How To Teach Your Child To Pick Up After Themselves - Baby Chick
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How To Teach Your Child To Pick Up After Themselves

Learn seven ways you can teach your child to be responsible for themselves by cleaning up their own messes around the house.

Updated March 28, 2024

by Cheyenne Bell

Medically reviewed by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist
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If there is one thing kids are good at, it is making a mess. My kids can tear apart a room with toys, books, and clothes in less time than it takes me to make a cup of coffee. It’s pretty impressive, except the mess is in my house, and I’m a neat freak. To save my sanity, I have had to develop some ways of getting my kids to fix the mess they made. I want to share these tips so that you can teach your child to pick up after themselves. You must be consistent with these ideas, but they do work!

Why Should Children Learn To Be Responsible for Themselves?

As our children grow and develop, it’s integral that they learn how to look after themselves. Not only is independence important for becoming adults one day, but doing self-care activities or being responsible for “activities of daily living” can improve our children’s self-esteem and confidence.1 Self-care abilities or activities of daily living refer to basic life skills, such as eating, hygiene, dressing, tidying up after themselves, and safety awareness.2 Teaching your child the importance of picking up after themselves will save you time, frustration, and effort, and it’s good for their well-being.

How To Teach Your Child To Pick Up After Themselves

Here are concrete steps you can take to help your child learn to be responsible for their messes:

1. Set the Rules and Explain Them Thoroughly

You can’t expect your child to clean up after themselves if you haven’t explained your expectations clearly.3 Set a few baseline rules, such as, “You have to put one toy away before you get another out,” or “You are not allowed any screen time until you clean your room.” If you have to make a picture chart or a list of the rules and tape it to their bedroom wall, do it. Just ensure they know what you expect of them and continue enforcing your rules.

2. Be an Example

As with everything else in parenting, your kids will follow your example.4 If you leave your laundry on the floor or dishes in the sink, your kids will emulate that behavior. I’m sure it’s probably not what you want to hear, but how can you expect your kids to put things away when Mommy doesn’t do the same? Practice what you preach!

3. Be Specific About Where Things Should Go

One of the best ways to teach your child to pick up after themselves is by ensuring everything has a “home” to go to. Store toys in clear plastic bins with a photo of the contents on the front. For example, I will have a bin for Legos and snap a Polaroid of a pile of Legos to stick on the front of the bin. Or, use labels on shelves to show where they need to store their shoes, games, or puzzles. Now, even your non-reading child can’t whine, “But I don’t know where it goes!”

4. Make It a Game

Add a bit of fun to clean-up time by playing music and having a clean-up dance party. You could also set a timer and see who can finish cleaning before the timer goes off. Or use a little friendly competition: “If you can put your toys away before Mommy is done doing the dishes, you can have a cookie after dinner!” I know that’s also considered bribery, but hey . . . I’m here for that. There are a lot of great ways to make chores fun for kids.

5. Break It Down Into Smaller Steps

To a toddler, cleaning a whole room can seem impossible. I get it. Cleaning an entire house makes me want to burn the place down sometimes. So, try to make the job more bite-sized by starting with a single category. For instance, tell your child only to put away the Hot Wheels. Maybe even offer a small reward when they finish that job. Then, move on to the next job, such as having them pick up all their blocks. Soon, each small task will amount to them cleaning their entire room.

6. Enforce the “Toy Jail” Rule

One of my favorite ways to teach my child to pick up after themselves is by introducing “Toy Jail.” I tell my kids that if any toys, clothes, or shoes are left where they do not belong, they will go to “Toy Jail” (a bin in my closet). Said toy will remain in jail until the offending child earns that toy back. Perhaps they must fold the laundry for Mommy. Or sweep the floor for Mommy. Or load the dishwasher. If your child hasn’t earned that toy back after a couple of weeks, donate it to Goodwill. You’ll have one less toy to clutter your floor!

7. Lower Your Expectations

Of course, you must be realistic about your expectations for a clean house while you have toddlers running amok. Your home will likely not look how you want it to until your kids are grown and out of the house. Remember, your toddler is not trying to make you crazy by leaving a mess. Kids are easily distracted and oblivious to how chaotic messes can make us feel. We have to teach them the house rules. They will also have to learn the consequences of not following these rules a few times before the habit of cleaning up starts to settle in. So, give your child and yourself some grace while you teach them how to pick up after themselves.

Teaching your child to pick up after themselves fosters a sense of independence. It also shows them the importance of helping others and helps them learn to look after themselves. Setting this expectation right from the get-go ensures that children take responsibility for themselves and that their parents aren’t exhausting themselves by picking up after them, which is time-consuming and frustrating. Instead, when our children have some level of responsibility for their belongings and actions, it helps improve their self-esteem. It also frees up Mom and Dad to spend more time with them (as opposed to tidying up in the wake of their playtime). I, for one, would rather spend quality time with my child than clean up their messes.

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Cheyenne is a former lawyer turned writer, editor, and work-from-home mom living in San Marcos, Texas, with her daughter, Aislin, and son, Hawkins. She and her kids moved to the… Read more

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