Less Mess

8 Ways To Get Your Kids To Start Cleaning Up After Themselves

Mighty tidy tips.

Originally Published: 
Child picking up his toys.
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Somehow, kids can get toys out way faster than parents can pick them up. Add to that the cupboard doors that get left open, kitchen counters that don’t get cleared and dishes unable to find their way to the sink, and parents have to hustle just to keep the house in a moderate state of disarray.

There has to be a way to get kids to clean up the disaster zone they leave in their wake. And, in fact, there are several. But what it takes on your part is a deep breath, a smile, and a willingness to ditch the classic clean-up song for some new awesomeness. (Or at least pair it with the following clean-up techniques).

1. Reset The Rules

If your traditional method for making clean-up happen was to wave your hands and get increasingly loud, it’s time to make a change. And if you’re making the change, the new rules should be stated as clearly as possible to everyone involved.

Yeah, you might have to go over them more than once with a toddler, but whatever you settle on, you need to be consistent. Otherwise, you kid will figure out that they don’t have to hustle as long as they keep cuddling with you. In other words, never reveal your weakness for cuddles.

2. Enforce The ‘One Out, One Away’ Rule

Part of combating the demons of clean up includes containing the mess in the first place. As long as you’re making new rules, why not start with one that will keep the toy hell to a minimum?

The best way to make this happen is by making a “take one out, put one away” policy. It’s a pretty simple concept. The idea is that if your kid is moving on to another toy, then they shouldn’t just abandon the old toy in the middle of the floor. You know, it’s like you do with your tools. Right?

3. Get Specific

One of the things that will surely stand in the way of your clean up success is just saying to your kid, “Hey, clean up, kid.” For younger kids this like freezing a deer in your high-beams. Their thoughts go something like, “Clean up? What exactly? And where? Ah, never mind, there’s a piece of fuzz on the floor that makes way more sense than your crazy talk, father.”

Here are some ways to make your intentions much clearer:

  • Make sure everything has a special place
  • Label bins with pictures for pre-readers
  • Offer a warning that clean up is about to happen
  • Give a specific timeframe and stick to it
  • Speak clearly and don’t make your request a question
  • Tell them to put away a specific object, or type of object
  • Explain the consequences or rewards and stick to them

4. Divide And Conquer

A full-blown play mess can be intimidating for parents and kids alike. But you can make it way more manageable by dividing and conquering. Or, if you want to be Napoleonic about it, “defeat in detail.” Those Piedmontese Legos and Habsburg Hot Wheels don’t stand a chance against your tiny force!

There are very many ways you can reduce clean up to more manageable chunks. You could have your kid start by just cleaning up all the yellow and red toys (and move on from there). Or you can start just by picking up the pickup trucks and then moving to cars. If you’re heavily invested in a certain toy fandom, maybe just pick up all the Sith before moving on to the Jedis. You get the idea.

5. Add Some Fun

You know chores can be fun. That’s partly why you purchased a riding lawnmower with a cup holder and a zero-turn radius. But your kid? They’re too new to realize this yet. Luckily you can help make it fun by adding some of these elements.

  • Competition - If you’ve got 2 kids this one is a no-brainer. Generally, they’ll be pretty competitive as it is. You just need to be careful you’re not de-incentivizing by turning one of the kids into a loser.
  • Tools - Turn clean-up into imagination time by using tools. Dust pans are awesome scoops. Heck, even scoops are awesome scoops. Tools that help in clean up can turn you and your kid into some grunting, vrooming heavy equipment.
  • Music - If it has a beat and you can clean to it, then you can inject some energy into cleaning time. But no need to go with some saccharine kid-centric nonsense. Change it up and see what kind of results you get. Why not a little thrash metal? How about some bright pop music? How about disco? No, wait. Forget the disco.

6. Work On Yourself

Some of the barriers to a smooth cleanup rest squarely on your shoulders. If you have unrealistic expectations that reach beyond your kids’ physical capabilities, you will be stressed. If you sound desperate or get animated, your kid might just find that incredibly fascinating. And if you redo their work, they may just get demoralized.

So maybe lower your expectations and bit, and remember it’s only a little mess. A little mess you’ll have to deal with for the next many years. May as well make peace with it now.

7. Set A Timer

This isn’t a speed tactic so much as it is a scheduling tool. If your kids are playing independently, set a timer for 45 minutes. When it goes off, everyone takes a pause and cleans up whatever messes were made during that timeframe. It prevents parents from constantly nagging and keeps the flow of independent play going.

8. Make Sure Everything Has A Home

It’s easier for kids to put things away correctly if they know where it goes, so ensure all toys and activities have a specific place to live when not in use. If shelves and tubs are getting too full, that’s a good sign it’s time to thin out the selection. It’s easier to keep things tidy when there’s enough space to put everything away.

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