When I was four years old, I was sent to my playroom to clean it up.
It wasn’t an unreasonable request. But the playroom was a disaster zone.
I knew that if I didn’t clean it, I would get in trouble. Big trouble. The worst kind. I was scared. But even with the motivation of a looming punishment, I couldn’t get that darn playroom cleaned.
And it had nothing to do with disobedience.
Have you ever had a pile of dishes in your sink, or a mountain of laundry to deal with? Has your home ever been just a total wreck? To the point where you know you have to clean it up, but it’s just…so much.
You stand there, immobilized. It’s not just the dread–it’s also that you don’t even know where to start! And you become paralyzed with overwhelm.
I know this happens to adults, because it happens to me at nearly 30 years old.
But I have the benefit of an extra 26 years of life experience under my belt. I have learned strategies to tackle big cleaning projects. And–perhaps more importantly–I’ve learned the skills necessary to keep my mess from becoming overwhelming to begin with.
But I did not have those strategies or skills at four years old.
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The other day, a mom in one of my groups asked how to get her 5 year old to clean her bedroom. She was at her wits end, tired of the mess, tired of her kid breaking things, and her daughter just couldn’t clean anything to save her life–no matter how much this mom begged and pleaded or got angry.
Many of the replies were what I figured I’d see:
Fortunately, these weren’t the only replies. A few other moms commented in ways that raised some very important questions:
• Was her daughter feeling overwhelmed?
• Does her daughter need all the things in her room?
• Does her 5 year old even really understand why this mess is a problem?
• Is it reasonable to expect a 5 year old to have the maturity to clean something that disastrous by herself? In other words, does having the ability to make a mess give you all the tools you need to remedy it?
• What should we ultimately be trying to teach our littles about cleaning and organization and helping?
Taking a gentle approach to helping a child clean isn’t about making excuses for the child. It isn’t an argument in favor of mom doing all the cleaning for her kid. It isn’t a lack of discipline.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
The truth is, you can firmly enforce this boundary–that the room must be cleaned–without resorting to yelling and screaming, hitting, threat-making, breaking toys, or going on a black-trash-bag rampage.
The goal here isn’t just a clean playroom or bedroom. It’s to teach.
What does yelling and dumping toys in the trash teach? Not much.
Instead, it grows resentment, makes cleaning something that is anxiety-ridden and dreadful, and models aggressive behaviors most parents don’t want to see their child mimic.
It doesn’t teach organization skills. It doesn’t teach how to decide if a possession is worth keeping. It doesn’t teach how to avoid the mess in the first place.
At the end of the day, this mom had a choice to make. Today might only be remembered by her daughter as “the one when mom went ballistic and threw away all my toys.” Or it could be remembered for other reasons.
When I was four and was sent to my playroom to do the impossible (clean it), I did what most rational four year olds faced with impending punishment would do in that situation: I started sobbing.
A few minutes later, my mom opened to door, looked at me, and quietly said, “Let me help you with this.”
She doesn’t remember it, but I remember it even 26 years later.
I remember thinking “Oh praise God, thank you. I have no idea what I’m doing here.”
My mom did wind up doing a lot of the cleaning that day, but that wasn’t a failure on her part. She wasn’t letting me “get away with” anything. She did something way more powerful than that.
She modeled compassion.
As she climbed my Mt. Everest of toys, she modeled perseverance.
She modeled sorting and gave me chances to practice.
And she turned what could have been a memory stained with fear and resentment into a positive experience.
Got little kids who can’t clean up after themselves? Here are three common strategies to AVOID when you’re teaching a little kid to clean up:
1. Don’t yell, scream, or go on a rampage.
Believe it or not, most people don’t respond positively to this. It doesn’t model behaviors you’d like to see in your children, and most importantly: It doesn’t teach any valuable skills.
2. Don’t make threats.
They aren’t necessary. And they often aren’t enough to prompt your kids to act anyway, especially if they don’t believe you’ll follow through.
And if they do believe you’ll follow through? Then they’re acting out of fear.
To many parents, this doesn’t matter. But it should. Fear is only motivating as long as the proposed consequence is scary. But human beings–especially little ones–don’t like to be scared. Fear erodes a child’s security in your relationship, and that connection is your most powerful tool for long-term influence over your child and his or her behavior.
As kids get older, your consequences will always eventually stop being so scary. And when that happens, what leverage will you have left?
3. Don’t waste time with sticker charts.
Positive reinforcement can be powerful, true. And it seems like a gentler approach. But it can also be problematic.
If a child stops finding the reward valuable, the reward loses its ability to motivate. Eventually, stickers and prize boxes will only get you so far. And in the meantime, these rewards teach children that the reason they should behave is because they will be rewarded.
Instead, our goal is a child who will behave well regardless of whether or not a reward is involved!
But this doesn’t happen overnight.
Not at all. In fact, many parents fall back on the above behavior change methods because it’s what their parents did, or “it works.”
But… Does it really? Does a little kid learn important cleaning skills because her mom went ballistic and threw away all the toys? Or were these skills actually acquired with modeling, time and maturity?
And if it’s going to take modeling, time and maturity anyway, why waste emotional and physical energy yelling and spanking? Why bring stress and negativity into the equation at all, when there are other ways to fix the problem that don’t require any of these things?
It’s all about the long game.
So for now, yes: You’re going to have to help your little ones clean.
For now, yes: Your kids will probably not quickly and eagerly tidy whatever you ask them to tidy immediately after you ask them.
For now, yes: Other parents will probably judge you for not punishing your littles until they clean to your standards.
But you’re not going to worry about that, because you’re thinking long-term.
In the meantime, are you looking for some quick tips to help your kids learn to clean their rooms or playrooms? If so, I’ve got just the cheat sheet for you!