Parents tend to see most aspects of child rearing as a matter of getting our words right. In order to teach our kids how to do everything from dressing themselves to packing their backpacks to cleaning their rooms, we talk: we explain, direct, coax and remind. When none of that works, we try again, thinking that if we can just say the right words our children will listen. Then, when they still don't do what we tell them, we fall into negative patterns of lecturing, threatening and demanding as we keep trying to get our kids to do the tasks necessary to get through each day and week.

I am a certified parent educator and a professional organizer. When I started helping people get organized in 1999, I never thought it had anything to do with parenting; and, when I started leading parenting classes in 2006, I never suspected parenting was connected in any way to organizing. Over the years I gradually realized that these two seemingly divergent paths actually crisscross all over the place.

Parenting and Organizing

Many of the problems, complaints and areas of conflict I hear about in parenting classes are, in essence, organizing issues. And, let's face it, organizing issues are generally the adults' problems. This is good news-when it's our problem, we can solve it. That doesn't mean we have to act solo or that we don't need any help. It simply means we are in charge, we are capable, we can find the answers and we are able to respond effectively to the problem. Or, to use a term coined by Linda Jessup in her book Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense (co-authored with Emory Luce Baldwin), we are response-able.

By the Book

Let's take kids' rooms, for example. I often ask parents in my classes, "How many books are reasonable to expect a 5-year-old to pick up?" Answers range from four to 10 books. How many books are in the average middle class, D.C.-area child's room? Probably more than 50. Board books, paperback books, books to grow into, coloring books, library books, hand-me-down books, books you loved as a child, etc. We fill their room with books because we love them and want them to love to read.

Then, being 5 years old, what do they do? They pull all the books off the shelves and watch them plop on the floor. They take out 27 books to build a fort, and they get into bed with seven books and leave them there. When Saturday morning comes we hear ourselves say tersely, in a snappish tone, "Pick this up or I'm donating it all."

As parents we are able to respond effectively to change these negative relationship spirals. We can simply remove everything from the child's room that is not reasonable for her to pick up in 15 minutes. That means 10 books live in the room. Anyone can pick up 10 books.

The Rest of Their Stuff

And so it goes with all the rest of their stuff. How many shirts are reasonable to wear and fold in a week, how many belts will one little girl actually wear and put away and how many pairs of shoes and socks? At "tidy time" Saturday morning, how much easier will it be? When there are seven shirts to straighten in a drawer (instead of 34), what a difference it makes.

Seeing the problem as a de-cluttering issue, instead of a messy and uncooperative child, builds the relationship between parent and child. Each object that leaves our home is one fewer point of contact over which to bicker, cajole, nag or clean up ourselves.

The child's room is a model for the rest of life. How many extracurricular sports or classes are reasonable for one adult to drive to, organize or follow up on? What is a reasonable time to come home from work? How much earlier than our kids do we need to get up in order to make our mornings smooth and pleasurable? Which chores can we hand over to our kids so our schedule gets de-cluttered? Some possibilities are dishwasher clearing, lunch making and waking up with an alarm clock instead of a parent's call.

Creating Order

Kathy Jenkins, a professional organizer and family manager coach in Mechanicsville, Va. ( cometoorderva.com), says that creating order in your family and house provides a space "...where everyone feels relaxed, closes the door to chaos, the family is all on the same page and everyone can find things they need." She believes that being organized can take a lot of the stress out of family life.

We all know that we are much more patient, calm and able to do creative problem solving when we have less stress. As Jenkins puts it, when we live in "a big hot mess, it's like we are always in a hurricane." Imagine living in a weather pattern where you can count on mostly clear skies and a hurricane is an occasional event, not the name of the game.

What Really Matters

Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense devotes two chapters to the topic of organization and order. When I asked co-author Jessup about her take on the sense of being overwhelmed that haunts so many of today's parents, she suggested that chaos and the feeling of having too much to do can be exhilarating and the resulting adrenaline rush can be addictive.

Constantly running here and there might make us feel important and productive, but does it create a solid family life? Jessup says, "In a society where the overabundance of commercial goods, foods, activities and opportunities poses more challenges than their lack, teaching children restraint-to distinguish what really matters and to create and respect order-will determine much of their quality of life."

Rethinking order and organization as parenting tools adds a powerful motivation to the perennial "I'm going to get organized" moments in our lives. The simple-not easy-tasks of de-cluttering our houses and calendars and of creating and (mostly) sticking to routines, are actions we can take to nurture our children and our families.


Paige Trevor is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program and a leader of PEP's "Parenting 5 to 12 Year-Olds" classes. PEPparent.org