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How to Teach Your Child to Pick Up After Themselves

A young boy sitting on the floor picking up his toys in a bedroom.

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If there is one thing kids are really 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 for me to make a cup of coffee. It’s pretty impressive, actually. Except that the mess is in my house and I’m a neat freak. To save my sanity, I have had to come up with some ways of getting my kids to fix the mess they made. I wanted to share with you some ways you can teach your child to pick up after themselves. You have to be consistent with these ideas,… Read More

If there is one thing kids are really 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 for me to make a cup of coffee. It’s pretty impressive, actually. Except that the mess is in my house and I’m a neat freak. To save my sanity, I have had to come up with some ways of getting my kids to fix the mess they made. I wanted to share with you some ways you can teach your child to pick up after themselves. You have to be consistent with these ideas, but they do work!

How to Teach Your Child to Pick Up After Themselves

1. Set the rules and explain them thoroughly.

You can’t expect your child to clean up after himself if you haven’t made your expectations clear from the beginning. Set a few baseline rules, such as: put one toy away before you get another one 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 make sure they know what is expected of them and continue to enforce the rules.

2. Be an example.

As with everything else in parenting, your kids are going to follow the example you set. If you leave your laundry on the floor or dishes in the sink, your kids are going to 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 making sure everything has a “home” to go to. Store toys in clear plastic bins with photo of the contents on the front. For example, I will have a bin for LEGOS and I’ll snap a polaroid of a pile of LEGOS to stick on the front of the bin. Or use labels on shelves to delineate where shoes, games, or puzzles should be stored. 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 putting on some music and having a clean-up dance party. Or set a timer and see who can get done cleaning before the timer goes off. Or use a little friendly competition: “If you can get your toys put 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.

5. Make sure they earn something for cleaning.

Speaking of bribery, you can also make them earn something that’s important to them in order to get them to pick up after themselves. I won’t let my son have any screen time unless his room is put in order. Or if your child is older, you can introduce allowance by making having a clean room part of their daily chores. At the end of the week, reward him with a dollar or two!

6. Break it down into smaller steps.

A lot of times, cleaning an entire room seems like an impossible task to a toddler. I get it. Cleaning an entire house makes me want to just burn the place down sometimes. Try to make the job more bite-sized by starting with a single category. For instance, tell your child to just put away the hot wheels. Maybe even offer a small reward when that job is done. And then move on to the next job: now, pick up all the blocks. Soon, each small task will have gotten the entire room picked up in no time!

7. Enforce the “mommy jail” rule.

One of my favorite ways to encourage my child to pick up after themselves is by introducing “mommy jail.” I tell my kids that if any toys are clothes or shoes are left anywhere they do not belong, said item will be going to “mommy jail” (a bin in my closet). Said toy will remain in jail until the offending child earns that toy back. Perhaps 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. Now you have one less toy to clutter your floor!

8. Lower your expectations.

Of course, you have to be realistic about your expectations for a clean house while you have toddlers running amok. Let’s be honest, your house will likely not look the way you really want it to until your kids are grown and out of the house. Remember, you toddler is not trying to make you crazy by leaving a mess. Kids are easily distracted and pretty oblivious to how chaotic messes can make us feel. They have to be taught, by us, what the house rules are. 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 start this process of teaching your child how to pick up after themselves.