Address the Mess Without the Stress

In part I, Say Yes to the Mess, I talked about how important it is that we give our kids the opportunity to mess up their environments. This 2nd part is all about how to handle the cleanup time without a big power struggle. 

Clean up time doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Barney got kids to sing the “clean up” song and happily put their stuff away, but somehow at home, things tend to devolve into a shouting match or a power struggle. Here’s a few things we’ve been learning about how to keep the stress out of the clean up process.

1. If you complain, they will complain.

This sounds so basic, but it’s revolutionary. If you communicate to your children that cleaning is this tremendous chore that everyone hates, but it just has to be done, they will internalize that message.

2. If you are stressed, it will rub off.

Hurry up. We have to get this done. Come on! It’s not that hard. We have to _________ and are running out of time. You should already be in bed. Your father’s going to be home any minute now, and the house has to be clean. Aren’t you done yet?

When you take a situation where a child doesn’t want to do something, and you add pressure to the situation, you’re asking for trouble. Especially in the preschool years. Even if the child does comply, the message that gets internalized is a negative one in that child’s mind, and it does not create positive connections in his or her brain that link cleaning up to a sense of well-being or accomplishment. Instead, those neural connections that were reinforced are ones linking stress to organizational tasks, which, although you see results in the short term, will be detrimental in the long term.

3. Do it together.

We works better than I. If you announce that this is a group effort, and then vocalize what you’re going to do to start, it makes it easier to join in. With younger kids, I pick a color to start with (all the black animals, all the yellow Duplos), or start with a goal number (“I bet we can each find 5 books to put away.”) With older kids, play to their interests or their desire to have an opinion. (“If I get all the books, what will you be responsible for?”)

4. Make it fun.

Some of our favorite strategies include

  • Playing music and dancing along
  • Pretending to be bulldozers, hungry animals, delivery services
  • Racing the clock (can we be done in 5 minutes?)
  • Staying in whatever pretend character and cleaning up as that person or animal would

5. Build an incentive. (not a bribe)

We like to talk about the benefits of having things cleaned up.

  • If we finish cleaning up in ____________ minutes, there’ll be __________ minutes for this fun activity.
  • When we clean this up, there’ll be space on the floor/table to _______________.
  • ____________ will be so proud when he/she sees what a great job you’ve done.

6. Don’t attempt when tired or hungry.

7. Honor what they’ve created.

The LEGO tower or domino setup or Avalanche fruit arrangement (aff link) are important work in your child’s mind. Honor that. We often snap a picture to show someone and immortalize their creation, validating their efforts. Or if it’s possible to save in a safe place for a limited amount of time, we may do that as well.

8. Don’t ask them to do what you will re-do anyways.

Toddlers may not notice, but once kids are 3 or so, they recognize when their efforts are being re-done. If you’re not going to be able to leave their best effort alone, please don’t ask them to do it. Instead, find other things they can independently (or jointly do) that will be recognized as their contribution. Or re-arrange your system so that they can put things away.

Remember: your goal is long-term development of skills and good habits. If something doesn’t work, it’s ok. Try something else, or try again a different day.  Your kids will get it. It may not be perfect, and it may not work every time, but we’re forming habits and neural networks to last a lifetime. It’s a process.




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