Matt Harper's bedroom is a perfect mess.
His desk is blanketed with papers, but don't expect the 16-year-old to organize it. That would ruin his system. A pile of posters, banners and flags litters a spare bed, which he calls the "loading dock," but they're not junk. He just hasn't had time to stick them to the ceiling. A heap of old cell phones grows in one corner, accumulated for a school fundraiser. And that weird-looking bug stuck in a plastic bag and tacked to the wall isn't going anywhere because, well, it's dead.
"It can get messy," admits Matt, a Los Angeles high school student, who simply thought the bug looked cool. "I tend to be a collector."
Collector, indeed, his mother says with a laugh.
"I shudder when I look at his room," Joan Harper says. "He really takes all of these things as important treasure. I see stuff. Stuff and more stuff."
So mostly she doesn't look. And that's a smart solution to the age-old impasse between teens and parents over messy bedrooms, family experts say. Let the teens cut loose within those four walls, where some normal adolescent rebellion can't hurt anybody, and parents can save their energy and influence for bigger issues. Parents should welcome the opportunity to skip the nagging and steer clear of their teenagers' rooms, says Scott Coltrane, a professor of sociology at the University of California Riverside and associate director of the university's Center for Family Studies.
"The room is a private space that doesn't have dire consequences," Coltrane says.
Moreover, teens benefit from having control over some personal space, says Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and author of The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting and You and Your Adolescent.
"It is a symbolic argument over autonomy and independence. It is a safe domain in which to have that," Steinberg says.
Good thing that control isn't lethal, because it's likely that most teens will push the housekeeping envelope. Disheveled bedrooms have ranked as the No. 1 source of parental complaints for 60 years, about the length of time psychologists have studied the subject, Steinberg says. Is the adolescent brain, a hot research topic in the neuroscience world these days, hard-wired differently and oblivious to disorder, moldy ice cream bowls and dust bunnies? Nah.
"That's the explanation du jour," Steinberg says. "The good news is that it's normal. The bad news is that it's normal."
In short, the kids just don't give a rip. Which is no surprise to Rana Rowen of Irvine, Calif., mother of three sons ages 12, 18 and 21.
"All three of them got worse as they got older," Rowen says. "I think that they basically don't care. It really doesn't bother them to step over big piles of everything. I've said a million times, 'Why did I bother buying you furniture? You just throw everything on the floor.' "
Clean room, dirty room. It matters little to Courtney Symonds, 15, of Tustin, Calif. "I can kind of adapt to it either way," says Courtney. "I like it when it's clean. I like it when it's messy."
Still, there are times when even those parents who were unfazed by drippy sippy cups and muddy soccer cleats in years past finally hit the muck wall. Patient negotiating may be called for, Coltrane says. He suggests that parents and teens try to agree on some minimum standard. One family may decide that a 2-foot-wide path must be maintained to avoid slipping on plastic CD cases or tripping on shoes. Others may be happy if the room is clean when guests are expected.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.