My nine-year-old son is constantly misplacing his belongings. Last week he came home crying because he left his bicycle outside, and when he went to get it it wasn't there. My husband saw his bike when he came home from work and decided to hide it from him in order to have him learn to be more responsible. So far it hasn't worked, because since then he has misplaced his key to the house and his homework notebook. We are desperate.
- N.M. Jerusalem
You raised several important issues and there are lots of reasons why children (and adults too) misplace their things. Does your son, for example, need lots of reminders? Is it that he cannot find his things? Does he not take care of his belongings or does he not put things away? It may very well be a combination of these factors so I'm going to make lots of suggestions and, as you know your child best, you can see what might best work for him.
For starters, check that your son is actually listening to you, heard your request, knows what is expected of him and can follow directions. Ask
him to rephrase what you have asked him to do. Don't ask him to do too many things at once or he will get distracted and nothing will get accomplished. Make a list and help him write things down if it will help remind him of what needs to be done. Reward him from time to time for following through on tasks with verbal praise and other incentives such as an extra TV show, a pizza date or even a Crembo.
You should not have to constantly repeat yourself, and if he knows what is expected of him, he shouldn't really need any reminders. It is all in the training. Make sure your son understands the general rules of the house. Be clear and specific as to what is required. He should know, for instance, that everything has a "home" and we put things back as soon as we can and exactly where we found them when we are finished with them. Make sure, as the parent, that you do the same.
If your son doesn't do what he was asked, let him know what he didn't do and show him what he needs to do. If you are consistent with ensuring that he follows through on what is asked and he knows the rules, you'll both save hours of frustration. We all need and thrive on routine.
Make sure that your expectations are age appropriate. Even young children can participate in household chores and it is a wonderful way to instill the concept of "family," but be realistic in terms of what he should be able to do and remember.
Children benefit most by learning that there are consequences to their actions. These can be both positive and negative. With time and with consequences, he will learn that there is inherent value in looking after your things. Your son can learn that by not putting his bike away, it can get stolen or he can lose riding privileges. He can also learn that by behaving responsibly, he is more likely to make you happy, be able to ride further or get new stickers for his helmet. It is important for children to learn to think about the consequences of actions, or of words spoken, long before they do or say something.
Encourage your son not to procrastinate because he may (will likely) forget what he was supposed to do.
Children are often overwhelmed by major projects. It is easiest to keep track of things when you set aside time each day or week to check, for example, that the room is cleaned and his backpack isn't growing mold from rotten food. Your son can learn to keep track of his things by making sure that he goes and returns with the same number of items. If he leaves with his backpack, lunch bag, raincoat and umbrella, he needs to come home with these four things at the end of the day.
Teach your son to put away one set of toys, notebooks or the game he has been playing before taking out another. This helps create organization. If he has a play date, make sure they both clean up together before it is time for the friend to leave. If things have not been put away before bed, suggest he may have too many toys and put some away for a few days until he demonstrates that he can be more responsible for his own belongings.
Help your son look after his belongings by keeping them clean, organized and well sorted. Have a well-designated space so that he knows just where everything goes. Color or picture coding will help keep various projects (crafts, game pieces, etc.) organized.
Encourage your son to contribute to the purchase of toys by using some
of his money or doing extra chores. If he helped buy it, he just may
take better care of it.
Just remember, the skills you are teaching him now will last him a lifetime.The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.