Q: My 12-year-old daughter is a loving, sweet child, but she's a terminal slob. I can't get her to stop leaving a mess, even though she says she's very sorry when she does it.
B. M., Plymouth, Mich.
A: What your daughter needs is a complete change of attitude. She's not likely to stop leaving a mess until she learns to value neatness.
Teaching her this will not be easy.
"If she's a child who isn't bothered by clutter and disorder, she's a nester and you'll be trying to change her natural temperament," says Elizabeth Crary of Seattle, Wash., author of "Pick Up Your Socks and Other Skills Growing Children Need" (Parenting Press, $12.95).
L "That's not something you can change in a couple of months."
One psychology professor who studies parenting styles has found that the best way to get children to change an annoying behavior, such as being messy, is to help them internalize the importance of the new behavior.
"That's to say her goal should not be just to force her kid to pick up the mess, but the larger socialization goal of wanting her to value cleanliness for herself," says Dr. Wendy Grolnick, who teaches developmental psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
To do this, Dr. Grolnick's research shows, parents should combine the strategies of reasoning and rules.
"You don't want to bribe or threaten, but offer reasons why neatness is important," she says. "Involve your daughter in deciding some clear guidelines for how to make this a better situation. Figure out the consequences together if that doesn't happen."
One consequence that a family in Babylon, N.Y., came up with was to hold hostage whatever items were left lying around the house.
"We hold the items hostage, and they have to keep their rooms in order for a certain period to earn them back," Cathi Cintorino says. "If they didn't care enough to earn them back, we gave them to someone else."
Ms. Crary says it works best to focus on one area of the house at first. In the beginning, your goal is simply to create awareness.
"Pick some common space and establish that as a neat area," she says. "At first, the child is not allowed to do anything messy there at all."
After a couple of successful weeks, the child is then allowed to bring possessions into the room if she agrees to take them out again immediately after using them.
"If they forget, they can't do anything there for a week," Ms. Crary says. "Do not accept any excuses."
This works well for common areas, but getting a child to keep a neat room is harder.
"To help them internalize the value of neatness, you have to point out the positives," Ms. Crary says. "Isn't it nice you know where your art supplies are? Isn't it nice to be able to walk around without hurting your feet?"
Make sure the child's room has a structure to support neatness.
"It's a lot easier to put things away if there are places to put them," Ms. Crary says. "Shelves are easier than boxes."
Finally, cleaning is a skill, as several parents point out.
"I realized my children didn't have any idea of how to clean up," says D. R. of Atlanta, Ga.
"We played a game of 'I help you clean and you help me.' As we worked together, I explained what I was doing and why. That seemed to help."
Dr. Grolnick's research also showed that parental involvement was one factor that has a positive effect.
"Internalizing happens when children have role models around them that show they care," she says.
CAN YOU HELP?
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* Miss Manners: "My 9-year-old granddaughter is a bright child with intelligent parents, but her table manners are deplorable," says S. H. of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "I'm afraid her peers are going to ridicule her when she gets older if something doesn't change. It's hard to be a grandparent and see this going on and not be able to say anything. Any ideas?"
While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 6. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 4-year-old daughter.