13 Ways to Motivate a Child to Clean Up Her Mess (or Not)

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Since the beginning of time, moms (and dads) have been trying to get kids to clean up after themselves.  And, since the beginning of time, kids have been whining, ignoring, and just plain refusing to do so.

Kids are walking, running, skipping, jumping little mess-makers.  They are full of energy and interests and impulsivity and ideas.  They want to do it all … now.  They want to play with it all … at once.  And they absolutely, positively, do not want to put any of it away… ever.

Many parents struggle with this.  We know our kids need to learn to clean up after themselves.  If they take it out, they put it away!  But, sometimes we’re in a hurry, exhausted, and just want to be able to walk from the couch to the coffee table without stepping on a Lego or tripping over a mermaid, princess or pony.  So, we end up doing it ourselves.

Sometimes it’s just easier, faster, and the only way it’ll get done.  We know this doesn’t send a good message, that we’re working against ourselves, and teaching our kids that if they hold out long enough, we’ll just do it for them.  But we’re at a loss for a better way.

So, how do we get our kids to clean up their messes?  I’m not sure what the answer is, but here are some tried and true techniques that may or may not work:

1) Repetition – If I say this enough times, maybe it’ll stick: “when you’re finished with something, put it back where it belongs” or “make sure you put things away before taking out something else to play with.” I’ve said these at least 12,108 times and apparently that’s not enough.

2) Breaking out into Song – “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.”  Such a fun, catchy tune!  I get so caught up in singing it, I hardly notice that I’m the only one cleaning.  Everybody is NOT doing her share.

3) Making a Game of It – “I’ll race you. Let’s see who can do it the fastest.”  It turns out I can do it the fastest.  Wait a minute, why am I still cleaning up?  And why is she standing there just watching me?

4) Changing Up the Game – “Let’s see how fast you can clean up. Ready, set go!”  It turns out she’s not interested in cleaning up, let alone cleaning up fast.

5) Changing It Up Again – “Let’s count how many toys you can put away.” The only problem is now, in addition to cleaning, I’ve given her yet another task, counting.  That’s even more work.  And she’s not having it.

6) The Element of Surprise – A new angle: “I’m going to leave the room for a few minutes. While I’m gone, surprise me with how nice and clean you can make the room.”  And then, you come back into the room, and, surprise!  It looks exactly the same as when you left … maybe worse.  And she’s playing… with even more toys that weren’t out before.

7) Reasoning – “Look, kid, here’s the deal. We all live here in this house, and each one of us needs to take responsibility for his or her actions.  When I take something out, I use it, and then when I’m done, I put it back in the exact same place I found it … blah, blah, blah…”  Her eyes have glazed over.  I’m talking to myself.

8) Evoking Sympathy – You could play the poor Mom card. Tell her how much it would help you out if she could just do this one thing for you … you, who work so hard and do so much for her.  Have an all-out pity party … and watch her … not clean up.  I have news for you: she’s a kid.  Guilt, empathy, pitying you – not happening.

9) Promising a Reward – (aka bribery) “If you clean up this mess right now, I’ll take you out for ice cream.” This may work in the short-term.  But beware, when there’s no promise of ice cream, a new toy, or some other reward, there’s no promise of getting her to clean up.

10) Positive Reinforcement – You may tell her that you would like for her clean up. If she doesn’t do it, don’t do anything.  No punishment.  If she does do it, lavish her with praise and rewards.  This involves waiting until after she has cleaned up.  Prepare to wait … and wait … and wait.

11) Demanding – “Just do it … because I said so … now!” This one may work, but not without its costs.  There will be arguing, tears, frayed nerves, tension, even more fatigue afterward.  I have to admit, we use this in my house on occasion, usually after exhausting several other options.  Because, when it comes down to it, after I’ve just spent hours re-organizing the family/playroom and meticulously putting everything away in its designated bin, and she comes in like a toy-blazing twister on a mission to destroy my organization efforts, it gets me.  The kid just needs to clean up her mess!  Bottom line!  Because I said so!

12) Threatening – “Just do it or else … no dessert, no TV, I’ll take away your iPad, your remote control car, your American Girl doll and all of her amazing accessories (once you unscatter them from all over the carpet) … or time out.” Again, there will be arguing, tears, frayed nerves, tension, and fatigue.  But now, you also have to follow through with your threats if she doesn’t clean up, which she won’t.  And you may not want to.  You may not have the energy.

13) Reverse-psychology – “No, don’t clean up your mess. Whatever you do, DO NOT clean up your mess!  I want to do it!  You don’t get to.”  As much as we’d like to think reverse-psychology works, it doesn’t.  Especially when it comes to cleaning up.  Plus you’ll confuse them.  And, if it does for some strange reason, work, what happens next time you tell her to do something?  Will she think she should do the opposite?  Will you always have to reverse everything?  I suggest you don’t do this one.  Or do it, either way.

When it comes down to it, getting our kids to clean up after themselves is a work in progress.  Of course, it depends on the kid.  Maybe there are some natural-born clean freaks out there (I wouldn’t know).  But for most of us, we just keep trying.  We do what it takes.

One or more of the above tactics may actually work.  I tend to use some combination of all of them (some more than others).

Every month or so, I do a major re-organization/purging project in an effort to give my daughter less to work with in creating a mess.  I explain the rules of cleaning up, and remind her often.  I offer incentives and rewards, I sometimes pitch in to help, and yes, sometimes “surprise me” works.  And, there are times, like when company’s coming, that I frantically zip through and toss things in whatever bins are closest.

How do you motivate your kids to clean up their messes?  Please share any suggestions you have.

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