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Orderly Conduct

I’m not a morning person. Just ask my two older sons who regularly show up at school with each other’s homework folders and water bottles in their backpacks. Even at conferences (which are usually scheduled at the most undesired times since I’m typically the last to turn in my forms), teachers like to point out that it would be nice if the boys didn’t spend the first 10 minutes of class retrieving and trading belongings. This year I’ll have all three kids in school … and this time around I want things to be different.

With grand hopes of change, I called Samantha Hawn Naeyaert, owner of Muddle Management, to enlist her help unmuddling our mornings. Naeyaert is a professional organizer who works with families across the Metroplex to simplify their lives. Naeyaert, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) Dallas-Fort Worth chapter, also appeared on TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive. She was quick to respond, too, which is always a positive sign of someone on the ball.

First, we talked about what to do for the children. When it comes to your kids, you might create separate stations, such as designated areas or bins where they can put shoes, sports equipment, homework, graded papers and artwork (tip: try hanging a clothesline in the garage for rotating displays).

For mom or dad, an inbox is a necessity. That’s where kids can drop birthday invitations, communication from teachers and coaches, and just about anything else that requires action. “Give it a place to live until you have time to deal with it,” Naeyaert urges. Also set some ground rules. Let’s face it—you can’t keep every single piece of paper they bring home.

Naeyaert suggests making a list of keepers, such as handprint artwork, personal drawings of family and A+ papers. Take a picture of other items before tossing (while the child is not looking), to preserve the memory. She also advises a central “communication station” where everyone in the family can access a group calendar (digital works, too). Then there is the ever-important homework space that should scream “clean, neat and quiet.”

The key to organization, says Naeyaert, depends on preparation. “You want to know how to handle it before it ends up in your hands.” Once school starts, your systems and rules should already be in place, adds Naeyaert, who recommends overwhelmed families consult a professional organizer (rates vary from $30-$200/hour).

For non-morning types like me, that means laying everything out the night before. It also helps to adopt a color-coded system to keep each child’s belongings separate and distinct. However, even the best-planned organization system can fail when you harbor little defectors. Naeyaert laughs as I tell her that even though I have marked bins for shoes, somehow my sons manage to toss their Crocs everywhere but the designated spot.

Naeyaert, who is the mother of child who has ADD and dyslexia, suggests employing good ol’ bribery to entice kids to cooperate. Allow them to pick an “incentive” for putting things away. Then “don’t give up,” she reminds.  

At what age can you expect kids to chip in? Naeyaert says professional opinion varies, but she advocates that 5 years old is a ripe age to start building good habits. As they grow, it’s important to shift responsibility to children for their own orderliness. That might mean one of them shows up at practice without his cleats. But, Naeyaert stresses that parents should not swoop in to the rescue. “It doesn’t help them learn and, in fact, teaches them that organization is not important,” she says.

Even Naeyaert advises that we all cut ourselves some slack. Try not to compare yourself to other “super parents” who always seem to have everything together. In fact, she cautions that it is possible to go too far in the quest for tidiness, inordinately opting order over play.

“Organization is about relationship management. You should strive to create a balance … and forgive yourself if you’re not perfect,” says Naeyaert, who herself employs an organizer. And, hopefully, teach your kids to take it in stride when they end up at school with their brother’s lunchbox again.