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'90s FAMILY

Lost in Their Space

What to do if your kid's room is a pigsty? Or if a color scheme makes you green? Don't fret, experts say. It's a healthy rebellion.

(...) KELLY KENNEDY / For The Times

July 14, 1996|VALERIE J. NELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One daughter rearranges her room as soon as she decides on a college, another throws all but one of her stuffed animals out into the hallway upon turning 13.

This fleeting peek into their rooms makes their mother feel as if she is gazing into their souls.

"When my daughters had an internal shift in maturity or a change in personality, they would want to change their rooms. It was such an expression of their inner selves," says Donna J. Goodman, a Tarzana therapist and mother of three daughters. "It was as if my 13-year-old was saying, 'Childhood is over. I'm angry about it, and these aren't a part of my life anymore.' "

Many parents who psychoanalyze kids' rooms are more likely to come away worried about their children's mental health. Isn't the Unabomber suspect an obsessively messy pack rat? Can black, poster-covered walls really be conducive to studying?

But it is this very need to connect a clean and tidy room to the bigger issues in a child's life that start causing family troubles.

"It is the most amazing thing. A teenager can live in a total pigsty and get good grades," says Donna Goldberg, whose New York City-based consulting business, the Organized Student, is often called to help children organize their rooms and their studies.

When dealing with a child and his room, parents need to "stay on task," Goldberg says, which means don't tie the state of the room to any other potentially explosive arguments, such as homework or breaking curfew.

For many teenagers, flaunting the rules of the house is a form of rebellion. "A messy room is a source of pride rather than an embarrassment. I say, if it doesn't do tissue damage, let it be. There couldn't be a healthier rebellion than a messy room," says Goodman, a marriage, family and child therapist who also gives classes to help parents teach children how to clean their rooms.

The issue of who controls a child's room is a delicate one. It's the child's room, yet it's in the parents' home, so there is conflict from the outset. But, "Kids need to have ownership," says Philip B. Leidy, a psychologist in private practice in Whittier. "It truly needs to be their space. Even when they are younger, at 4 or 5, they should be able to have some say in how their room is."

There's a critical balance that needs to be achieved between having "responsibility for their things and the freedom to be creative in that space," Leidy says.

Giving a child a voice in decorating her room can help her feel pride of ownership, even if it means letting her paint the walls purple. If a parent can't be quite that freethinking, let the child choose from a couple of colors that the parents can live with, Leidy says.

Black walls probably wouldn't make the top five color list of most parents, but Goldberg laughs as she recalls one mother who was thrilled her 15-year-old daughter had painted her walls jet black. The mother embraced the change because the girl went from being "Miss Punk" to an honors student, adding credence to the pigsty / good grades theory.

The best idea might be to turn your children's rooms over to them and shut the doors if you can't stand the view. The stress of living with the mess might even help them realize how nice it is to live with cleanliness.

At least a parent can hope.

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