First it’s toys. Next it’s clothes. Then it’s food stuff, crayons, books, junk, and on and on and on. After a long day at work (outside work or home work), are you seriously looking forward to nagging them to clean up every single day of the years that they are under your roof?
Assuming you’re relatively sane (like me) and smart (like me), your answer should be “no”. Well, then help your kids clean up not by doing it for them but by teaching them to pick up after themselves. Tell them that it’s the polite thing to do since you clean up after yourself without being told (be sure you do!) and they should, too!
Always dictate terms when you’re on higher ground. Right before they begin pulling out any toys (or starting a new game or running out to play with friends or beginning a video), sit them down for some simple ground rules:
Make one pile of mess at a time.
If Legos are the selected toy, then there should only be one Lego mess. No new play can begin before the current pile is put away.
Confine the play area.
One side of the couch. In the den only. On the staircase landing. Backyard. Out of the walkway. Definitely no kitchen. Set up the invisible boundary and insist on it for sake of everyone’s safety and sanity.
Build in clean-up time.
This is the hardest for parents because it involves conscientious time-keeping while most of us are embroiled in one task or another and lose track of time ourselves. But do set up a reminder to forewarn the last 10 minutes of play. Then when the timer goes off, set up another to announce the end of play and the beginning of clean-up. Use the timer on your phone, your microwave, the cutesy tomato kitchen timer, whatever that’s handy. Skip this step and you’ll let those little buggers skip away happily without cleaning up, leaving you with the mess!
Follow up with acknowledgement and feedback.
Most of us do not fail to criticize and to correct. That’s when our children tend to hear from us. But more importantly, do not fail to catch them doing good. Follow up by commenting on how well they clean up.
Don’t threaten with inconsequential or illogical punishment.
If they fail to uphold their end of the bargain and do not clean up, don’t say, “If you don’t clean up, then you don’t get to go to Disneyland next month!” Really? Can you really do that? Are you even going to remember that two days from now? Or don’t say, “If you don’t clean up, then mommy doesn’t love you!” Again, illogical and unreasonable. Do say, “If you don’t clean up, you won’t be able to play with your dinosaur play set because there can only be one mess at a time.” Or even this is reasonable: “Clean up or no dessert with us” because it is imminent, pertinent, and highly consequential to them.
In other words, the more immediate and relevant the consequence, the more likely you’ll be able to get your kids to pick up after themselves.
Resist the temptation to clean up after them.
This is as much an endurance exercise to you as it is a character training to them. Resist to do for them what they can do for themselves. Within reason, stick it out and do not compromise until the mess is cleaned up.
Or if the prospect is getting grime and you just can’t them to cooperate, beat a glorious retreat and live to fight another day. Pick your battle wisely. Get everyone to bed and try again the next day but do leave the consequence — the mess from the day before intact and start from step 1, matter-of-factly.
Repeat step 1 to 6 as often as necessary until they have the process down pat.