My boys have destroyed their room over summer break. Would emptying it of everything but the basics teach them a lesson?

By Sarah Cottrell
Updated August 16, 2018
Child walking into an empty room.
Credit: mrs/Getty Images

This summer my sons have broken two windows, a hinge on a door, countless toys, and our family tent. It’s been a very expensive summer vacation—and we haven’t even gone anywhere. At ages 5 and 8, my two sons are equally friend and foe to one another, making each day a crapshoot as to how they will get along. And while I would be quick to point out how stressful this summer has been on me the truth is that their bedroom has been the real victim.

So, when they had yet another squabble over action figures that turned into flaring tempers and toys being thrown all around their room, I decided that I'd had enough.

I yelled up the stairs that they had 20 minutes to put all the books back on their shelf, the toys back in the toy box, and to get their beds made. I said I would set a timer. I threatened to empty their room if they refused to clean it.

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Ten minutes went by. I poked my head in their room and could see them both firmly rooted to their spots, still engaged in a fight over a Hulk action figure.

Fifteen minutes went by. I poked my head in again and said, “You have five minutes and then I’m kicking you guys out so that I can empty your room.” My 8-year-old called me an idiot and said he was pretty certain that no mom or dad in the history of parents had ever actually emptied a kid’s room before so he wasn’t worried.

That settled it.

I went downstairs and out the back door, I marched across the lawn to the garage, and explained to my husband—with red cheeks and a bit of a shrill voice—that I had had enough with the sass talk and the trashed bedroom where our sons felt empowered to basically act like monsters.

My husband took a step backward and grabbed a contractor trash bag, handed it to me, and said, “I’ll get the kids, we’ll play outside. You do what you gotta do, hon.”

For the next hour I packed books and toys in boxes. I filled the black trash bag with broken toys, weird science experiments hidden under beds, and then dusted and vacuumed. By the time I was done the only things left in their room were two beds with bedding and a teddy bear each, and two dressers with their clothes. Nothing else was left. I took everything, including the drapes that they ripped while playing pirates. Gone.

When my husband brought the boys back into the house, we sat them down on their beds and showed them their new digs. They were not happy. They stared, with owl eyes and mouths hanging open, in total disbelief that I had emptied their rooms to an echoing chamber of basic furniture.

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It has been several weeks since their bedroom was dramatically transformed and their behavior has changed. My boys no longer fight upstairs anymore and the rants about being bored and tussling over the same toys have all but disappeared.

After I used a Swedish death cleaning approach to cleaning out the rest of my house, the boys’ each got one tote for their toys, which are stored in our living room—a common space where everyone has to share with each other. As a result of their emptied room and fewer choices of toys to be overwhelmed by they are forced to rely on their imaginations and to get along in order to play anything fun and, miracle of miracles, it is actually working.

As school inches ever closer and summer comes to a close, my husband and I have decided to leave their room empty. Our sons have learned that we won’t tolerate them trashing our house (or their things) anymore. And perhaps more importantly, as a parent, I have learned that as scary as follow through is on a threat as big as “I’ll empty your room” may feel, the rewards are actually quite brilliant when the act is done with love and fairness in mind.