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Wading Into Teen Bedrooms: Necessary Or Hazardous?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, our moms are weighing in on a danger zone for many families, their kids' messy rooms. The battle over whether to clean or not to clean can be exhausting for parents and kids, especially for teenagers who want their own space and independence.

The issue caught our eye when the New York Times recently published a story about this and even put photos of teen room disaster areas online. We wanted to talk more about why bedrooms have become such a war zone and whether a messy room is a sign of bad habits, lack of discipline or creativity or of something else.

With us now are Jolene Ivey - she is a mom of five boys, co-founder of a parenting support group and a Maryland state lawmaker. Dani Tucker is a mom of two, a boy and a girl - a young man, I should say - office administrator and fitness instructor. And Angelica Perez Litwin is a mom of four and a clinical psychologist in private practice.

Welcome, ladies, moms. Thanks for joining us once again.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

DANI TUCKER: Hey, thank you.


MARTIN: I just want to start by playing a clip from a recent episode of the Lifetime show "America's Super Nanny." I think it will give us an idea of what we're talking about here.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It was a house that was totally out of control. Show me where you play at.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: My dog pees and poops over there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The dog pees and poops over there?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What is the problem with you two? This is a matter of health and safety.

MARTIN: But, apparently, it's not a unique problem and, Jolene, we'll start with you because you have five boys and I think that is worth mentioning and you've actually called one of their rooms borderline hazardous. Tell us. Give us the worst case scenario here.

IVEY: Well, I will say hazardous. Yes. But there is no pee or poop on the floor. Let me be clear.

MARTIN: Duly noted.

IVEY: That would cross the line, but you know, one of our kids has taken over two rooms. He has what was his bedroom and then he's the one who's the actor-musician in the family, so he took the mattresses off of the beds in his room because he has bunk beds, took them down to the room that used to be my dad's. He's now taken over that room, as well, and has used all three mattresses to make a recording studio, which sounds really great, except for - then, where does he sleep? Because he has all three mattresses up to make the recording studio. Of course, he doesn't pick up any clothes or anything. That would be too much to ask.

MARTIN: But you're pretty tough on other things. Why do you let this go? You're pretty laissez-faire about the room situation. Why is that?

IVEY: Well, I have to pick my battles and what I really expect from all my kids - and, sometimes, it's a battle to get there - is, you know, good behavior and good grades. If they can do those two things, I've got to let the room go and I - you know, I'm in the position, finally, once again, to be able to have someone come clean our house, like, every couple of weeks, but I've made it clear. She does not have to go into his room and she doesn't - and I don't blame her.

MARTIN: And she doesn't? Well, just to let you know - that this was not a - this was not a unique situation, either. I'm going to not give the name to protect the guilty, but that one of our other regular contributors mentioned that she recently stepped on a dead mouse in her son's room, so just sort of - I know, I know.

Dani, you're also known for being a bit of a stickler and this apparently set you way over the edge.

TUCKER: Whoa. I mean, it's like a lot like what Jolene said. You have to pick your battles. I mean, I'm getting the good grades. One's gone off to the Navy. One's headed to college. You know, I'm in my therapy. I don't beat as much as I used to, woo sa, but I do. I will blow a gasket after a while because I can't take it. I mean, how do you come home from the Navy, you know, and then turn the living room into Beirut? You know, I'm like, where's the admiral? You know, is the joint chief-of-staff available? I have to call somebody.

MARTIN: And your son has gotten commendations in the Navy for...

TUCKER: Oh, for - and he's...

MARTIN: ...you know, good order and discipline and...

TUCKER: Yes. You know...

MARTIN: ...you know, his attitude and keeping everything, you know - a tight ship, as it were. There's a reason that that's a metaphor.

TUCKER: He's super Navy man.

MARTIN: But he comes home and there's like - somehow, the clutter just...

TUCKER: I don't get it, you know.

MARTIN: What's up with that?

TUCKER: It's like I come home - he comes home and he's like, OK. I'm home now. I don't have to be Navy man. I can just be me. Boom. An explosion hits, you know, and it's like, here comes a hurricane and they are their own hurricanes. They really are and they blow through my house on a regular basis. I'm changing my locks. I'm changing my locks in two years when she goes to college. I'm serious. And somebody's coming to clean my house and I'm just going to sit there.

MARTIN: Well, you know, we're lucky because we have - Angelica Perez Litwin is a psychologist, as well as a mom. I want to get - put your professional hat on and then your personal hat on. You say - from a psychological perspective, what's the thinking about why teenagers love to - not all - but why so many teenagers love to mess up their rooms and why this is such a struggle with parents.

LITWIN: You know, I think it's a matter of - it's just the same way I feel when I come home, when I come home and it feels like I can be in my own place, the rules are my own, I don't have to be someone else, I don't have to, you know, pretend to be happy or, you know, excel. So I think that for many kids - especially teenagers these days - they have so much going on in their lives, that when they come to their room that's really their safe - the safe space for them, a place to, to feel like they can be themselves, you know? And so, I think we should give them a little bit of...


LITWIN: Give them - be OK about that.

MARTIN: Cut them a little slack. OK. So you're saying that now, but you had a very intense reaction and an intensely personal reaction to seeing some of the pictures of messy rooms when we were talking about this in advance of our conversation. Tell us about that, if you don't mind. I'm going to call you out if you don't, so go ahead. You just, you were kind of over the edge on some of that stuff. You were like, no. Go ahead.

LITWIN: You're talking to me, right?


LITWIN: Oh, I'm so sorry. Sure. Well, yes, I was looking at the pictures online and I was literally, like, I mean, when I heard the idea of messy rooms, that this is - those photographs are not about a messy room, they really look like things are completely out of control. And so that really concerned me. That sounds more to me like, it looks more like pathology than just trying to be yourself and relax in your own space. It was just the level of objects and things and how things were just thrown and drawers were open, it just seemed to me concerning.


MARTIN: Was that, did you feel like that was a problem of like a lack of parental involvement or you feel it was a lack of respect for things, that there was something about, it just bespoke a certain, you know, kind of materialism and just lack of regard for things?

LITWIN: My first impression was that, you know, the first thought that came to my mind when I look at those photographs was abundance. You know, that perhaps, you know, we're raising our kids with way too many things, way too many choices. And, you know, and that we're not, you know, we're not teaching them to value the importance of objects. You know, I grew up with a family that was very poor and having one pair of shoes was the only thing they had. So you could not lose that one pair of shoes or one of them because you would be left alone with one shoe until the next time your parents could afford another pair of shoes.

So I think that, you know, in our society because we're, you know, there's the next iPhone and the next iPad, and what's the next this or that, we really all sort of become enmeshed in this - these circumstances of purchasing and materialism and so nothing is worth anything anymore, you know. And so when I see a T-shirt on the floor, it just reminds me of how we're not teaching our kids to value what they have.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly Parenting conversation, and today we're talking about messy teenage bedrooms with our panel of moms, Angelica Perez Litwin, Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey.

Angelica, you were also talking about the, earlier before we all got together, about how you have really strong memories of, like, Saturday morning, cleaning the house with your family, with your mom and that, you know, the good smell of kind of polishing the table and just taking real pride in your house. And the other ladies here are all nodding...

LITWIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...because a lot of us have that memory too. But Jolene, you too. But it doesn't, I don't know, do you think that maybe that's a girl thing because Angelica's talking about cleaning the house with her mom and it's, like, women together or something that women would do, all do together or...

IVEY: No. I grew up that way and I have a brother, and he was responsible for scrubbing and vacuuming, and I had to dust and, you know, we both had jobs and we did them, and we did it every Saturday and that's just the way our lives were.

MARTIN: But you don't do that now with your family.

IVEY: Because everybody's lives are so busy. And I wish that I had this real routine and that everybody would do these things. But the routine that I have found that works for us is everybody's got a schedule of when you do the dishes, when you take out the recycling, when you do the trash, and that's pretty much it. Everything else either gets done on an ad hoc basis; you're having company over so you make everybody clean real quick. But, or we wait until the very nice lady comes to clean our house every two weeks.


IVEY: But that's about the best I can do. As far as to have one time that everyone's together, it sounds like a nice fantasy.


TUCKER: I use the yellow tape that the police use. You know, I'd put it over the door...

MARTIN: You - wait, wait, wait. You use the yellow tape that the police use.

TUCKER: Yeah. The yellow tape, yeah, because that means, you know, this place is off-limits, you know, you can't live here until you fix it. I mean, I'm with Jolene. I mean, we did the same thing. You know, we had - my family turned cleaning up time into a "Soul Train" line. You know, the music would go on and everybody was dancing and cleaning up. But now we have such busy schedules. I mean, I'm up and out the house on Saturdays now teaching two classes - fitness classes in the morning, and then by the time I get back, she's got dance class at church or she's got choir rehearsal.

So we don't, you know, but what I'm teaching them both, or what I try to teach them both was when we do have your down time you take your hour to clean up, straighten up. I mean, you keep doing it as you go and that message is still, you know, trying to come through, you know, to take advantage of at least that 20 or 40 minutes to clean up or whatever.

MARTIN: It's interesting that you mentioned "Soul Train" because, you know, "Soul Train" had their big anniversary, I think, last year or the year before, and one of the things that a lot of people mentioned is their memories when, when they were writing about their memories is, they had to get their rooms cleaned because if they didn't get their rooms cleaned they couldn't watch "Soul Train."

TUCKER: Exactly.

MARTIN: So that was like a big incentive for a lot of kids. I know it was for me - dating myself. I was a baby. I was a toddler.

TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But Angelica, what would you - let's wheel it around for the time we have left and just, what do you recommend about how to handle this? I mean, you've heard a couple of, a variety of perspectives here. Some people say, look, you've got to pick your battles and that's just not a battle a lot of parents want to fight. Other people - and you've mentioned - feel a sense of, it's almost like a moral issue when you allow your kids to let their rooms become crazy, then you feel like it kind of setting themselves up for not valuing what they have. How do you recommend that people start thinking through what's right for their family?

LITWIN: I guess we can start as parents asking ourselves what are the things that are - what are the values that really matter to us? You know, I always say that the way we spend our time reflects our values. So if we find ourselves really not spending a lot of time with our kids on a Saturday morning or we're running around every day, the kids are busy with 10 different activities. You know, is that the value that you want to endorse in your family?

So just again, assessing what are the values that you would like to have, you know, have your children grow up with? I think that's key. And then the other part is it's not so much about the room being messy, but it's about, you know, what's going on with your children? What's going on that they don't have five minutes to put away a pair of socks? You know, obviously, you know, extremes are always going to be concerning. So just negotiating that with yourself, you know, meeting your children in the middle and saying, look, you know, I respect your space but we need to do better, and why. And to help them also. Join them in cleaning that room. Maybe that's the way for you both to come together.

MARTIN: Jolene is like, no. No, that's not happening.

IVEY: That's definitely not happening.


MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? How do you, what advice, what common sense do you have to bring to this?

IVEY: Well, as far as their rooms go, I think that our responsibility as parents is to make sure that they have a place to put things. And I know that I fail in that a lot of times. I mean, their bookshelves are packed and their closets are packed and their drawers are packed. And if you don't help them pare things down, where are they supposed to put all these things? And so, you know, that's on me. As far as the rest of the house, when they leave their shoes in the dining room, that's when you've kind of stepped over the line because there's so many of them and they have big feet and I'll kill myself walking through the dining room if they don't pick up those things and put them away. So I try to make the common areas as neat as possible and leave their rooms to them.

MARTIN: You ever worry that you might be setting themselves up for - setting them up for failure as roommates and as potential husbands and partners if they don't get the message now that...

IVEY: Yeah. Well, they've got to have something to talk to their therapist about.


MARTIN: OK. Dani, what about you?

TUCKER: I agree. I mean, I...

MARTIN: What's your common sense on this?

TUCKER: My common sense to parents is, of course, is don't beat yourself up over it, because like I tell some people, I don't, that's why don't have people over my house. I live here. This is not a museum, you understand? You're not going to come in here and, you know, see - you know, it's not a museum, OK? We live here. So having said that, at the same time, like I think the doctor said, we strike a balance, though. OK. You know, like Thanksgiving holiday, she already knows. We're in here, you know, there are no classes. You know, there's, you know, there's no choir rehearsal. So, you know, just take it in one day at a time in picking your battles and not getting stressed over it.

MARTIN: So the common areas is a big thing, keeping the common areas, respecting the common areas is a big thing in what happens...

TUCKER: Oh, that's a life or death situation, you know.


TUCKER: I mean, you die. I mean, common area, with the kitchen and the - you know, what we all have to share and we all have to sit and eat, you know, let's not get it twisted. Mom will blow a gasket. Somebody's going out in a casket, you know? But...


MARTIN: She meant that metaphorically, Angelica. Just wanted to let you know. So...


IVEY: No, she didn't.

MARTIN: Angelica?


LITWIN: That's too funny.

MARTIN: Angelica, do you mind if we ask, how do you deal with this at home in your house with your kids?

LITWIN: Yes. I don't mind at all. Well, you know, what I do? I do have tasks at home that every child has to, you know, is responsible for. I say that the way that I consider the home is that it's like a business and, you know, there's a CEO and there are people that help and...


LITWIN: And I, you know, so everyone has, I tell them if you don't do your role, you know, the company is going to go bankrupt. So my son takes care of laundry; he's been doing it since 10. My six-year-old does garbage. And we all have things that we need to do. So once all of that is done, we all come together on Saturday or Sunday and we clean for about two hours, including my husband, who works many hours, you know, two jobs. So it's just important for us to keep things not necessarily neat and perfect, but just to have this responsibility that we are all chipping in and helping all of us, you know, the parents included. We want our kids to appreciate the fact that we work very hard for them and that they...

IVEY: Dani, she's a better mother than we are.


LITWIN: Not quite.

MARTIN: I want to know how she got her son to do laundry. This is what I'm excited about.

TUCKER: He's my hero.

LITWIN: Since 10.

MARTIN: Since 10 he's been doing laundry?

LITWIN: Since 10 years old he's been doing laundry.

MARTIN: Are all your shirts pink, though?

LITWIN: Every...

IVEY: Yeah. No way.

LITWIN: Every piece of our clothes are done by our son. Yes.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. Dani, before - that's exciting to me. That is very exciting to me. She's given a new path forward here.


MARTIN: Dani, before we let you go, you have an idea about how you're going to return the favor to your kids...

TUCKER: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: ...when you get to a certain point about how they've treated your house over there.

TUCKER: Every parent should do this.

MARTIN: What is it?

TUCKER: Every parent should do this. When they're out the house and they had their own home, I have already set it up. They each get two weeks where I'm going in there and I'm leaving trash everywhere.


TUCKER: I'm coming in your house for two weeks. They already know it. I'm going to as be sloppy as I possibly can, and I'm going to enjoy every minute of it.

MARTIN: All right.

TUCKER: I'm going to leave in two weeks.

LITWIN: Right.

TUCKER: OK. And you're not welcome to do it at my house but payback is a mother and I am coming for you.


MARTIN: OK. Dani Tucker is a mom of two. She's an office administrator and fitness instructor, which means she can back it up.


MARTIN: Jolene Ivey is the mom of five. She's the co-founder of a parenting support group and a Maryland state lawmaker. They were both here in our Washington, D.C. studio. With us from WFUV in New York City, Angelica Perez Litwin. She's a mom of four and a clinical psychologist.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

LITWIN: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you. This was fun.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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