Toys and books litter the living room floor, clothes are all over their bedrooms, and somehow there’s garbage mixed in with everything. Food wrappers, scraps of paper, pieces of trash that look to your child like they could be “something” with just a little bit of glue, glitter, and ribbon added.
Why are there dress-up clothes on my kitchen counter? And wouldn’t it be nice to crawl into bed without smashing my legs into a Lego creation that magically found its way beneath my sheets?
I know this is reality for SO many of you. I’m sorry.
But there’s a way out. And the best news is, it doesn’t involve threatening, punishing, bribing, or tricking your kids.
A quick search about kids cleaning rooms led me to so many blog posts…
I wanted to see how other people view this “problem” before I wrote my version. The titles make me want to scoop everyone up into a big group hug.
At Your Modern Family, the “works every time” rule about cleaning is that the kids go to bed 5 minutes earlier for each piece of clothing mom has to pick up from the floor. I’m sorry, but in my house, bedtime is after dinner and bedtime routine… any earlier and my husband or I would have to leave the dinner table to make that happen.
Sacrificing our family dinners? No thanks! And making bedtime into a punishment? You’re ASKING for bedtime “issues.”
Mommypotamus wrote How to get your kids to clean their rooms in 16 easy steps. But really the “steps” are jokes about how frustrating it can be…. and then the post turns out to just be an advertisement for a webinar about getting kids to listen. Helpful, huh? An example?
“Step 11: Ask them if they heard the news story about the giant mice that are taking over dirty playrooms across the country.”
I love Mommypotamus, but this post made me feel sad for anyone who clicked it hoping for actual help.
Then there’s the uh-oh bucket. The idea is that you pick up all of the toys that have been left “out” and put them into a storage container. And you hold them hostage. Then, the kids must do chores in order to earn them back.
Isn’t this poem “cute”? (Read: Not the kind of “lessons” I want my kids to remember me teaching them, as they reflect on me in their old age – Mom is a tyrant toy kidnapper!)
YOU LEFT IT OUT
MOM PICKED IT UP
SHE’S GOT YOUR STUFF
YOU’RE OUT OF LUCK
TO GET IT BACK
MUST DO A CHORE
AGAIN ITS YOURS, JUST LIKE BEFORE
Problems with this? Like I said, YOU are the tyrant toy kidnapper, the bad guy. And chores become punishments or payments, not just something kids do because you’re part of a family where everyone pitches in to help.
Plus, you’ve got an ugly rubbermaid tote container sitting out all the time, and you’ve become some weird kind of Monopoly banker who has to monitor toys in / toys out versus the currency of chores done. Is that a job you really want to add to your list?
Other titles I didn’t click on to read?
How to Trick Your Kids into Cleaning Their Room – I don’t know about you, but tricking my kids isn’t on my daily to-do list. I prefer for our relationship to be built on trust.
Is Your Room Mommy-Clean? Checklist – This one promises a checklist so your child can see if they met all of your insane requirements for a clean room. If I were a kid, I’d likely try to “fudge” it to get through the list faster, feel smug when my mom “approved” my room (knowing I had things hidden in places they didn’t belong), and develop a me-against-Mommy mindset in which Mommy is a weirdo obsessive control-freak and I’m just trying to be awesome. I mean, depending on what type of kid I am….
And another popular strategy is the “you can only have one thing out at a time, and you have to clean it up before you get another thing out” one. I hate this one. HATE. Because part of learning creativity and practicing innovation is using seemingly unrelated things together. This is SO IMPORTANT to allow our kids to explore!
If I never allowed my kids to play with the dump trucks along with the toy horses and dress-up playsilks, they wouldn’t have invented this game where they tie a silk to a truck, and then “tow” a horse behind it, or “buckle in” the horse in the dumper of the truck using a silk so the horse can ride.
Sometimes my kids use the dollhouse along with blocks, legos, horses, and vehicles to make a whole town, complete with a farm, playgrounds, additional furniture they create themselves, a parking lot, roads, and so on.
So how do I get my kids to clean up their things, without any manipulation?
- Lead by example. My kids see me cleaning up my own things, putting things away when I’m finished using them. My bedroom is ALWAYS tidy. And at least once a day, my children see me do (and usually help with) a quick general pick-up of everything around the house.
- Declutter. You know as well as I do how hard it is to keep the house tidy, let alone actually CLEAN, when there’s all sorts of crud scattered around getting in the way. If you’re having trouble with Step 1, start by decluttering your OWN things so that you can start leading by example.If you’ve got yours under control, help your kids declutter their belongings before you start expecting much in the way of cleanliness from them. Starting a toy rotation system can be a way to jump-start this. There’s no commitment to actually getting rid of things – it’s just stored (by you) in a closet somewhere.
But actually decluttering items for good will have the best long-term results. If you and your kids are ready, you can start by asking them about each item:
– Does this toy still make you happy?
– Are you all done with this, and ready to let another kid play with it and have it?
– Is this one of the most fun toys for you, or do you like playing with your other things more?
Please don’t tell your kids to get rid of things in order to “make room for new toys.” It sets up the expectation that more is always coming, and if you do this, you shouldn’t be surprised if your kids start bringing you things they’re “bored with” and then immediately asking you for some new thing they saw a commercial or an ad for. That’s not how this works.
- Give each toy a home. Each toy or category of toy should have an actual “home.” In our house, playsilks go in one basket while hats and other accessories (ties, tiaras, whatever) go in another basket. Legos are in a basket together in a cubby on the shelf. The dollhouse and its furniture and people go in another cubby on the shelf.
We have a basket in a cubby for small vehicles, while the larger trucks get to “park” on the top of the shelf, along with the horses. Another cubby-basket is for miscellaneous smaller items (their boogie boards, travel Tegu sets, Frozen peg people, a weird light-up wand thing that used to be part of a sword that broke, plastic tops they got from a birthday goody bag), and our train set is in another cubby-basket.
On the other side of the room, there’s a basket for wooden blocks, and in the closet, blankets for forts or other imaginative play are on the floor.I listed all of that from memory. Because when things have HOMES (and there aren’t too many “things” total), it’s easy to know where everything goes and what everything is. It’s the same for kids. If my children want to play with the trains, they know exactly where to find them. And when it’s time to clean up, if there’s an empty cubby, it’s clear something is still “out.”
You can use labels if you want (and I made these gorgeous ones if you’d like to), but it isn’t a requirement. If you choose to, be sure to label the item/container AND the shelf where it belongs, so that the kids can match them to clean up.
Tip: NEVER tell your kids, “Put this away.” “Away” can mean anything – shoved under the bed, in the closet, behind other toys, anything.
ALWAYS say, “Put this where it belongs.” There is only ONE place where each item belongs. Its home. That is where it should be returned.
- Make the toys easy to put away. As an early childhood education major in college, I have been in countless classrooms in my adult life. And when I was a preschool teaching assistant, my lead teacher did things no differently from what I had seen over and over… the unit blocks (those awesome wooden blocks we all LOVE to build with) were on shelves, sorted by size and type, often with cut-out construction paper shapes for the kids to match so that they could put them all away correctly at the end. (Like in this picture – Just what every kid needs. A puzzle to do when they’re FINISHED playing.)Want to know what happened in EVERY SINGLE CLASSROOM? Kids would excitedly scoop all of the carefully-sorted blocks off the shelf and happily play with them until clean-up time. Then, they would spend at least 10 minutes trying to put them away properly. Often, a teacher had to help, and constantly correct the child about which blocks go where.
The result? Wasted time and energy, to satisfy the teacher’s neurosis about “sorting.” Less time to play. More “correction” (which can sound like nagging). More frustration. I have even had kids tell me they like blocks but didn’t want to play with them at school because clean-up was too hard. Some kids would only play with blocks at the beginning of the period, then sneak away to do other things so the other children would be stuck with the cleaning-up task when play time was over.
Don’t do this to your kids! If your KIDS want to sort their legos by color/size/shape or by “kit” (older kids), let them. But if we’re talking about a 3 year old with 400 Duplo bricks? Just put them all into one basket.
When I was a kid, my little sister and I had a billion wooden unit blocks. They belogned in a big wicker laundry hamper. All together. Clean-up was NOTHING. So easy!
- Use natural consequences. So many parents seem to think the word “consequence” means “punishment.” And they completely forget the “natural” part.
Let’s explore some unnatural consequences:Leave a piece of clothing on the floor? Bedtime is 5 minutes earlier. (Why? Mom said so. Unnatural.)
As an adult, if we leave a piece of clothing on the floor, does it affect our bedtime? No.
Leave a toy in the living room after bedtime? It goes in a box until your earn it back by doing a chore. (Why? Mom’s rules. Unnatural.)
As an adult, if we leave a crochet project “out,” do we have to mop the kitchen before we can have it back? Nope.
Your room is messy? No dinner until you clean it up! (Why? Mom can’t think of anything else to “take away” that will make you clean. Unnatural.)
Guess what! Adults can have a messy bedroom AND still eat dinner – in the dining room, at a restaurant, anywhere!
This makes no sense.
So what IS a natural consequence, anyway? Well, think about what happens to you, as an adult, if you don’t clean up after yourself.
If you don’t put your keys on their hook (or in their home, wherever that is) as soon as you come into the house, you’re likely to have to search for 10 minutes to find your keys the next time you want to go somewhere.
Tell your kids: “Put this where it belongs, so you can find it the next time you want to play with it.”
If they don’t, they’ll realize the natural consequences sooner or later, and you can say, “Gosh, I wonder where your green car IS! Did you check in the car basket? It isn’t there? I guess you didn’t put it where it belonged when you were done with it… goodness, I hope you can find it. Good luck.”
Have you ever left something you cared about “out” instead of putting it where it belonged? And then something happened to it? That crochet project you left on the couch which the cat decided was great for clawing… the beautiful picture your child made you, which you didn’t hang up before the kid came back with scissors and made confetti… the leather purse you shoved into your closet instead of carefully replacing, which now has permanent creases and cracks.
Tell your kids: “If you care about this, you’ll take care of it and put it where it belongs.” For smaller kids, you may help them think of things that might happen if they don’t, adding, “Otherwise, it may get broken or stepped on or the dog may chew it up.”
If they don’t, once they realize the natural consequences, “Ohh I’m so sorry to see that your horse’s leg snapped off. How did that happen? Oh, someone stepped on it? I’m very sorry to hear that. It’s too bad it wasn’t on the shelf where the horses belong so it would be safe!”
Or what if you leave your own laundry scattered around, or don’t unpack from a trip fully? Then where is that green shirt you want to wear? Didn’t you just do laundry? Oh right, it’s still in the suitcase/in this pile/somewhere around here, still dirty… GAH!
Tell your kids: “I know you love that shirt! If you want to be able to wear it again soon, make sure it goes in the laundry basket so that it gets clean the next time I do laundry.”
If they don’t, once they realize the natural consequences, “I’m sorry, but that shirt is dirty. Why don’t you put it in the basket right now so it can get clean next time. You’ll have to wear something else today. After you get dressed, would you like to help me start a load of laundry so that your favorite shirt will be ready again soon?”
- Help them. Patiently. Even with your behavior as a good example, just a few toys, clearly defined easy-to-use homes, and experiencing and learning about natural consequences, it may still be hard for your kids to clean up at first. Cleaning up after ourselves isn’t an instinctual behavior. It’s a learned one. And anything that’s learned requires some teaching and practice.If your kids are having a hard time cleaning up after themselves, ask them if they’d like you to help them through it. I generally try to stay as hands-off as I can during this process, unless they’re really stuck about something or having trouble getting started.
Go by categories of item. First, have your kids clean up all of their clothes, into the hamper. Then, see what other category will make a big difference. Are there 38 books on the floor? Have them pick up books next. Ask, “Where does this belong?” for each category, and if they’re not sure, remind them.
If your kids are a little older and won’t get confused, you could have each kid pick a different category or toy to work on simultaneously. So, one kid could clean up books while the other works on gathering and taking apart the Legos and putting them back into the basket.
Take your time when you’re helping them through the process. You’re not helping them to get it done more quickly. You’re helping them in order to give them the skills to do it on their own later. Explain things. Model. Demonstrate. Thank them for a job well done.
Remember, you are a teacher, not a drill sergeant in this process.
- Don’t expect or require perfection. At least not at first. If your kids come running to you, announcing that they’ve finished cleaning, and they’re beaming with pride, what do you think it’ll do to them if you go in and start pointing out everything they’ve done wrong?I don’t always “check” after my kids clean up. Sometimes I do, and usually act like I’m about to get a wonderful surprise, “You’re done? Wow, can you show me!?” and they grab my hands and skip down the hall to show me their work. I give them big hugs and say something like, “You had so many toys out but now it’s clean again! Look what you did! Don’t you feel proud? Thank you for helping keep our house nice.”
Sometimes, especially if I’m in the middle of something, when my kids come to me to let me know they’re finished, I ask them to double-check their work on their own. Often, they find something they’ve forgotten, and they feel proud about having found it the second time. Sometimes I’ll look after that, but sometimes I don’t, and I’ll say something like, “I believe you.” “I know you did it.” “I trust you.” or “I’m sure you did a great job.”
Other times, they didn’t actually do an awesome job, and things really do need to be corrected before the room is anywhere near clean and tidy. Keeping in mind the role of teacher, not drill sergeant, I’ll point out a few larger errors.
“What are these pens and stickers doing in the Legos? How will you find them the next time you want to draw or do crafts?” They laugh and put the pens where they belong.
“What on earth? Are these dollhouse people mixed in with the cars? Where do they need to be?” A kid will shout, “In the dollhouse!” and they race to put them away in their home.
“I see… three things that aren’t where they belong. Can you find them?” This starts a hunt, with each kid exclaiming, “I got one!” as they find them.
And with all of this modeling, guidance, practice, and habit training, nowadays, all I have to do is ask one simple question IF my kids ever grumble about cleaning (which they rarely do).
The question I ask my kids is:
“Do you care about your toy?” (Or shoes, or backpack, or whatever it is they don’t want to put away.)
And since we no longer own things we don’t care about (see Step 2), the answer is a quick, “Yes, I do,” followed by swift action.
I hope that if you’ve made it to the end of this, you’re walking away feeling empowered, not overwhelmed.
Parenting with honesty, respect, patience, and empathy might challenging at first, and feel awkward compared with using bribes or punishments, but in the long term, you’ll never regret your choice to give it your best shot.
Tags: Kid Stuff