Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

Keeping it Neat

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | May 4, 2013 11:17 AM

"Organizing is really just one big game of Tetris." (Alejandra Costello)

One of the staples in my teaching and speaking arsenal is a class called "Organizing By STYLE." Its seeds were planted by a (now-defunct) HGTV show called "Mission: Organization." They grew to fruition when a move from one office to another necessitated an attitude adjustment, and, inspired by a lot of reading on the topic of organization, they jump-started small groups and classroom lessons for kids on the topic of getting it together.

I started sharing the concept of organizing by STYLE with third graders in a small group setting, talking about how our personal and organizational styles influence the way we do things. The third graders in my group were smart, lively and, for the most part, in need of assistance when it came to organizing their stuff. The concepts of zones and pocket folders and pencil boxes had been modeled for them for at least four years, but, despite their intelligence and desire to do well, they hadn't assimilated these concepts into their daily life. These kids knew what they were supposed to do, but struggled to do it.

The third grade small group morphed into lessons in fifth grade classrooms, and the concepts began to trickle into fourth grade as well. As I taught these kids, a consistent and important part of my approach was the assertion that people who struggle with organization aren't broken or flawed; many of them -- perhaps even most -- are smart and creative and busy and just think differently.

I took these ideas to adults, via a school counselors' conference, then community education classes and a writers' workshop. While the concepts transferred across age levels with little adaptation, I began to make some observations about the makeup of my classes.

When I took this class out to the adult community, I nearly always ended up with a class full of women. Men were sprinkled throughout the audience when I presented to the writers and the counselors, but with the exception of one husband along for the ride in a class I taught for retirees, a female perspective dominated the room every time I taught this class in the community-at-large. 

Some personality traits began to emerge as well. These women were vivacious. Gregarious. Busy. They were tightly connected to their families and friends, and these relationships mattered to them a great deal.

And nearly every single one of them was more organized than she believed she was. 

As a school counselor, I've always been fascinated by the concept of developmental stages. While physical changes occur rapidly (think of the progress a child makes from infancy to kindergarten), intellectual and psychological development occurs more slowly. And teaching these classes made me wonder how organizational skills develop across the life span.

Most kids learn organizational skills through a combination of osmosis and modeling -- they copy what their parents and teachers do. 

But for some, this approach doesn't "take". Sometimes it's because the tools are a bad fit (pocket folders and binders don't work for everyone). Often, it's because these kids think differently.

And these kids who think differently grow into adults who think differently. Smart and creative, they go on to succeed in many aspects of life, but continue to struggle with organization. Some marry and/or enter professions where someone else takes care of this piece of their life; others remain organizationally adrift.

And some of the women show up to take my class.

Did I mention that they're smart and creative? And nurturing?

For these adult women, a new wrinkle has invaded the fabric of their organizational systems: Family. They are wives and mothers and grandmothers, trying to juggle neatness and nurturing. 

While teaching kids to organize necessitates a combination of the right tools, strategies and systems, helping mothers and grandmothers to organize centers around helping them to achieve balance between their stuff and their relationships.

This is an oversimplification, of course; finding balance is never as easy as it sounds. But if we fail to take the relational aspect of women's lives into consideration when we talk about organization, we overlook an essential ingredient that impacts not only their success but that of their children and grandchildren as well. After all, these women are organizational role models -- key players in the trickle-down/osmosis theory of organizational development -- the ones who teach their kids how it's done.

And a funny thing happens in this developmental progression (at least according to my limited observations). The older women often feel that they've become less organized with age.

In a typical pattern of development, facility with a skill expands and increases. Knowing that intuitively, these women -- like my elementary school kiddos -- fear that they are broken or flawed. 

Little do they realize that their skill set has expanded. Valuing nurture over neatness, they think nothing of dropping  what they are doing to help a child or spend time with a grandchild. Many hold on to items that are significant to their adult children, creating clutter in their own living spaces. In some cases, these adult children are unable to take charge of their own things for valid reasons; in other cases, it's time to pass the torch.

These women know what mothers everywhere learn all too quickly. Our time with our children goes by too fast. For those who organize traditionally, neat houses happen almost instinctively, but for those who organize in less traditional ways, organization is a constant balancing act between nurture and neatness. And on the days when neatness loses, if nurture is the culprit, perhaps we should cut ourselves some slack, bearing in mind what the older women in my classes know instinctively: There will always be another day to clear off the dining room table, but the days to play should be seized and held onto whenever possible.

Happy Mother's Day. I wish you every success in this game of Tetris, and hope that when clutter encroaches, you can keep in mind this thing we call organization is just a game. 

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