Ship Shape: Getting Kids to Mind the Mess

Sometimes it feels like your life is a movie; just when you get one room clean, you turn your back for one split second and when you turn back around, that very same room is a complete pigsty again, like you didn’t just spend an hour cleaning it. And it just so happens that’s the moment your very tidy mother-in-law drops in.

Clutter can be maddening, and well, painful. It can distract us, frustrate us, and even injure us! Someone really understood this quite well, and used it as the driving principle behind the creation the Lego Walk of Fire: Need we say more!

So what’s the problem here? It’s not you or, hopefully, your partner leaving these bits and bobs around, it’s the kids. Culturally, we think this is more or less natural: the strewn glitter and painted macaroni, the robots, a gazillion mismatched puzzle pieces, and the barn animals that have suddenly populated the hallway.

It seems insignificant and unavoidable from the outside, but realistically, mess can interfere. We do our kids a disservice if we simply follow behind them and collect their cast aside toys and clothes. Starting early, we can integrate good habits and build the clean up into the play. If you regularly look around and feel like the house is Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz during the tornado, here are some strategies for getting the whole family on task.

Choose wisely. When it comes to ownership, we want our children to have meaningful and lasting relationships to objects. If we load them down with too much, it can actually make kids anxious. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again: the Simplicity Parenting book by Kim John Payne is an indispensible tool for facilitating a healthy relationship to owning and caring for things. Highly recommended:

Moms and experts say, one activity at a time with time at the end to put everything away. If the children are old enough to play with it, they are old enough to put it back in the box. Preschools often institute a clean up song, and that’s a clear signal that playtime is done and cleaning up is part of the deal.

Everything should have its own place so that setting the thing down and returning it to its spot are one in the same. Automating and forming a routine require less energy on everyone’s part. The earlier we imprint with that concept, the better, and that goes for other kinds of habits too.

Another strategy is to make a game out if it, where you set a time and try to beat the clock. This has the effect of suddenly energizing them. It works! This also shows that with a little concerted effort, it really takes no time at all to pick up and put away.

Reconsider using a reward or allowance as an incentive for cleaning. Actually, the research shows that these results are mixed and often backfire. Why? Because it gives kids the sense that they should always get something in exchange for essentially taking care of their own things. If they are old enough to have a discussion, you might say, “I don’t get paid or get a treat for cleaning either. Because we live here, we all have to do some work.” They may not like it, but they will get it, especially if everyone else is modeling that behavior.

Helping and teamwork are other ways of motivating kids toward responsibility with regard to stuff. Some parents cut a deal with toddlers: “You work for three minutes on picking up, and then I will come and help you.” This shows them they need to put in some independent effort but that they will have help completing the task.

If you still have a trouble when none of those options works, consider implementing a consequence. Some moms and dads will get a clear bin and if the kids steadfastly refuse to put away those toys, they go in the Saturday Box. You guessed it, they are then restricted from using the toy until the following Saturday. Makes sure it’s clear plastic so the toys are visible, and don’t give into begging or negotiating. They will pick it up the next time.

It is manageable. Kids have a remarkable ability to remember, absorb, and respond. Giving good feedback always helps, and as they grow older, they will become more organized and willing. Another thing to remember too: sensitive little minds can really freak out when something gets lost or broken, and cleaning up is a way to show them how to avoid that disappointment. As with most things parenting, simplicity and love are essential ingredients to forming good habits.




About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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