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Getting Kids to Clean Up Their Messes
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School-aged Kids >
Getting Kids to Clean Up Their Messes
I am not a parent but I work with parents and would love to get
some tips on how to get young children (ages 3-7) to put their
toys away. At what age can parents expect their children to
help with picking up toys? It seems like this can be such a
struggle to get some children to do this. Any suggestions would
be much appreciated.
Much to learn
My boys (aged 5 and 2) know that if Mommy or Daddy does all the picking
up, then the toy(s) becomes ours- at least for awhile. I usually start
by making a big deal about how excited I am that I am going to be
getting a (name of toy) because no boys are helping put it away. If
some boys don't move quickly, the toy will be mine. My boys usually
come running. The key to this working is to follow through and take
away toys that they do not help put away. By the way, I have only ever
had to take one or two toys away.
Having said that, I have not figured out how to get them to pick up
everything themselves, or even better to take the initiative to start
Mom who likes a neat house
Our daughter is 2-3/4 and she picks up her toys sometimes. We are
working on it. We are most successful when we use specific language
ask her to do a limited task. For example, it would never work to say,
''Please clean up your toys,'' but I can ask, ''Let's pick up your
blocks before we start coloring,''
or ''Please put away your [list one thing at a time].'' We also have a
reward system where she gets a prize from a prize bag (filled with
knicknacks) when she earns a certain number of stickers for good
behavior or helpfulness. She is very motivated by the prize bag!
I try to make it part of his routine. usually at the end of the day
before bathtime. I also usually pick a class of thing for himto pick up
and one for me so we can work together I give a choice - do you want to
pick up the toys or the blocks. At first we made it fun by making a
sound whenever a toy went into the box, When my son went to preschool
leared a simple clean up song that we all sing now. if he's resistant I
tell him if he doesn't want to clean up his blocks (or whatever) they
may not be available to playwith the next day - so far I've only had to
carry through that threat once so far and I the bag of blocks up out of
reach but in sight so he'd miss it and remember the lesson I took it
down after he asked for it and we talked about cleaning them up when
we're finished. I would put stuff up for a whole day if it becomes more
of an issue, but not more than that.
we also have a bunch of books and I try to get him to put one away
before I'll read him another. they often end up all over the floor
anyway so we try to do the big cleanup of them sometimes
He's only 2.5 yrs so I don't expect perfection, and at this point it's
really easier to clean stuff up myslef but I think developing the
now will save me a lot of grief and bother later.
progress not perfection
Some things that work for me (and both my 2 and 3.5 y. olds pick up
- Try to make the chore the most fun possible: use a song or say/do
silly things while putting toys away.
- I get a lot more cooperation if I join my children in the effort.
- If things are not progressing nicely, then I set consequences:
''we won't go to the park until we are finished picking up the toys,''
or ''you can't play with anything else until you've put those toys
Here are some tips. You could make it a competition-- who can clean up
their part faster and better. You should have very clear places where
toys get put away. You can make cleaning up toys routine-- what you
always do before lunch, or bed, or whatever. You can clean up WITH the
kids-- I find that this even works with teenagers, say with making beds
or putting laundry away. Almost any chore is easier with company, and
seems more of a cooperative activity than like following orders.
not a tidy freak
As long as my daughter has been able to pick up toys by herself, I have been asking
her to put them away. The rule in our house is that if she wants to get something else
out, she has to put something away first--so we never have more than two or three
things out at a time. This helps keep her focused, while teaching her responsibility,
and helps me keep my house from looking like a cyclone hit it. My personal opinion is
that kids that don't pick up after themselves don't do it because they know someone
I am just wondering if I can expect a four year old to clean up toys before leaving
from a play date with my son who is also four years old. The mother doesn't tell him
to clean up and I usually just clean it up with my son after the play date leaves. My
son is wondering why the other child doesn't need to clean up after playing. This is
of course hard to explain to him. When we visit his friend I always tell him to clean
up but the mother usually sais she will do it. The room is usually a mess before we
even get there and we don't even know where everything goes. I am just trying to
teach my son certain manners. How do I explain, that other kid don't have to do
certain things. Yesterday I told his mother that our children at 4 years old are able
to clean up their messes. She just told me that she just can't make him do it. I didn't
know what to say to that. Actually, I would have known what to say but I would have
sounded like a know it all. What's the right thing to do ?
I think there are 2 issues here. One is how to get guests to
follow your house rules. I would suggest saying at some
point ''Now it's time to clean up''. Kids will be more likely to
do something at their friend's house that they resist doing at
home, so even if the child is not used to cleaning up at home,
s/he will probably go along with it. The second issue is how to
explain to your child that he has to do something his friend
does not have to. I still get from my teenage daughter that it
is different with so and so and I should be more like her
friend's mom. I always say that I am the mother of only 2
children and I am not responsible for any one else's kids.
Parents think differently and raise their children in different
ways. My kids have to follow my rules and then I explain why and
also why I think the other family's rules are not good for them.
This has always been sufficient for them to understand.
why not just make part of the play date the ''cleanup'' session
and don't worry about what the other mom says? The kid will get
it that this is part of playing, if you make it part of playing.
You don't even have to mention it to the other mom. that will
also make it easier to explain to your kid--the playdate kid is
still learning how to clean up after himself.
I'm not sure what to do about the uncooperative mother, but when
my 4yo has a playdate, I simply announce cleanup time when it's
nearly time for the other child to leave (or, if I'm arriving at
someone else's house, when I get there). Usually the other
parent joins in.
I think that if both you and your own son started putting things
away a few minutes before the other child is due to be picked
up, the other child would join in. And perhaps his mother would
learn by your example. ;-) When your son is at the other
child's house, I would simply ask him what he's been playing
with and prompt him to ask the other child or mother where those
toys go. If the mom says to leave it, then say thanks and leave
As with all such things, it's easy enough for kids to understand
that there are different rules in different homes.
I'm wondering if you will get lots of responses from people like the friend's
mom who avoid setting standards as you have for your children. Seems like
there are a lot of moms out there that don't want to either take the time, or
deal with possible conflict with their kids or I don't know what. If it makes you
feel better, I have also encountered this situation more than once.
I would approach it with the mom in a low-key way when you make the next
date to play that you will be explaining to her son that at the end of the
playdate, the two kids will need to clean up the toys. When he comes over, you
can just say matter-of-factly something like, ''OK Johnny, you and Tommy have
fun, and remember, you'll both need to clean up the toys before you go. That's
how we play here at our house.'' I know how it feels to want to avoid that
''know-it-all'' situation, but at the same time, you need to be consistent for
your son. In you house, his friends should follow the house rules. If their
mothers are put off by your honesty, there isn't much you can do about it.
We have had this problem with both of our kids. The problem I had with
leaving the mess until after the friend went home is that my kids would
totally melt down at being left with a huge mess to clean up. I would
help, but they always felt like they were being punished. They have a
few particularly messy friends, and when they are over, I tell them to start
cleaning up about 15 minutes before the playdate is over. I let them
know nicely during the playdate that I will be alerting them to clean up
time in X amount of time. It usually works pretty well that way. And even
if they don't get it all cleaned up, they get the bulk of it done. And it sets it
up as a routine when they visit our house.
As for the mess at their house, just ask your son what toys he played
with and ask him to put those away. If the mom says not to worry about it,
just say that it is important to you that your son contribute to the clean up
and it is a family rule. That way, you are consistent with your son and the
friend. The mom can do whatever she wants with the toys, but your
messge to the kids is clear.
I would start w/ trying to handle this by letting BOTH kids
know, 10 minutes before departure time, that it's ''clean up''
time & then go up to the BR or LR to clean with them. If
necessary, you can explain to the other mom that you are
trying to get ''your'' child in the habit of cleaning his own
toys. I've been there and done this.
I think it's okay for you to set the rules in your own house. Do whatever works for
you...maybe ask the child to clean up, and if he won't, tell him that you will give him
one toy at a time. When he's done, he can bring it to you and trade for a different
one. Or play in the yard. Or set a timer for 4 minutes at the end of the playdate and
challenge the kids to clean up with you as fast as they can. Whatever makes it okay
for you and your son. It really is okay to ask guests to live up to the standards your
Like it clean
We play a game with my child's friends called 'beat the clock'.
I set an egg timer for 5 minutes and see which kid can put away
the most toys. It works really well and, best of all, the kids
have fun. You didn't mention whether the other mom stays the
whole time so it might be awkward to do this in front of her.
Hi Tidy Mom,
I'm like the other mom who doesn't make the children pick up toys
after the playdate. My child's room is always messy, as is most
of the rest of the house! We're just a messy family! (I guess
my momma did not raise me right!) Anyway, you're entitled to have
your own rules at your house, and vice versa. I would not be at
all averse to waiting a few minutes while my child helps pick up
after playing at your house. Who knows, maybe it will make a good
impression on me and I'll start doing the same! But in the meantime,
I think when you come to my house to pick your child up, you
should not have the expectation that we have the same rules at our
house that you have at yours. If I say I'll pick up later myself,
then that's that. (Actually I probably won't pick them up, and
they will still be there when you come over next time. But that's
just the way we do things at our house.) Don't worry - kids learn
early on about different rules at different kids' houses.
Our 3 1/2 year old is going through a phase where it's been
nearly impossible to get her to consistently clean up her toys.
Sometimes she will completely willingly, sometimes she will if we
help (which we don't have a problem with), and sometimes she
won't do a thing.
We've tried reasoning with her, explaining why they have to be
put away. We've tried taking away toys that she won't pick up,
but she doesn't seem to care (plus one of us doesn't like that
approach to begin with).
Most of the suggestions in the archives are variations on ''take
the toys away.'' Does anyone have any thoughts on (a) what to do
if that doesn't work or (b) how to make it work and make it more
palatable to the parent?
Tired of the mess
My advice for teaching a 3.5 year old is model the behavior you
want them to learn and have faith that they will follow. I
begin the clean up and sing a ''clean up song'' that I made up
and usually my son joins in. Check out ''You are your Child's
First Teacher'' by Rahima Baldwin. I think it's really
inspirational and reminds me that repetition really pays off
and that our children really do change and grow.
mother of 5yr old boy
What helps me a lot is a kitchen timer. I set the timer for five to ten minutes,
depending upon the level of mess, and then we race together to clean the room.
Then I give lots of kudos when we beat the timer. Also, I give directions like, ''OK -
clean up the blocks first.'' Kids can get overwhelmed, so by breaking it down for
them and giving them a short, non-overwhelming amount of time really helps.
Does anyone have a method to getting kids to keep
their rooms clean? I have tried chore lists, helping
out myself, buying organizers, downsizing the number
of toys, and nothing seems to be working. My son's
room is a nightmare.
I must admit, however, that I tend to be more on the
side of a neat freak so am trying really hard not to
install my own standards on him, but its driving me
crazy. So often he can't find things he wants to play
with and when I explain to him that is why he needs to
put things back where they belong, etc. he just gets
completely overwhelmed by the thought of cleaning
everything up. I have even tried "clean a little each
day", and nothing sticks for more than a day or two.
My son is 8 years old.
Thanks for any offered advice!
I started this with my son when he was much younger than 8, so I don't
know how it will work for you... I would put on music and we would clean
together, initially we would clean his room together, then over time he would
clean his room, while I was cleaning somewhere else (with music on). I took
the "job" aspect out of it and made it a fun thing to do. Eventually I
graduated him to having to clean up on his own by noon on Saturday and
connecting it to his allowance along with a few other chores. As he got older,
he started to have music lessons, where the teacher came to our home,
specifically his room, so he would have to clean up by the time his teacher
made his weekly visit. That ended about a year ago when we stopped the
music lessons. Now that he's almost 17, he has only once in the last year
cleaned his room of his own volition, I have asked him a few times, but for
the most part his room looks like the room of someone who has no concept of
what clean is I'm hoping that this is retained somewhere in his brain. (He
has always played the music while cleaning though!)
I have been told numerous times to choose my battles carefully. I gave up on
the room issue. My only rule is, if the house and your room are a mess, you
can't have your friends over. It didn't work at first as my son's friends all had
messy rooms as well. However, when he wanted to bring girl friends over,
that was a different story.
I had much the same struggle with both my step-children when they were
that age. In the end, I insisted that each spend 5 minutes before going to
bed each night putting things away. Schoolbooks went back into backpacks,
clothes went into hampers, toys went into stacked crates, books went into
bookshelves. While their rooms didn't always look exactly as neat as I would
want, spending a little time each day meant that there was never such a
massive accumulation that tackling it seemed too daunting. Now, at 12 and
15, one is very, very neat, and the other is still sloppy, but sticks to the
5-minute rule (the 15 year old). Good luck.
I can tell you what worked for me when I was that age. I had three basic
chores that I had to complete each week, (which included cleaning my room).
Once these were done I could begin to earn extra allowance by doing other
odd jobs around the house. The catch is that my basic chores had to be done
first. I hated cleaning my room, but I was very motivated to earn some extra
allowance. Hope this is helpful...
You say that your son is reluctant because it's such a big job. Perhaps you
could do a giant cleaning together, get rid of some of the stuff he doesn't
want any more? Then you can require him to do the basics and help him
when you want more than that. We've had pretty good luck with that
method, though our son still has several boxes that are getting dusty but
the games are too precious to get rid of.
Your query contained your answer. Sit down and negotiate a "win-win"
situation with your son. Explain to him that you want to work together
to solve your mutual problem. Use 'I' sentences. i.e., I don't like to
have to nag you about keeping your room clean. Or, I'm feeling
frustrated that we can't seem to work this out. I'd like us to
brainstorm together, to see if we can come up with a plan that would
make us both feel good.
When brainstorming, let all ideas flow, even the ones that you know
won't work for you. Make it fun, come up with some wacky ideas yourself.
Then from all the possibilities, agree on a plan.
This method of negotiation with kids works GREAT! Kids feel empowered,
listened to, and feel valuable as a family member. When you use this
method for all family things, your kid learns negotiation skills that he
then can use with friends, and later other adults, like co-workers and
We did this for our bed time routine for my 9 year old son and the
change has been nothing short of miraculous. No more crying or whining.
I found a responsible kid!
I learned this technique from a parenting class and boy do I wish that I
had known and taken this approach from the beginning.
Our twins are almost five and they love to build forts, grocery
stores, puppet theatres, etc. using furniture, their bedding, the
plastic tubs we bought them for keeping their toys in on those wooden
shelves (the toys, of course, are just dumped out on the floor).
The problem is that when it's clean-up time, our daughter refuses to
join in (our son does). We've tried cajoling ("you pick up the red
blocks, I'll do the blue ones"); explaining ("the living room is so
much nicer when it isn't cluttered"); counting ("I'm going to count
to three");threatening ("if you don't start cleaning up right now
these toys are going back to Goodwill"); and punishing ("you stay in
your room while we clean up"), and being on a regular clean-up
schedule (just before bed).
We've tried putting some of their toys away, and rotating those
available (the problem is that they mostly don't play with toys, but
with furniture, canned goods, etc.). So far, nothing seems to work;
we end up yelling, and I hate that (and besides, our son didn't do
anything wrong). Our daughter just seems to think that cleaning
should be done by the staff. What routines/rituals do other families
do? Does anyone have any suggestions?
I tell my kids (9 and 5...especially the 5 year old) if they don't clean up
the toys are going to be given to children who don't have toys who would be
happy to clean up after playing. I always remember to use this line so they
don't always believe me but a few times I've started putting the toys in a bag
and it's scared them enough. Now they pretty much clean up when they're
Rudolph Dreikurs (author of "Children the Challenge") suggests the following:
Tell the kids what you expect them to do in the way of cleaning up. If things
don't get cleaned up, put the things in a big box and don't give them back for
a week. He has other strategies in his book but this seems to me to be the
least work for the parentsand removes you from the situation emotionally.
We're still struggling with this, too. Our daughter is 3 1/2. Fortunately,
she seems to get good support for it at school, which helps. They have a TON
of toys there, but everything is always cleaned up and organized before
circle, before lunch, before nap, before snack, and before the end of the day.
From what I see there, and what I have read, the key is CONSISTENCY. Like
you seem to have tried "everything." And like us, I think the biggest problem
is probably not having stuck with ONE approach long enough. We do find that
if we can establish a regular routine, and make it a regular part of life,
that eventually, she will come around and accept it.
All the books I have read, and the TV shows on parenting that I've seen, all
indicate that to keep a kid from whining, and to get them to do chores like
this, you need to do several things
1) Paradoxically, give them MORE responsibility, not less. If they see that
their contribution to the family is necessary, they will feel like they are
contributing. The more they feel like they are contributing, the better they
will feel about themselves. This leads to positive self-image, and the DESIRE
to help out.
2) Set clear limits and boundaries that MAKE SENSE. Arbritrary rules won't
help. But if you value a clean house, then make that a clear boundary. You
must be willing to follow through on these boundaries YOURSELF, as well (this
is one of OUR challenges!)--If you make him clean up his room, but your room
is messy, he will resent it, and the message will be lost.
3) Set consequences that you are willing to follow through on. If you threaten
to get rid of the toys, then the toys must disappear if they are not picked
up. If you don't follow through, you will send the message that you don't mean
what you say, and your child will learn to ignore you. This is crucial.
4) Be consistent. Decide on a course of action and stick with it. Don't
switch horses in midstream, as they say. According to most behavior
modification programs I've read, humans need to do something for about 30
before it will become set as a new habit. (I don't know if this is true for
kids, however.) In my experience, though, we don't see results if we don't
stick with something for AT LEAST a week, usually two or more. Keep at it
even if it doesn't look like it's working at first.
We have a four-year-old and two-year-old twins, so clean up
is definately an issue. One thing that tends to work for
us is connecting the major clean up (which they help with
once or sometimes twice a day) with the next thing they
really want to do i.e. it has to be done before dessert
(when we have dessert) or an eveing video or a nighttime
bike ride or walk. Sometimes we hear excuses "I'm too tired
to clean up, pick up my arms" etc., and then we push all
the trains, blocks, whatever over to the complainer with
the basket they belong in and have them do the clean up
without having to move much. Of course, this same person
will jump up and don helmet as soon as cleanup is over for
the nighttime bike ride. We are sure that a key to clean
up is consistency, which of course we don't always practice!
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