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     Raising Organized Children

As a parent, I know that teaching kids to be organized can feel a lot like trying to shovel water with a fork -– a FRUSTRATING experience that seems like it is getting you nowhere. The good news is it can be done. The bad news is that, like homework, laundry and exercise, organizing is not a one shot deal. Raising children to be organized adults is a PROCESS that takes planning, patience, and persistence. So, how is this accomplished? First, organize thyself!

What you mean by “organized”? For the record, I define “organized” as being PREPARED so you are ready to do what you need or want to when you need or want to do it. Describe what organized LOOKS like. “Organized” often looks neat and tidy, but neat and tidy does not necessarily equal organized. Then MODEL what you want from your children -- children learn what they live. It is hard to convince children it matters if you don’t take a stab at it yourself, and frankly, it will be harder to teach them if you aren’t organized about follow through.

Start where they are and BUILD from there. Tap into your inner 3-year old: Why? Why? Why does it matter? If I am a kid, why would I care about being organized? Make it personal and MEANINGFUL to them at a developmentally appropriate level. Approach this process on three fronts: mind, stuff, and time.

Personally, I like to start at the top. Since reading a book called "Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head", I have come to see that organizing our brains benefits the WHOLE organizing process. And exercise that gets the whole body moving makes a difference. Walking is simple and uncomplicated and benefits our ability to think and REASON by getting the hemispheres of our brain communicating.

Things and space are CONCRETE and meaningful across age groups and ability levels. Sorting and categorizing, and purging are key skills to develop in the quest for organization. Happily, many of these skills can be ENCOURAGED while enlisting your children’s help around the house –- a two-fer! Laundry, dishes, grocery shopping, meal preparation –- all give many opportunities to learn and practice these skills. Sorting socks, putting away clean dishes, writing the grocery list by food group or location within the store, putting all the soups in one section of the pantry and the paper goods in another –- all these activities lay the GROUNDWORK for sorting and categorizing papers at school or work.

Observe your child’s natural TENDENCIES before you assume they are not organized. Some children sort to their own drummers, like my younger daughter. When putting away laundry, for example, she is a color sorter while I am a sleeve length sorter. So she still has a SYSTEM and a logic behind her organizing habits. Just not my system.

Often, disorganization is the result of having too MUCH stuff. What to keep? What to get rid of? Help your child learn to let go of or purge things that are not meaningful or USEFUL. Preserve mementos like artwork in photos, so you can save space and still have memorabilia.

Take a moment to look at how your child UNDERSTANDS time. Does your child lose track of time easily? Does your child live in the moment and forget about tomorrow? Timers, checklists and calendars are the critical tools for managing time:
  • Timers are objective indicators of DEADLINES -- and much harder to tune out than a parent.

  • Checklists too are objective measures of ACCOMPLISHMENT -- letting a child visually see when something has been completed.

  • I suggest middle and high school students maintain a calendar that focuses on the grading PERIOD as a unit -– generally 6 to 9 weeks, and keep a one page homework log that captures a week at a time. Pair the log with a single spiral bound FOLDER with 8 to 10 pockets that houses all homework for all classes. This minimizes the opportunity for lost work.

Break time down to the LEVEL that suits your child -– start where they are and go from there. First, help them look at time in the BASIC building blocks -– morning, afternoon, evening. Then, look at full days, building to the week, and finally, the grading period. While they are students, the grading period is the organizing unit of time that is most relevant to their lives.

Family meetings are in integral part of learning to organize time, set priorities and plan ahead. Make time on a WEEKLY basis to look at the calendar together. Ask what each person is doing? What are the deadlines, what are the crunch times? When you have filled everything in, then you start to PRIORITIZE and plan ahead. Planning menus and traffic patterns, etc., in this way teaches your child how to think ahead when organizing, and how to coordinate all the pieces of the puzzle to meet EVERYONE'S needs. Establishing family routines and investing the time now really will pay off eventually.


Connie Johnson is a professional organizer in San Francisco. The focus of her business, Routine Matters, is helping families and small businesses develop routines that will create time in their lives so they can do the things that matter.

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