How Do I Get My Kids to Clean Up?

floorTo some parents, a nightly clean-up ritual is essential. I envy you. I wasn’t the greatest enforcer when it came to making sure my children kept their rooms clean. Looking back, I think I should have made a greater effort at teaching my kids the virtues of order and how tidy surroundings can calm your senses.

It’s not like we never cleaned. We did but not often enough to turn it in to a do or die habit. Too many times I opened the door to my daughters’ playroom, with the intention of cleaning, and having them clean along with me. Then I took a closer look. I saw a perfect little world in there: Barbie and The Beast in a plastic convertible on their way to the park. Belle caring for The Littlest Pet Shop critters, Lego houses lined up perfectly in a row, the three legged cow at the rehab farm, and stuffed animals occupying the doll house. Asking them to clean up would be like asking me (or should I say my husband) to stop painting a wall only to start all over the next day.

A few days could go by. I watched the playroom set-up evolve, and then turn into a mess. That’s when I knew that the process was complete and it was time to clean.

Were I to do it over again, I think I would have been a bit more insistent that my kids clean up each night before bed time. It would have been a nice habit to get in to and to pass on. It would have given us a chance to spend some time talking as we cleaned. It would have minimized the mess and the time it took to clean once or twice a week.

Clean-Up Tips

If clean-up has become a struggle, here are some tips that might help make it easier. (Since I didn’t care all that much, how do I know that these tips work, you ask? The answer is, I used them when caring for other kids and when having what my family called a clean-up party.)

1.   Show the child how to clean. Break up the task into smaller segments by dividing the room into sections or the task into smaller chores. Turn it into a game by setting a timer and see how many toys can be picked up in two minutes, or compete to see who can pick up the most toys before the timer goes off.

2.   Figure out what the best time is to clean up. If your child is too tired to clean before bedtime, maybe he can do it earlier in the evening?

3.    If the task seems overwhelming, divide the toys into school day toys and weekend toys. Let him play with all toys on days when there is more time to clean up. Let’s face it, today’s children have a ton of stuff, and it’s easy to get carried away while playing, not realizing the complete mess that’s left behind.

4.   Some parents also follow the typical school rule of only playing with one item at a time and cleaning up that toy before bringing out the next one.  This works with puzzles and board games, but doesn’t work as well during fantasy play where the story evolves and more stuff is needed to support the play.

 What If Your Child Refuses to Clean Up?

If your child refuses to clean, here are a few ways to deal with it:

1.   If it happens only once in a while, this is a good time to show and teach compassion and either help the child or do it for him. If you have more than one child, you might suggest that siblings help as well. This is a wonderful way for a brother or sister to make a difference and feel helpful. Just make sure it doesn’t become an expected thing or a way out.

2.   The natural consequence of regularly refusing to clean a room might be to have a majority of the toys removed, only to gradually return them as your child realizes that cleaning up is worth it and that you mean business. Don’t think that this is a onetime cure however. Repeat as needed, and don’t return toys until the child shows a pattern of cleaning up.

3.   You could also add cleaning to a list of daily priorities. The list has to be completed before electronic devices are returned for instance.

4.  Another way is for a parent to set a deadline, and if the room has not been cleaned, the child (usually a teen with more freedom) will be charged a substantial cleaning fee. If this happens, the child also runs the risk of losing things he deems to be treasures but you see as trash. Make sure to warn the child ahead of time if you decide to take this approach.

5.  Some parents even take a hands-off approach, where an older child has to live in his own filth until he sees the light. Bless you, oh patient parent. I couldn’t do this.

A clean room might never become a high priority in your child’s life. If it’s a priority to you, make sure you remain consistent.  At the same time, remember that timing is everything. That is, if you knock on your child’s door with the intention to see how he is doing in general, please don’t enter only to start complaining about the mess in there. Ignore the mess, even if it means having to make a pathway to get to, and sit down on his bed. Instead, discuss the messy room at a different time, in a different (neutral) place. By doing this, you show your child that your relationship comes before a clean room. There is a time to parent and a time to just let your child know you’re happy to see him.