I overheard a snippet of family conversation between one of my adult children and her Life Partner which went like this:

Life Partner: “So, do you have our flight number and departure time?”

Adult Child: “I couldn’t find it. It’s somewhere in the luggage but the baby is sleeping and I can’t venture to wake him up.”

This little bit transported me back in time. I could see myself standing at the doorway of one of my children’s rooms, long ago, shaking my head at the mess and heaving a deep sigh. With my oldest, the Adult Child in question, I listened to the experts who said, “The child’s room is his or her domain. Leave the children alone about it’s condition.”

Kids Have To Be Taught Organization

Why, why, I wonder, didn’t I think of myself as enough of an “expert”  back then to realize that this is a big bunch of bunk? Sure, the child’s room is, indeed, his or her personal fiefdom, but how is a child supposed to learn the high-level skill of organizing that room if it’s not taught? By osmosis?

I was lucky by the time I got to my third child. He was so colossally disorganized that I had no choice but to scrap the gurus’ brilliant—but wrong—advice and take upon myself the painstaking job of helping him develop an organized mind. In fact, the project was launched precisely three days before his Bar Mitzvah. He was expecting friends to sleep over for the occasion and the word, “chaotic” would have been an understatement for the condition of his room. There wasn’t even a spare inch of space to pull out the extra bed—and we were expecting three children to sleep over!

Organization Is Based On Categories

“Okay, my boy,” I said, “You will now learn the concept of “categories.” – A very, very important element in organizing.  “Where does this go?” I asked, holding up a wad of crumpled paper. “Garbage,” he replied.

“Please put it in the trash bag,” I answered. “In the future, your garbage must get tossed the minute it gets designated as garbage. Do you understand?”

“Yes, mom,” he said with an impolite roll of the eyeballs. I ignored his displeasure and proceeded to the next object. He was stumped. “What is it?” I asked with a slight amount of impatience.

“It’s a school paper from last year,” he answered with curiosity as to how I would handle that.

“No problem,” I grew perky. “Do you think those things could go on the top shelf in your closet?” Relief spread across his face as he realized that his cherished possessions would not have to be tossed.

So we proceeded, creating exact categories—and their specific locations—over the next four hours. Why was my dear boy so cooperative? Do you remember there was a Bar Mitzvah planned with a sleepover? Ah, you thought I wouldn’t threaten such a deprivation? No, my kids knew that my threats were real. One time, I left this same boy in the driveway because he was not ready on time for his lift to school. He ran down the block barefoot, carrying his shoes—and missed the ride anyway. He missed school that day. My kids knew I meant it when I said they’d better cooperate.

The categories ranged from file folders for current school subjects to a shelf for his Star Trek stuff, from books shelved by subject for school to Star Trek books and other fun reading, from drawers for fresh paper and supplies to drawers for Rebbe cards that they were into trading at that time. In the end, we dumped out four trash bags, but I never imposed a category on him or the decision of what to throw out. That would have been particularly disrespectful. Besides, it wouldn’t have taught him anything if I was the one making the decisions.

How To Do Refreshers

In the three years that followed, all I had to do was say, “Where should this go?” when he got lazy and didn’t put something away. He would then whisk it to which ever drawer or shelf it was supposed to be in or on. He had incorporated the concept of categories—and subcategories and sub-subcategories—a higher-level brain function that must be taught. The mind is capable of doing it, but it can’t come without some coaching. I realized then that it would have been a whole lot easier on me if I had done this with all my children earlier instead of foolishly thinking that if I left them alone, they would miraculously absorb this challenge. Sure, some children can and do pick this up by themselves, but why leave it to chance?

Today, this particular child, now an adult, my least organized to start with, is the one I can count on, when he’s home, to return from the grocery store with every item on the list and no wild and crazy substitutions like some people in the family who shall remain nameless.

When he left home for college, I questioned him closely about how he and his new roommate got along. “Oh, don’t worry, mom,” he reassured me, “I put away my stuff and keep what I don’t put away out of his way. I don’t want him mad at me.”

Well, if that isn’t a token of accomplishment—on my part and on his—I don’t know what is.

As for my daughter, she has a brilliantly organized mind—when it is important for her. She writes legal papers that have every important “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. Nothing vital is left out. Well, she was also an excellent student in school. Which shows that when you’re reinforced for doing something, it sticks. I reinforced the heck out of my messy son for improving and took my daughter’s accomplishments for granted. I never mentioned her room. I just accepted it, and today, she can’t put her hand on her travel itinerary. I should have also given her “prizes” for keeping her room organized. I should have given her a few more Barbie dolls back then. Maybe now she’d know just where in her luggage to look for her departure time.

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