Negotiation, not nagging, may encourage children to straighten up their rooms

Most parents can picture the scene: bureau drawers ajar, bedclothes rumpled and dragging on the floor, curtains askew, toys, games, and unfinished sticky snacks underfoot.

If a child's room is every which way but neat, constant nagging isn't likely to help. But a bit of negotiation might.

''Sit down with your child and calmly discuss the problem,'' suggests Karol Fishler, an associate professor at the University of Southern California. Then work together to design a solution.

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One positive step toward reform might be for parents to explain why a clean, orderly room is important. Reasons that sound logical include:

* Toys and games are easier to find, and such items are less likely to be broken.

* Family members are less likely to trip over objects on the floor.

* Keeping a nice home requires team effort by the entire family, and the child's efforts are both valued and needed.

''Parents should begin to stress the importance of order when their children are very young,'' Dr. Fishler adds. ''Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it's not an inherited virtue. Children have to learn positive attitudes toward cleanliness and order.''

''At the age of 4 or 5, the child's motive might simply be to get attention, '' explains Richard Koch, a professor at the University of Southern California. The topsy-turvy room could be the child's way of saying ''look at me.''

In early adolescence, he continues, a child might well be using disorder as a means to challenge parental authority. At that age, ''clean your room'' edicts are likely to be ignored.

''At the same time, no child can be expected to keep his room 'neat as a pin, ' '' says Dr. Koch. ''Parents may have to lower their standards a bit.

''Sometimes, they may even have to admit defeat and concede that having a moderately sloppy room is OK - especially if the child is basically good in most other respects.''

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