Children crave order and structure, not chaos and disorder.

Can a Messy House Affect Behavior in Children?

by Jenivieve Elly

If you find yourself needing to tie a rope around your waist and fasten it to something solid nearby before wading through the laundry room, you might wonder what effect the lack of organization has on your children. Your instincts may be telling you that the wrong message is being sent to your precious little wrecking-ball. Most families typically suffer from a less extreme home cleanliness problem, but chaos in the home plays a role in the behavior of young children. In short, yes, a messy house can affect behavior.

1. Making Things Worse

A study conducted in November 2006 by the University of Sussex took an incredibly in-depth look at over 100 English families with small children. They didn't look at those that have the luxury of a maid or nanny to straighten things up -- must be nice. Instead, the researchers took the time to interview the children of working class families, some as young as 4-years-old, using puppets. Yes, puppets! Through the deep conversations with these puppets, and in talking with exhausted parents, they found a clear link between cleanliness and order, and well-behaved children. The study calls the link "additive," meaning that if there are already shortcomings in the methods of parenting being used, the messiness makes it worse.

2. Extreme Cases

The amount of messiness and chaos varies drastically from family to family. There is the standard unmade beds, piled up laundry and stinky sink-full of dishes. Heck, there is also the occasional week old chunk of fruit that works way under the couch. Then, of course, there is a level of dirty that can actually be considered child neglect. In 1988, the journal "Behavior Modification" published a study about cases of child neglect that concluded "the physical environment children call home assumes a significant role in determining physical, as well as psychological well-being." Obviously, most messy houses don't come anywhere close to being considered "neglectful," but the study is insightful because it clearly connects the two problems -- clean homes and the psychology of children, which does affect behavior.

3. Craving Structure

Most parents have heard the old cliche that children actually crave structure. You may think that jumping on the bed with a slice of pizza in one hand and the television remote in the other is every child's dream. Well, it may be, but inside their sweet, little noggin is the hope you will take the reins for them. Setting clear guidelines for your children is not only healthier for them, but it will also cause them to behave better because they will know what to expect. The same rule applies for household cleanliness. When picking up after themselves becomes part of the daily routine, the house is not only in better shape, but so are the attitudes of the people living there.

4. Visual Effects

If you've ever sat down after a long day and scanned the house with your eyes and thought the mess and clutter was overwhelming, you're not alone. In fact, your toddler is probably feeling the same way. In 2011, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study on the impact of too many varied objects in a child's field of view, and the effect it has on their ability to focus. Some people call it being overstimulated. In this case, it isn't the bright, loud television or animated conversation that is the culprit, it's the messy, cluttered, train wreck of a house that is the issue. Lack of focus leads to slowed learning in toddlers. Cleaning an extra hour or so a week may help learning move forward for your little ones.

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