A friend of mine emailed me this question the other day.
Do you have any brilliant ideas on getting kids to clean up? Like, just clean up their own messes, especially toys?
Here is our repetitive scenario that’s getting extremely old and frustrating:
Today I went downstairs after just last night and this morning of the kids playing (our family room is L shaped and the “toy room” is the bottom of the L, so having toys scattered all through the family room is just unacceptable to me) and nearly every toy had been pulled off the shelf, dumped out, probably only played with for 1 minute, and left to scatter across the floor. I told them they had to get all the toys picked up before they could play.
This is how we usually do clean up: They choose a reasonable amount of time, I set the timer, and whatever is still on the floor gets put in a garbage bag. So today they chose 30 minutes, I set the timer and could just hear them playing the whole time. I went down and nothing had been done. It would have taken 4 or 5 garbage bags to collect everything so now they are just banned to the basement until it’s done, and they’ll probably just play down there until bed time. The threat of a garbage bag used to work, but this scene is happening more and more.
Obviously this isn’t working. I hate getting angry and worked up because my plan doesn’t work. We do have a “one toy out at a time” rule, but I don’t even know how to enforce that unless i’m always supervising play time, which is impossible. Help, I need ideas!
Here’s my answer:
First of all, while I may have some ideas, keep in mind that I have never been great at expecting my kids to pick up all of their toys immediately. I seem to have a very high tolerance for toy clutter—except when I have people coming to my house . . . or I visit a house where toy clutter is not acceptable . . . then I feel frustrated and guilty that I don’t keep my house picked up . . . but that’s another story!
Having said that, here’s my thoughts.
You’ve realized what I was already going to say—that your “one toy at time rule” is not enforceable as it is currently set up. In order for a rule to work for little kids, it needs to be enforced consistently every time there is an infraction. And you have to have a tangible consequence when the rule is broken. But when you have a toy room away from your main area where you are “working” all the time as a mom, enforcing that rule really is impossible. (Of course, there may be others who have figured this out–I’d love to hear from them. . . And hire them to come to my house for awhile!)
Since your goal is to have fewer toys spread around the family room, you might consider having only a few toys available at any one time. Instead of shelves and bins, get some cabinets that lock and only have one open. Or you could put most of the toys in another “off limits” place in your house and then rotate which toys are out at any given time.
Also, your kids are still little—five and three. While I completely agree they are old enough to physically pick up their own toys, they may not yet be old enough to emotionally handle the overwhelming task that a toy disaster zone can be. (I know that as an adult, I feel overwhelmed by massive cleaning tasks too!)
I think they get overwhelmed because they aren’t really able to break down a large task into small steps. So you might be able to look at the room and say to yourself, “First, I’ll put the blocks in the bin. Then I’ll line up all the dolls on the shelf. Then I’ll put the dishes and food on the play kitchen.” But they look at the room and see a massive pile of STUFF and aren’t able to create the categories and the steps they need to put things away.
So if it really does get to be a disaster, the best thing to do is to work WITH your kids. I know, this goes against the whole idea of “they made the mess, they should pick it up.” But it’s only as we work with our kids that we teach them the valuable skills of breaking down tasks and doing things step by step. Also, working and cleaning together as a family can be a wonderful time, if you as the mom approach it with a teaching rather than a taskmaster attitude.
My final thought is about your garbage-bag consequence. I would define this as a negative motivator—and it has lost its impact. I don’t know why, but I have some guesses. It’s possible the toys came back too soon, so the real message was “if I don’t pick up, the toys disappear for a while, but then they come back.” Or it could be that you have too many toy options, so your kids start thinking “oh well, those toys are gone, but I have all these others ones I like to play with so I don’t really care.” Or it could be something else. . . . Regardless, it’s time to explore some new motivators.
So for example, what if you have a situation where the toys are a mess and you really need them to just buckle down and do it without getting distracted? And you’re life is crazy so working with them is not an option? You might consider using other kinds of motivators to keep the task novel and exciting. I’ve found that positive rewards can often accomplish wonders where a negative consequence does nothing. I’ve used treats, movie time, or even a special outing to help give my kids the extra incentive to get a room clean. (I even paid my kids once, but I’m too much of a tightwad to do that regularly!)
Through all of this, remember that learning to pick up and keep a space clean is a process. Your kids didn’t come into this world knowing how to pick up (both physically and emotionally). But sometimes as moms we forget that because we’re so focused on getting the job done AND because they job is easy for us (now!).
Take time to teach. Be patient and loving. Work together. Look for ways to motivate positively.
And if you’re having a day where all of the above aren’t an option, chocolate ice cream is always a solution (for YOU, not your kids!).