Getting Kids to Clean Up Their Messes

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Getting kids to pick up toys

April 2006

Hi, I am not a parent but I work with parents and would love to get some tips on how to get young children (ages 3-7) to put their toys away. At what age can parents expect their children to help with picking up toys? It seems like this can be such a struggle to get some children to do this. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. Much to learn

My boys (aged 5 and 2) know that if Mommy or Daddy does all the picking up, then the toy(s) becomes ours- at least for awhile. I usually start by making a big deal about how excited I am that I am going to be getting a (name of toy) because no boys are helping put it away. If some boys don't move quickly, the toy will be mine. My boys usually come running. The key to this working is to follow through and take away toys that they do not help put away. By the way, I have only ever had to take one or two toys away.

Having said that, I have not figured out how to get them to pick up everything themselves, or even better to take the initiative to start clean-up themselves. Mom who likes a neat house

Our daughter is 2-3/4 and she picks up her toys sometimes. We are working on it. We are most successful when we use specific language and ask her to do a limited task. For example, it would never work to say, ''Please clean up your toys,'' but I can ask, ''Let's pick up your blocks before we start coloring,'' or ''Please put away your [list one thing at a time].'' We also have a reward system where she gets a prize from a prize bag (filled with silly knicknacks) when she earns a certain number of stickers for good behavior or helpfulness. She is very motivated by the prize bag! Anon
I try to make it part of his routine. usually at the end of the day before bathtime. I also usually pick a class of thing for himto pick up and one for me so we can work together I give a choice - do you want to pick up the toys or the blocks. At first we made it fun by making a sound whenever a toy went into the box, When my son went to preschool he leared a simple clean up song that we all sing now. if he's resistant I tell him if he doesn't want to clean up his blocks (or whatever) they may not be available to playwith the next day - so far I've only had to carry through that threat once so far and I the bag of blocks up out of reach but in sight so he'd miss it and remember the lesson I took it down after he asked for it and we talked about cleaning them up when we're finished. I would put stuff up for a whole day if it becomes more of an issue, but not more than that.

we also have a bunch of books and I try to get him to put one away before I'll read him another. they often end up all over the floor anyway so we try to do the big cleanup of them sometimes

He's only 2.5 yrs so I don't expect perfection, and at this point it's really easier to clean stuff up myslef but I think developing the habits now will save me a lot of grief and bother later. progress not perfection

Some things that work for me (and both my 2 and 3.5 y. olds pick up their toys):
- Try to make the chore the most fun possible: use a song or say/do silly things while putting toys away.
- I get a lot more cooperation if I join my children in the effort.
- If things are not progressing nicely, then I set consequences: ''we won't go to the park until we are finished picking up the toys,'' or ''you can't play with anything else until you've put those toys away...''
Good luck, EP
Here are some tips. You could make it a competition-- who can clean up their part faster and better. You should have very clear places where toys get put away. You can make cleaning up toys routine-- what you always do before lunch, or bed, or whatever. You can clean up WITH the kids-- I find that this even works with teenagers, say with making beds or putting laundry away. Almost any chore is easier with company, and seems more of a cooperative activity than like following orders. not a tidy freak
As long as my daughter has been able to pick up toys by herself, I have been asking her to put them away. The rule in our house is that if she wants to get something else out, she has to put something away first--so we never have more than two or three things out at a time. This helps keep her focused, while teaching her responsibility, and helps me keep my house from looking like a cyclone hit it. My personal opinion is that kids that don't pick up after themselves don't do it because they know someone else will. anon

4-year-old friend doesn't help clean up after playdate

August 2005

I am just wondering if I can expect a four year old to clean up toys before leaving from a play date with my son who is also four years old. The mother doesn't tell him to clean up and I usually just clean it up with my son after the play date leaves. My son is wondering why the other child doesn't need to clean up after playing. This is of course hard to explain to him. When we visit his friend I always tell him to clean up but the mother usually sais she will do it. The room is usually a mess before we even get there and we don't even know where everything goes. I am just trying to teach my son certain manners. How do I explain, that other kid don't have to do certain things. Yesterday I told his mother that our children at 4 years old are able to clean up their messes. She just told me that she just can't make him do it. I didn't know what to say to that. Actually, I would have known what to say but I would have sounded like a know it all. What's the right thing to do ? anon

I think there are 2 issues here. One is how to get guests to follow your house rules. I would suggest saying at some point ''Now it's time to clean up''. Kids will be more likely to do something at their friend's house that they resist doing at home, so even if the child is not used to cleaning up at home, s/he will probably go along with it. The second issue is how to explain to your child that he has to do something his friend does not have to. I still get from my teenage daughter that it is different with so and so and I should be more like her friend's mom. I always say that I am the mother of only 2 children and I am not responsible for any one else's kids. Parents think differently and raise their children in different ways. My kids have to follow my rules and then I explain why and also why I think the other family's rules are not good for them. This has always been sufficient for them to understand.
why not just make part of the play date the ''cleanup'' session and don't worry about what the other mom says? The kid will get it that this is part of playing, if you make it part of playing. You don't even have to mention it to the other mom. that will also make it easier to explain to your kid--the playdate kid is still learning how to clean up after himself.
I'm not sure what to do about the uncooperative mother, but when my 4yo has a playdate, I simply announce cleanup time when it's nearly time for the other child to leave (or, if I'm arriving at someone else's house, when I get there). Usually the other parent joins in. I think that if both you and your own son started putting things away a few minutes before the other child is due to be picked up, the other child would join in. And perhaps his mother would learn by your example. ;-) When your son is at the other child's house, I would simply ask him what he's been playing with and prompt him to ask the other child or mother where those toys go. If the mom says to leave it, then say thanks and leave it.

As with all such things, it's easy enough for kids to understand that there are different rules in different homes. Holly

I'm wondering if you will get lots of responses from people like the friend's mom who avoid setting standards as you have for your children. Seems like there are a lot of moms out there that don't want to either take the time, or deal with possible conflict with their kids or I don't know what. If it makes you feel better, I have also encountered this situation more than once.

I would approach it with the mom in a low-key way when you make the next date to play that you will be explaining to her son that at the end of the playdate, the two kids will need to clean up the toys. When he comes over, you can just say matter-of-factly something like, ''OK Johnny, you and Tommy have fun, and remember, you'll both need to clean up the toys before you go. That's how we play here at our house.'' I know how it feels to want to avoid that ''know-it-all'' situation, but at the same time, you need to be consistent for your son. In you house, his friends should follow the house rules. If their mothers are put off by your honesty, there isn't much you can do about it.

Good Luck. Liz

We have had this problem with both of our kids. The problem I had with leaving the mess until after the friend went home is that my kids would totally melt down at being left with a huge mess to clean up. I would help, but they always felt like they were being punished. They have a few particularly messy friends, and when they are over, I tell them to start cleaning up about 15 minutes before the playdate is over. I let them know nicely during the playdate that I will be alerting them to clean up time in X amount of time. It usually works pretty well that way. And even if they don't get it all cleaned up, they get the bulk of it done. And it sets it up as a routine when they visit our house.

As for the mess at their house, just ask your son what toys he played with and ask him to put those away. If the mom says not to worry about it, just say that it is important to you that your son contribute to the clean up and it is a family rule. That way, you are consistent with your son and the friend. The mom can do whatever she wants with the toys, but your messge to the kids is clear. anon

I would start w/ trying to handle this by letting BOTH kids know, 10 minutes before departure time, that it's ''clean up'' time & then go up to the BR or LR to clean with them. If necessary, you can explain to the other mom that you are trying to get ''your'' child in the habit of cleaning his own toys. I've been there and done this. susan
I think it's okay for you to set the rules in your own house. Do whatever works for you...maybe ask the child to clean up, and if he won't, tell him that you will give him one toy at a time. When he's done, he can bring it to you and trade for a different one. Or play in the yard. Or set a timer for 4 minutes at the end of the playdate and challenge the kids to clean up with you as fast as they can. Whatever makes it okay for you and your son. It really is okay to ask guests to live up to the standards your son does. Like it clean
We play a game with my child's friends called 'beat the clock'. I set an egg timer for 5 minutes and see which kid can put away the most toys. It works really well and, best of all, the kids have fun. You didn't mention whether the other mom stays the whole time so it might be awkward to do this in front of her. - RK
Hi Tidy Mom, I'm like the other mom who doesn't make the children pick up toys after the playdate. My child's room is always messy, as is most of the rest of the house! We're just a messy family! (I guess my momma did not raise me right!) Anyway, you're entitled to have your own rules at your house, and vice versa. I would not be at all averse to waiting a few minutes while my child helps pick up after playing at your house. Who knows, maybe it will make a good impression on me and I'll start doing the same! But in the meantime, I think when you come to my house to pick your child up, you should not have the expectation that we have the same rules at our house that you have at yours. If I say I'll pick up later myself, then that's that. (Actually I probably won't pick them up, and they will still be there when you come over next time. But that's just the way we do things at our house.) Don't worry - kids learn early on about different rules at different kids' houses. Messy Mom

3.5 year old not cleaning up toys

August 2005

Our 3 1/2 year old is going through a phase where it's been nearly impossible to get her to consistently clean up her toys. Sometimes she will completely willingly, sometimes she will if we help (which we don't have a problem with), and sometimes she won't do a thing.

We've tried reasoning with her, explaining why they have to be put away. We've tried taking away toys that she won't pick up, but she doesn't seem to care (plus one of us doesn't like that approach to begin with).

Most of the suggestions in the archives are variations on ''take the toys away.'' Does anyone have any thoughts on (a) what to do if that doesn't work or (b) how to make it work and make it more palatable to the parent?

Tired of the mess

My advice for teaching a 3.5 year old is model the behavior you want them to learn and have faith that they will follow. I begin the clean up and sing a ''clean up song'' that I made up and usually my son joins in. Check out ''You are your Child's First Teacher'' by Rahima Baldwin. I think it's really inspirational and reminds me that repetition really pays off and that our children really do change and grow. mother of 5yr old boy
What helps me a lot is a kitchen timer. I set the timer for five to ten minutes, depending upon the level of mess, and then we race together to clean the room. Then I give lots of kudos when we beat the timer. Also, I give directions like, ''OK - clean up the blocks first.'' Kids can get overwhelmed, so by breaking it down for them and giving them a short, non-overwhelming amount of time really helps. Helena

How to get 8-year-old to clean his room?

Feb 2002

Does anyone have a method to getting kids to keep their rooms clean? I have tried chore lists, helping out myself, buying organizers, downsizing the number of toys, and nothing seems to be working. My son's room is a nightmare.

I must admit, however, that I tend to be more on the side of a neat freak so am trying really hard not to install my own standards on him, but its driving me crazy. So often he can't find things he wants to play with and when I explain to him that is why he needs to put things back where they belong, etc. he just gets completely overwhelmed by the thought of cleaning everything up. I have even tried clean a little each day, and nothing sticks for more than a day or two. My son is 8 years old. Thanks for any offered advice!

I started this with my son when he was much younger than 8, so I don't know how it will work for you... I would put on music and we would clean together, initially we would clean his room together, then over time he would clean his room, while I was cleaning somewhere else (with music on). I took the job aspect out of it and made it a fun thing to do. Eventually I graduated him to having to clean up on his own by noon on Saturday and connecting it to his allowance along with a few other chores. As he got older, he started to have music lessons, where the teacher came to our home, specifically his room, so he would have to clean up by the time his teacher made his weekly visit. That ended about a year ago when we stopped the music lessons. Now that he's almost 17, he has only once in the last year cleaned his room of his own volition, I have asked him a few times, but for the most part his room looks like the room of someone who has no concept of what clean is I'm hoping that this is retained somewhere in his brain. (He has always played the music while cleaning though!) anonymous
I have been told numerous times to choose my battles carefully. I gave up on the room issue. My only rule is, if the house and your room are a mess, you can't have your friends over. It didn't work at first as my son's friends all had messy rooms as well. However, when he wanted to bring girl friends over, that was a different story. email
I had much the same struggle with both my step-children when they were that age. In the end, I insisted that each spend 5 minutes before going to bed each night putting things away. Schoolbooks went back into backpacks, clothes went into hampers, toys went into stacked crates, books went into bookshelves. While their rooms didn't always look exactly as neat as I would want, spending a little time each day meant that there was never such a massive accumulation that tackling it seemed too daunting. Now, at 12 and 15, one is very, very neat, and the other is still sloppy, but sticks to the 5-minute rule (the 15 year old). Good luck. Jane
I can tell you what worked for me when I was that age. I had three basic chores that I had to complete each week, (which included cleaning my room). Once these were done I could begin to earn extra allowance by doing other odd jobs around the house. The catch is that my basic chores had to be done first. I hated cleaning my room, but I was very motivated to earn some extra allowance. Hope this is helpful... Shoshana
You say that your son is reluctant because it's such a big job. Perhaps you could do a giant cleaning together, get rid of some of the stuff he doesn't want any more? Then you can require him to do the basics and help him when you want more than that. We've had pretty good luck with that method, though our son still has several boxes that are getting dusty but the games are too precious to get rid of. Avi
Your query contained your answer. Sit down and negotiate a win-win situation with your son. Explain to him that you want to work together to solve your mutual problem. Use 'I' sentences. i.e., I don't like to have to nag you about keeping your room clean. Or, I'm feeling frustrated that we can't seem to work this out. I'd like us to brainstorm together, to see if we can come up with a plan that would make us both feel good.

When brainstorming, let all ideas flow, even the ones that you know won't work for you. Make it fun, come up with some wacky ideas yourself. Then from all the possibilities, agree on a plan. This method of negotiation with kids works GREAT! Kids feel empowered, listened to, and feel valuable as a family member. When you use this method for all family things, your kid learns negotiation skills that he then can use with friends, and later other adults, like co-workers and spouses.

We did this for our bed time routine for my 9 year old son and the change has been nothing short of miraculous. No more crying or whining. I found a responsible kid! I learned this technique from a parenting class and boy do I wish that I had known and taken this approach from the beginning. Helene

Five-year-olds won't pick up!

July 2000

Our twins are almost five and they love to build forts, grocery stores, puppet theatres, etc. using furniture, their bedding, the plastic tubs we bought them for keeping their toys in on those wooden shelves (the toys, of course, are just dumped out on the floor). The problem is that when it's clean-up time, our daughter refuses to join in (our son does). We've tried cajoling (you pick up the red blocks, I'll do the blue ones); explaining (the living room is so much nicer when it isn't cluttered); counting (I'm going to count to three);threatening (if you don't start cleaning up right now these toys are going back to Goodwill); and punishing (you stay in your room while we clean up), and being on a regular clean-up schedule (just before bed).

We've tried putting some of their toys away, and rotating those available (the problem is that they mostly don't play with toys, but with furniture, canned goods, etc.). So far, nothing seems to work; we end up yelling, and I hate that (and besides, our son didn't do anything wrong). Our daughter just seems to think that cleaning should be done by the staff. What routines/rituals do other families do? Does anyone have any suggestions? Brian

I tell my kids (9 and 5...especially the 5 year old) if they don't clean up the toys are going to be given to children who don't have toys who would be happy to clean up after playing. I always remember to use this line so they don't always believe me but a few times I've started putting the toys in a bag and it's scared them enough. Now they pretty much clean up when they're asked. June
Rudolph Dreikurs (author of Children the Challenge) suggests the following: Tell the kids what you expect them to do in the way of cleaning up. If things don't get cleaned up, put the things in a big box and don't give them back for a week. He has other strategies in his book but this seems to me to be the least work for the parentsand removes you from the situation emotionally. Fran
We're still struggling with this, too. Our daughter is 3 1/2. Fortunately, she seems to get good support for it at school, which helps. They have a TON of toys there, but everything is always cleaned up and organized before circle, before lunch, before nap, before snack, and before the end of the day. From what I see there, and what I have read, the key is CONSISTENCY. Like us, you seem to have tried everything. And like us, I think the biggest problem is probably not having stuck with ONE approach long enough. We do find that if we can establish a regular routine, and make it a regular part of life, that eventually, she will come around and accept it.

All the books I have read, and the TV shows on parenting that I've seen, all indicate that to keep a kid from whining, and to get them to do chores like this, you need to do several things

1) Paradoxically, give them MORE responsibility, not less. If they see that their contribution to the family is necessary, they will feel like they are contributing. The more they feel like they are contributing, the better they will feel about themselves. This leads to positive self-image, and the DESIRE to help out.

2) Set clear limits and boundaries that MAKE SENSE. Arbritrary rules won't help. But if you value a clean house, then make that a clear boundary. You must be willing to follow through on these boundaries YOURSELF, as well (this is one of OUR challenges!)--If you make him clean up his room, but your room is messy, he will resent it, and the message will be lost.

3) Set consequences that you are willing to follow through on. If you threaten to get rid of the toys, then the toys must disappear if they are not picked up. If you don't follow through, you will send the message that you don't mean what you say, and your child will learn to ignore you. This is crucial.

4) Be consistent. Decide on a course of action and stick with it. Don't switch horses in midstream, as they say. According to most behavior modification programs I've read, humans need to do something for about 30 days before it will become set as a new habit. (I don't know if this is true for kids, however.) In my experience, though, we don't see results if we don't stick with something for AT LEAST a week, usually two or more. Keep at it even if it doesn't look like it's working at first. Good luck! Dawn

We have a four-year-old and two-year-old twins, so clean up is definately an issue. One thing that tends to work for us is connecting the major clean up (which they help with once or sometimes twice a day) with the next thing they really want to do i.e. it has to be done before dessert (when we have dessert) or an eveing video or a nighttime bike ride or walk. Sometimes we hear excuses I'm too tired to clean up, pick up my arms etc., and then we push all the trains, blocks, whatever over to the complainer with the basket they belong in and have them do the clean up without having to move much. Of course, this same person will jump up and don helmet as soon as cleanup is over for the nighttime bike ride. We are sure that a key to clean up is consistency, which of course we don't always practice! Good luck. Melissa