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How to Marie Kondo your child's brain

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo
Tidying Up with Marie Kondo
Courtesy of Netflix

SALT LAKE CITY — The organizing sensation Marie Kondo has become a verb in pop culture. You can "Marie Kondo" your wardrobe, your career and even your friends.

Now, for anyone who would like to Marie Kondo their children — that is, to get them organized, not toss them out — the American Academy of Pediatrics has published a book with five strategies for raising children who are organized thinkers.

The author, Dr. Damon Korb, is a developmental pediatrician and director of The Center for Developing Minds, and his interest in the topic is both professional and personal: He and his wife have five children, ranging in age from 13 to 23.

Korb, who lives in Los Gatos, California, believes it's important for parents to raise organized children, not just because disorganization is frustrating for the parents, but because it's even more frustrating for the child.

"Tasks that seem second nature or common sense to parents, such as turning in a completed homework assignment, finding one's shoes or getting ready for bed become insurmountable obstacles for a disorganized child," Korb writes.

The book outlines five ways that parents can "immunize" their children against disorganization, beginning in infancy. They are: Be consistent, introduce order, give everything a place, practice forward-thinking and promote problem solving.

The strategies Korb proposes are deceptively simple — for example, frequently using language that connotes order (such as beginning, middle and end) and giving everything in your home, right down to pencils and socks, a place where it belongs.

But the goal isn't to have a perfectly organized playroom or sock drawer; rather, to raise a child who understands that things happen in sequences and that the end of an activity is as important as its beginning.

"I believe the best way to prepare your child's brain for adulthood is to teach him to be an organized thinker," Korb says.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Korb shared the science behind some of the strategies, why parents need not worry too much about a child's messy room and the five jobs that every teen should be doing.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: How did you come to write on this subject? Were you inspired by Marie Kondo and her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”?

Dr. Damon Korb: I think I started writing this when Marie Kondo was about 7, so I wasn't inspired by her.

I wrote this book because I see all kinds of kids, but the concerns that parents come in with are about executive functions (brain skills needed for planning, task completion and self-regulation). Why can’t my child get ready in the morning? How come my child has a meltdown when he doesn’t get what he wants? How come my child constantly loses things? How come my child finishes her homework but can’t remember to turn it in?

Those are the things that stress families out. And so this book was about trying to be as practical as possible about ways that we can help to build executive function. We help to build executive function starting when children are infants, carrying those same steps all the way through young adulthood.

DN: One chapter is “how to raise an organized infant.” How can an infant be organized?

DK: You’re laying the groundwork, helping to build the neural connections that they need for organized thinking as they get older.

The very first thing that parents need to do is be consistent, to consistently meet the needs of children. The way they do that is, the baby cries, you pick them up. The baby poops, you change the diaper. The baby’s hungry, you feed the baby. By doing that, you relieve stress and you teach cause and effect. That’s the first sequence. By the time they’re 6 months old, they’re able to understand a cause-and-effect sequence that we teach them by being consistent.

The flip side is a problem. Children brought up in chaos, and without having their needs consistently met, are stressed, their levels of cortisol rise and it’s actually damaging to the frontal lobe.

DN: That makes sense. But it goes against the idea of childhood being a time of joyful chaos and abandon. Is there any point at which you can have too much organization?

DK: So much of what we’re doing is overscheduling and doing all the organizing for our kids. What kids need to do is go outside with a stick and a rock and figure out a game. They need to have their friends around and learn how to solve problems and negotiate and take turns. That doesn’t happen if parents are doing all these organizational things.

So we’re not just talking about two socks that match or a really tight schedule. I’m talking about executive function and the neurodevelopmental abilities that are needed to grow independent thinkers and competent kids that can get the big picture, that can solve problems and make plans.

DN: Is there a connection between outward order — say, in a child’s room — and orderly thought, and if so, should parents enforce orderliness with punishment?

DK: When it comes to rooms, I would say that having a neat room is not the most important thing. The most important thing is knowing that your child knows how to clean their room. And it’s important to know they can have their room cleaned up by 3 o’clock, when grandma is coming over, if they need to.

If they get those things, that’s the big picture. You’re more efficient when your room is neat, but if they’re able to function at school, and they’re able to get the room clean for the holiday dinner and the room gets vacuumed, it’s probably not the biggest battle to fight. It's certainly not punishment-worthy.

DN: Can you talk about how you may have used one or more of these five strategies in your own family life?

DK: When my kids were little, we used to talk about order all the time. When we lived in Nashville, Tennessee, we lived up 13 stairs, and I know that because we counted every time we went up. The front of the house had 3 stairs, and we counted those, too. You’re always counting, you’re always introducing order to kids, so that when my child was 2½, and I said that grandma is coming over on Wednesday, she would say, “Is that two sleeps or three sleeps?” She didn’t know the concept yet of Wednesday, but she knew that a day had to do with “I sleep and I wake up.”

We’re using these terms constantly of order. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end.

DN: Which of your five strategies, if any, do you see as lacking in American families?

DK: That’s a hard question, but it really, really makes things easier when parents are consistent.

For example, the other day I saw a wonderful 15-year-old girl who, with her mom in the room, revealed to me that she’d had her first alcohol. “But it was OK, because my mom was there, and it was a party and it was fun.” Then later on, she told me she had been driving. And I said, “Do you have your permit?” And she said, “No, I get my permit in three weeks, but my dad took me out.”

I turned to (the) mom and said, “Your daughter just told me two things she’s doing that are illegal that you have approved. So the message to her is, "You know, laws can be broken, and when you’re on your own, you’ll have to figure out what laws can be broken.”

We’re not consistently saying that there are rules, and you’ve got to follow these rules for a reason.

DN: What else?

DK: The other thing that is a breakdown in parenting that we're seeing all the time is access to electronics. What that’s doing is preventing kids from having the opportunity to be bored. It’s giving them a default activity that they can do as soon as boredom neurons spark in their brain; they automatically default to electronics.

And electronics are not creative or imaginative. Electronics are the exact opposite of creative thinking. It’s taking away the opportunity to do things that are very good for your brain.

DN: Many of your strategies are for younger children. What about parents of older children and teens? What are the best ways to cultivate organized thought in them, if it’s even possible at that age?

DK: That frontal lobe of the brain, where executive function takes place, continues to grow until you’re 25 to 28 years old. So if you have a 17-year-old who’s not there yet, that’s OK. And we just have to continue to help them get there.

In the book, I talk a lot about the five jobs of a teenager. And those are: to take care of their health, their hygiene, their household chores, their homework, and to do something social. And if kids are doing those five things, they are doing some forward thinking and they’re getting ready for adulthood. The fact that they can do those 4 Hs and one S is a sign that they are headed in the right direction.

DN: What else should parents know, other than how to get your book?

DK: I would say that any task has a beginning, a middle and an end, and I want kids to learn the steps they need to be able to break tasks down into steps themselves. For example: we prepare the meal, we eat the meal, we put away the meal.

And as they get to be closer to teenagers, we want them to learn how to be closers. What that means is, they have to do the last step in order for the task to be done. And they’ve got to do it well.

An analogy is, you can do the homework, but if you don’t turn it in, you get zero credit for it. Putting your dishes close to the sink isn’t that helpful. But putting them in the dishwasher — now, we're closing.