The truth is, children are terrific at making messes, and not very good about cleaning them up. They live from one moment to the next; as soon as they tire of one activity, they’re off and running toward something else. While you may find the visual chaos your daughter leaves behind to be terribly unsettling, she is probably not bothered by it at all. Why waste time tidying up when there’s another game to be enjoyed — especially if a grownup will do it for you if you resist long enough?
Here are eight things you can do to help kids take responsibility for their messes:
1. Start by resetting the rules. Explain to your kids that you’ve made some new decisions about cleaning up, and you want to share them so that everyone knows what to expect. “When you’re finished playing with something, it’s important that you put it away completely before you move on to something else. If you forget, I’ll remind you once. If you still forget, that particular toy will go in a special box for a month.” Some parents tell their children that toys that are left out will be given away. Decide how harsh you want to be — but make sure that you follow through. If you deliver meaningless threats in the heat of the moment, your child won’t take you seriously.
2. Establish that no new toys can be taken out until whatever has been played with has been put away. Kindly remind your daughter if she forgets. And by all means, do not clean up her messes. If you cave in and do the job for her, you will have taught her that if she whines or procrastinates long enough, she won’t have to take responsibility. Acknowledge that you understand that she’d rather not put away her paints, or that it looks like it will take forever. By letting her feel heard and understood, you’ll ensure that her upset will dissolve more quickly — and help her accept that she simply has to get the job done.
3. Avoid turning on “Mom/Dad TV,” a phrase I use to describe the heightened reactivity, attention and drama that can actually contribute to further misbehavior by turning on an interesting “show” that fuels their resistance.
4. Whenever possible, make cleanup fun. Most children are much more willing to participate in a game of “Who can clean up the most toys before the three minute timer goes off?” instead of simply saying, “Clean up this mess right now!”
5. Add energizing music to the mix. “Can you put all the blocks away before this song is over?” Again, by injecting a little fun and silliness into the cleanup routine, you’ll help your children overcome their resistance to dive into what might otherwise appear to be a boring task.
6. Model a cheerful attitude when you’re tidying up around the house. If your kids routinely hear you griping and complaining as you load the dishes into the dishwasher or sweep the floor, they will naturally think of cleaning up as a dreary activity to be avoided at all costs.
7. Avoid beginning a request with, “I need you to….” Speak with confidence, and don’t end with, “Okay?”, as in, “I need you to clean up your Legos now, okay?” The less you come across as anxious or needy, the less likely you’ll be to create a power struggle.
8. Break a big job down into bite-sized steps. Help your children work in manageable increments if they have a lot to clean up. “Start by putting away anything with red on it … or anything made of plastic … or whatever is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.” This will help them learn that, little by little, they can get a big job done — whether it’s cleaning up a physical mess, working on a complex report or organizing a research project.
Keep in mind one of my favorite ideas: We’re not raising children; we’re raising adults. While it may be easier in the short term to just clean up after your daughter, it’s very important that she develop the sense of responsibility that comes from knowing she can sort out her own messes. A child who is deprived of opportunities to do life’s mundane, unpleasant tasks grows up with diminished self-esteem and confidence, whereas one who has discovered that she can successfully tackle a difficult job — or a big mess — will bring the confidence she gains through that experience into her adult life.