Tired of picking up toys and items at the end of the day? Here’s how to get kids to clean up after themselves without nagging or yelling.
It’s the dreaded scene at the end of a long day.
You’d just finished bathing the kids, getting them into their pajamas, and tucking them into bed for the night. But as soon as you’re ready to relax, you see the clutter of toys across the floor.
Instead of reading a book or watching a movie, you’re bent over picking up toys and putting them back where they belong. Sure, doing it yourself is quicker, but done long enough, and you get tired of picking up the mess they made.
And if the fatigue of cleaning up after them doesn’t convince you, think of the values and lessons they don’t get to learn.
Cleaning up teaches contribution, a sense of belonging, and the importance of responsibilities. They also learn how to clean and maintain a neat home and to value and care for their items.
How to get kids to clean up after themselves
If you’re here, I’m sure you’re more than ready to finally hand over the responsibilities of cleaning up to your kids. The question is: How?
What if they’re new to cleaning up, or resist these new responsibilities? Are they too old to learn new habits after years of having you pick up after them? And how do you get them to clean up after themselves without constant reminders and power struggles?
I’ve got you covered, friend.
After three kids and my patience waning every night, I finally decided that I was doing ourselves more of a disservice by cleaning up after them. Instead, I instilled new rules and expectations, all while making it fun (or at least without the resistance).
And I’m still adding and modifying our clean up rules, so it’s never too late to implement new ones, either. Below, learn how to get kids to clean up after themselves once and for all:
1. Make clean up part of your routine
One of the best ways to avoid nagging and whining is to integrate clean up time into your routine.
For instance, I let the kids watch 30 minutes of television a night, but before they do, we reserve a quick five-minute clean up. They don’t get to start until the floor is free of any toys, their beds are made, and their rooms are tidy.
You might have your kids pick their toys up before nap time, toss their socks and dirty clothes into the hamper before baths, or put their dishes in the sink after meals. Toddlers and younger kids might not be able to “clean” as well as you, but it gets them into a routine and lets them know what to expect.
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2. Have designated spots
Make clean up time much easier by having designated spots for toys and items. Your child should be able to see a toy on the floor and know exactly where to put it.
Without permanent places to store toys, telling her to “put this back” only delays the whole process and makes it unfair for her to know what to do.
But when toys have a regular “home,” she’ll need fewer reminders of where to put them. She’ll know that the toy cars go on the shelves, the balls in the yellow box, and the stuffed animals in the toy bin.
3. Offer to help
If your kids are only now learning to clean up after themselves, offer to help and guide them along the way.
Give directions if you see them looking around (“That goes in the box under your bed”). Point them to items they missed so they can find them easier. And pitch in as well, from helping them put the hundreds of dominoes away to returning toys in harder-to-reach places.
Teaching kids to clean up after themselves doesn’t mean they’re left to do everything on their own or figure it out themselves. You’re helping instill the values of collaboration and family contribution—everyone pitches in to clean up.
4. Don’t do it for them
The best way to teach your kids to clean up after themselves? Don’t do it for them.
Think about the message you’ve been sending: Even though you tell them to clean up, they know you’ll still do it for them.
As important as it is to pitch in and guide your kids, don’t do everything for them. Instead, have them do it, or at least do it with them.
How can you tell when you should pitch in and when to back off? Ask yourself whether they can do this task themselves, even if it means stretching their abilities a little bit. For instance, if my kids give me the snack package to throw away, I don’t take it because I know they can walk to the trash themselves.
They might believe they can’t do something because they’ve never done so, but give them a few chances to try. If you child can’t open a milk carton, give him at least three tries before doing it for him. He’ll feel so proud when he realizes he actually can—and he won’t need to ask you to do it again.
And if he can’t do it even after a few tries, do just enough for him to complete the task. Maybe that means you open the milk carton a little so he can open the rest. Always do the bare minimum to help him instead of doing everything yourself.
Yes, this takes more time in the beginning as they learn, but they’ll quickly realize that they’re capable and can do this on their own in the future.
5. Clean up throughout the day
Cleaning up at the end of the day—when you have less energy—would be much easier if you do it throughout the day.
Have your kids put away their current items before they move onto a new activity. For instance, have them put away the blocks before moving onto books. They should clear the colored pencils and paper from the dining table so you can eat dinner.
Maybe they have to pick up the mess in one room before leaving it to go to another one. Or you can also have them put one toy away before pulling another one out. These habits will make the end-of-the-day clean up finale less arduous and more doable.
6. Explain the importance of cleaning up
Kids respond well when you explain why they need to do something, including cleaning up. Instead of seeing clean up time as a dreaded task, explain the many benefits they get.
For instance, they’re less likely to lose or break beloved toys and items when everything is in order. They’ll have more time to spend together with you, or doing an activity they enjoy. They’re also “big kids” now who have the privilege of taking care of their own items.
By learning the reasons, they understand that it’s not just you telling them what to do so much as doing something for a greater good.
7. Model the same habits
Make clean up a family affair, rather than a task designated only for kids, especially by modeling it yourself.
Modeling is one of the best ways to teach your kids how to behave. Make sure you are also keeping the home tidy, taking care of your belongings, and cleaning up as you go along. They’ll learn more from following your habits than empty words you don’t follow yourself.
And do so with a positive disposition. Don’t grumble about having to make your bed—do it with gratitude and discipline. Treating chores as another hassle will translate right down to them.
8. Purge or store old toys
Is your home overflowing with toys to clean up? Prevent messy piles to begin with by getting rid of or storing everything you don’t need or use.
This forces you to dig deep and ask yourself whether these items are bringing you joy. If you think they’ll still use it in the future, store and rotate it with the toys that are currently out.
With fewer toys, clean-up will only take a few minutes a night instead of keeping up throughout the day. Your kids will also play more intentionally with fewer options than they would with a pile of available toys.
The goal with these tips isn’t to keep the entire house pristine or to implement a rigid routine. You’re teaching kids responsibility and holding them accountable so they grow up doing so on their own. Their independence will be useful habits they’ll practice all their lives.
Start by making clean up time part of your routine, having designated spots to make it easier and quicker. Offer to help and guide them as they clean, but don’t do everything for them, either. Explain the importance of cleaning up, and do so throughout the day instead of all at one time.
Model the same habits yourself so they follow suit, and finally, purge or at least store old toys for easier clean up.
In the beginning, getting them to clean up will likely take an enormous amount of time. But they’ll learn quickly, and once they do, you can finally relax at the end of the day with a good book or a movie to watch.
Get more tips:
- What to Do when Your Kids Refuse to Do Chores
- 3 Lessons Every Mom Raising Boys Needs to Teach
- How to Run Errands with Kids (And Not Go Crazy)
- Genius Ways to Make Bedtime Easier
- What to Do when Your Child Disrespects You
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