Saturday, 7 March 2015

How to Teach Your Child to Clean Up After Themselves

The Mother of all Messes

The mother of all messes happened at my parent's house over the Christmas Holiday.  

Huge Mess, board game mess, kid mess, ultimate mess, pile of board games

To give you a little background information, my youngest son, Alex is the ultimate mess maker.  From the youngest age, he would pull everything out of a cupboard, then while I cleaned that up, he would do the same somewhere else in the house.  It was a never ending cycle.  He especially loves to take all of the toys out of every organized bin that I have in the playroom and make a huge pile.  I thought that that was the worst mess ever, but you just wait.

THE MOTHER OF ALL MESSES was one for the books.  Now, as I'm sure you all know, our little mess makers do their best damage when we aren't paying attention.  It's a total free for all.  So, I'm sure you can imagine just how much attention we were paying when visiting my parents, brother and his wife, sister and her boyfriend, all of whom I haven't seen in awhile.  We had a great holiday supper with wine and beer, toured the beautiful addition and renovations that my parents had just completed, and it was memorable.

Now, when I was a kid, we used to love playing in the crawlspace.  We were the perfect height and it felt like a wondrous fort.  I love letting my kids play under there so that they can share in my childhood memories.

What I completely forgot about, is that my parents store over 20 board games on a shelving unit in the crawlspace.  There are games like Monopoly, a few finance board games with similar looking money, Bingo with a ton of extra chips (I'm not sure why), Clue, Scattergories, Pit (the old school one with oats and barley; the new one has coffee and sugar amongst other commodities), and many other games requiring a billion question cards that you pick out of a box.

I'm sure you can guess what happened?  But I'm sure you won't guess to what extent.

It was a disaster.  The funny part was that my sister went down there earlier and saw the mess, but decided not to tell anyone so she wouldn't get stuck cleaning it up.  It wouldn't have been so bad if cards were taken out as a group and still relatively close to each other, but not my child.  He wouldn't do that.  He took his time on this enormous task.  He made sure that absolutely every card and piece of money was taken out of every box and mixed at random with all the parts of each and every other game.  He made sure to separate the lids, bottoms, and dividers of boxes.  This obviously took careful planning.

Needless to say, we were not impressed.  I was, however, impressed with our ability to stay calm.  I think that I was so impressed with the large scale of this mess and the stealth that it took to accomplish such a task without getting caught, that I forgot to be angry.

Normally, I would say that the child would have the natural consequence of cleaning up their mess, but there was no way that he would be able to sort out this mess at 4 years old.  So, this is what we did.  My husband and I brought him downstairs, showed him the mess, and asked if he did it.  He did.  We talked about how this is NOT ok and that if he wants to play with a game, he can take one out at a time, clean it up, then get a new one.  Since we couldn't expect him to clean this up, we had him sit in a chair and watch us clean it up.  We wanted him to understand what was involved in cleaning up this mess.  I think it must have taken us close to 2 hours.  Our backs were definitely sore after that.  I was amazed that he didn't complain about sitting in the chair.  He must have known that this act was on a whole new level of breaking the rules and our calm facade might break at any moment.


When our children are young, we often have the tendency to assume that they are not capable of cleaning up their messes.  We make excuses like, they're too young, they don't understand, when really it's more likely that we're simply too tired to teach them how to do it.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  If they can make the mess, they can clean the mess.

Yes, it will take extra work to sit with your child and teach them where things go and what your expectations are, but a bit of extra work now, will save you a huge headache of messes later.  

It's a good idea to take the age of your child into account when teaching them to clean up their messes.  You might literally have to take their hand and pick up the toy with them, then move their hand to where the toy goes.  Once, they figure that out, you can put some things away, while they do the same.  As long as your child is involved in the process and you are not doing it on your own, that is what matters.  It ensures that they are accountable for their actions.  If all your child does is make messes and you always clean them up, you are teaching them that they are not responsible for cleaning up after themselves.  Once they realize that they have to clean up their messes, they will eventually clue in to the fact that the less mess they make, the less work they will have to do afterwards.


If you are ready to actively work on the mess issue, try setting a play timer.  If you know that your child's attention span for playing with one item before they move onto the next item is 10 minutes, then set a timer for 10 minutes, ask them if they would like to continue playing with that item, and if they are done, show them how to clean it up before they move onto the next toy.

You can also set a timer for playtime to ensure that your child has enough time to clean up before you move onto another activity (supper, extracurricular activities, etc.).  If you have to leave the house in 30 minutes for karate, then set the play timer for 10 minutes, then set a 10 minute timer for cleanup, and a 10 minute timer for getting their coats and boots on.  Visual timers are great for kids because it allows them to anticipate how much time they have left.

As your child gets used to cleaning up after themselves, your life will become easier and easier.   You won't have to actively show them how to clean up anymore, they will already know how.


Your child doesn't need a ton of toys to play with, but they probably have a pile of toys acquired from Christmas, birthdays, visiting relatives, and more.  I honestly buy my kids 1 item on their birthday because they get so many things from everyone else that I simply don't need to buy them anything.

So, here is how the bin method works.  Choose a few items that your child is interested in playing with this week.  They can stay in the toy box.  Everything else gets stored away in bins.  Every weekend, you can switch up the toys with something from one of the other bins.  Your child will be super excited to see what new toys they get every week and you won't have a huge pile of toys always waiting to be cleaned up.

I have a friend who has a cupboard of labeled bins and that works great for her kids.  They take the bin they want to play with and when they are done, they put it back.  Keep in mind though, that every child is different.  That would never work for my youngest.  I would literally have to keep that closet locked.


The best way to stay organized, is to have less stuff.  

Before every holiday, we try to go through our toys and get rid of things that the kids have outgrown.  My kids choose what items they would like to send off to a new home.  They understand that their toys would make another child super happy and that if they want new things, they have to make room for them.

I ask them questions such as:
  • When was the last time you played with this?
  • Do you have another toy that's similar to this?
  • Do you really need this?
  • Who do you think would really like this toy?

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