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My Kids Are Messy As Hell. How Do I Get Them to Clean Up After Themselves?

A dad has a messy problem that just won't clean up itself.

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Goodfather

My kids won’t clean their playroom and it’s driving me nuts. I’ve tried everything: We did a toy jail and they didn’t care (and also, it didn’t solve the pillows and couch cushions thrown everywhere). We tried docking allowance and they didn’t care. I went to Lowes and bought a bunch of organizers and spent an entire Saturday cleaning and organizing the room top-to-bottom and by noon on Sunday it was a disaster again — with blankets dragged in off their bed to make a fort and all their toys piled in the fort, and crumbs from their snacks all over the place. It drives me insane. 

I don’t understand why we can’t figure this out. I thought I was a smart person but not being able to find a solution to fix my kid’s behavior is making me doubt my abilities as a person. I know that sounds extreme, but I’m at the end of my rope here.  What can I do?

Messed up in Madison

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It’s always a pain in the ass when children’s behavior leads to an existential crisis. I have experienced many of these crises myself, many times. I expect to experience many more. But there is a deeply soothing balm to problems such as the one you describe. It’s called: not giving a shit.

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That’s the place you have reached, my friend. Because in all honesty, had your problem simply been the fact that your kids don’t clean up their playroom, I would have offered all of the solutions you’ve already tried. Those were really good solutions, but clearly not guaranteed to work. But we’re talking about kids here. Nothing is guaranteed to work. 

Now there are methods for behavior modification that you could use to get the results you want. The process involves using incremental small steps, along with big and unbridled praise to get your kids to form a habit of tidiness. In this case, you might pick one type of toy that you would want them to clean up. You might help them in cleaning up while you praise them. Then, after a couple of weeks, you can start asking them to do it on their own while you praise them. Finally, you simply praise them every time they pick up the specific toy, before repeating the process with another type of toy. After a while, you’ve built on the first behavior to the point where you may get the behavior you want from a generalized request to “clean up the playroom.”

This kind of very specific and intensive practice will help you get the results you want, but it requires a lot of commitment on your part. In some cases, where you’re dealing with higher stakes child behavioral issues, like violence, the commitment to do the work makes more sense and may even feel easier because the end result is a child who isn’t physically hurting people. Sometimes, however, making committed efforts to change a child’s behavior doesn’t come as easy because the stakes, frankly, aren’t that high. 

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t try to work with your kid when their behavior is such that it’s disruptive to family life. That said, I feel like you should really consider how big of a deal a messy playroom is really. 

I get you are frustrated. Some of that might be because you’re a type-A personality who requires tidiness to feel a sense of calm control. Maybe you’re just frustrated that your kids don’t seem to care. Whatever the reason, you may want to consider the possibility that a messy playroom is more problematic to you than your household. 

I mean, really. What is it hurting? I would understand if the mess we’re so extreme that the kids couldn’t physically play in the room. I would understand if it were a common family space that had to be clean for everyone to enjoy it. I would understand if it were a safety risk because exits were blocked. But from your question, it sounds like this is their space, which is great, by the way. 

Kids don’t mind chaos. And sometimes they thrive on it. The cushions and blankets being scattered is a sign of imaginative play, the toys scattered everywhere is a sign of engagement. At least your kids are playing and not staring at a screen.

The point is, I am recommended you get to a place of not giving a shit about the playroom. Maybe install a door or a curtain so you don’t have to see it when it’s messy and not in use. Maybe meditate when it starts freaking you out. Do whatever it takes to get rid of all the shits you give when it comes to the playroom. 

It’ll set you free, man. 

As parents, there is so much we need to do for our kids. Moreover, the world is constantly making demands on the family. There is simply too much to care about and focus on. We are absolutely incapable of taking it all on. Freeing yourself of the frustration and time and care you give to a messy playroom will open up some bandwidth in your life for the important stuff. Will you have to clean up the playroom occasionally? Sure. Maybe it’ll get so messy they’ll tidy on their own (you’d be surprised). Or maybe you’ll all pitch in once a week to do it as a family. It doesn’t really matter. 

And that brings me to my final recommendation: the next time the messy playroom starts getting you hyped up, hit the mental pause button. Then call your kids over, give them each a hug and tell them you think they’re great. Then walk away. Problem solved.