you examine *why* you do what you do every day. The danger, to me, is autopilot/surviving, not thriving/mindless responses in anxiety instead of living the way, every day, that seems to work best for the family. I find my husband and I gain the most from our philosophical conversations about parenting/family life/choices. That way, the daily life choices (chore chart? no chore chart? how closely to monitor this one or that one’s homework?) seem very clear. For example, we believe daily chores are imp’t–and started them very young. But there is no chart. The whole fam does their chores at the same time, including adults. Another example–I have to go back to my office many evenings, so that means a family meal is sacred time for us, almost every night of the year. And that’s because I may miss bedtime.

    I also find that even my youngest can articulate what is important to him: he’s 3 1/2 and has been a real pill in the ams before we drop his big brother off at Kgtn. I asked him why he bugs his brother so much in the morning and he told me he’s frustrated. I assumed that meant he was frustrated that big bro was going to school and he wasn’t, so I asked that question. No. He was frustrated, he told me, because he can’t eat bkfst and get dressed as fast as his brother can. And because he doesn’t get to take a backpack to daycare. So…I learned a lot in that short, quiet drive to daycare after the school dropoff.

    PS I wanted to be Mindy from Mork and Mindy when I was in 3rd grade. I don’t know what Mindy did, but she had her own apartment in Colorado and that seemed pretty cool to me!

  20. posted by lisa on

    We all want our children to grow up to achieve their dreams. As parents, it’s our task to help them build their life skills in order to set out on the best path they can. I don’t see anything wrong with giving external motivation until the internal motivation develops. We must also give them room to determine their own interests, passions, opinions and ways of doing things. We need to teach/model not only organization, but enthusiasm, resilience, perseverance, humor… all the great qualities that are ingredients for life success.

    I disagree with terriok1 — one shouldn’t put their adult perceptions on kids’ creativity— just because you might think Santa’s suit needs to be red doesn’t mean a fig. Maybe that child reported that he/she forgot the color so as not to hurt your grown-up feelings. I’ve always been an artist and have had the experience of people who thought they knew better than me interfere with my artwork, so I’m a little sensitive!

  21. posted by Lee on

    I think childhood goals are based on what children are familiar with. Parents should expose them to new ideas and give them a broad perspective. Fun classes on weekends or in the summer (not done to excess), reading about people and their careers, and talking to other people can all help. There’s nothing wrong with following a childhood dream, but learning about something new could easliy help the child change direction. Even older adults are realizing that their chosen career wasn’t fulfilling and are making major changes in what they do. If something works, great. If not, evaluate and make changes.

  22. posted by terriok1 on

    I certainly do not disagree having a Masters in Early Childhood Education- having had studied Piaget, Montessori… The “directress” guides the students.

    But the kids learn best through intrinsic motivation not, checks, checklists, stickers. They get tedious and they tire of them. Well, except the cool stickers!

  23. posted by MizLoo on

    Rule # 6 is one that is so heavily promoted and that I profoundly disagree with. If the parents are not in agreement about a rule, the one who observes/discovers a transgression should act and the other parent should support the action. In the world at large, rules change with the identity of the rule-maker or rule-enforcer and life is neiter static nor predictable. As long as the parents each respect the other parent’s right to act (excluding violence, of course), and agree on the behaviors to be rewarded/discouraged, there is no need for them to spend hours negotiating which parent is “right.”

    Dad can enforce taking proper care of sports gear and check up on it, while Mom insists that homework be checked in detail or live-in Uncle Joe polices bed-making.

    My husband, 25 years older than I, rigorously patrolled language, while I only monitored words used outside our home. Our son learned not to use certain words in front of Dad, that were OK when Mom & he were alone. Hubby was lenient about whether loans beyond allowance were repaid, I only lent money on the understanding that I’d get repaid on allowance day.

    Similarly, when my son stayed at my sister’s for a weekend, her house rules (permitting sweetened cereals) were followed. Her kids liked to stay at my house, where bedtimes were flexible. Situations vary and what constitutes “good” behavior is not always a constant.

    one Grandma’s opinion.

  24. posted by Erin Doland on

    @terriok1 — There is no difference between a chore chart and a to-do list. The point in using a chore chart is to help your child learn how to identify what needs to be done (regardless of if they want to do the task), help manage their time so they can get the action done, and acknowledge when a task is completed. Intrinsic motivations are irrelevant. I certainly don’t want to do the laundry or the dishes after a long day at work, but since these chores aren’t going to do themselves, I do them. The chore chart is about teaching children responsibility and caring for their things. My guess is that you use to-do lists in some form in your daily life. They’re great tools for helping people get things done.

  25. posted by priest's wife on

    a great post! and so much of our kids’ success depends on US PARENTS (of course, kids can go bad with perfect parents and can succeed with horrible ones- but in general good parents = good kids)

  26. posted by mili on

    what that says about your friend (and what application of these rules may, or may not, achieve for kids) is that she’s successful – according to *one* definition of success, anyway.

    But it says nothing whatsoever about whether she’s a good person.

    I would rather a world of losers who are good people than successful people who are a-holes.

  27. posted by Claycat on

    Well, I wish someone had taught me to be an organized, focused child. Now, I’m a disorganized, older adult with no real direction and a lot of unfinished projects!

  28. posted by Jen on

    A lot of kids seem to learn best when the expectations of them are clear, what they are expected to do is explained clearly, and the results of their efforts are clear. These things are all accomplished by a chore chart, and I think that could be really motivational to most kids. I haven’t really used one with my son, but that’s just a personal preference. It’s because I know that we won’t be consistent enough with it to make it effective, and you really do have to be consistent. Instead, I am motivated enough by not wanting to have a child who continues to need my help to do simple things like get dressed in the morning, clear his plate, clean up his toys, etc., as he gets older – I’d rather he turns into a full functioning older child, adolescent, then adult. So that’s enough for me to keep reminding him that he needs to do these certain things (and we have a routine in place for them, it’s just not in writing), and my husband and I are both good about helping him when it’s needed, and rewarding him when that’s appropriate. He seems to take after me because he really thrives on the routine (double-edged sword) and likes things to be in order, mostly.

  29. posted by Nancy Borg on

    So funny I just posted this blog this morning about the consequences of not teaching your children the power of organization. In fact, I was inspired to become a Professional Organizer so I could help young parents learn from my mistakes. This blog speaks to this specifically, “Teach Your Children Well”
    So anyway, we are on the same page!

  30. posted by Gillian on

    Excellent post! even though I don’t have kids. There is a new product out called Easy Daysies with magnetic pieces to list chores. “Get kids organized, independent and into routine with Easy Daysies® Magnetic Schedules for Kids!” It’s pretty neat.

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