It’s frustrating when kids make messes but you’re left to clean them up. Nagging about kids cleaning and yelling until it’s over isn’t a fun way to finish a day of play. Read this post to learn more about how clean-up looks from a kid perspective, why cleaning up can be a struggle, and how to reframe it into something kids will actually help with.
Clean-up can be a struggle
It’s not just your kids who struggle with cleaning.
You are not the only parent defeated by clean-up time.
It isn’t just you giving up and doing the cleaning on your own.
Clean up time can be hard for kids and I have a theory why that is. I also have ways we can “solve” this fairly universal struggle (don’t worry, I’ll get to all of this but I’m required by Google to make the post a certain length so you know, give me a second).
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Why saying “go clean up” doesn’t work
Kids deal with the here and now. They live a black and white life. What they can see and feel is what they understand best.
Think of it as living in a very concrete world.
“Cleaning up” (on the flip side) is a very abstract concept – literally the opposite of concrete. You cannot feel “clean up.” You cannot hold “clean up.”
We need to make cleaning black and white.
We need to make cleaning something kids and touch and feel.
4 reasons kids struggle to clean
Within this idea of concrete versus abstract, there are reasons why kids are hesitant or unlikely to help with cleaning up. It isn’t because they are bad people or slobs or never going to learn how to keep a space looking somewhat decent.
Here are some thoughts to remember about kids and cleaning:
- They don’t know how much to clean. Clean up a block? The room? The entire house? The LEGO plane I worked an hour to build?
- They get overwhelmed by the mess. Think of how hard it can be to start cleaning a messy kitchen. Now pretend you’re 3 years old.
- They don’t know where to start. Because it’s abstract, kids don’t know where to begin and lose interest.
- They can’t understand what “clean” means to the adult. Remember, clean is subjective. Just like your definition of clean is different from my definition of clean, this happens for kids too.
There are lots of reasons why kids don’t help, aren’t able to help, or seem unwilling to help.
And most of these problems can be solved by (say it with me) making the clean up process concrete.
How I know these methods work
Qualifications: I love credentials. Here are mine for why I believe I’m a solid source to discuss cleaning tips with kids.
I have a Master’s in Early Childhood Education. I taught for 8 years (using these tricks to get my students to clean). I’ve now parented a decade and have (over those years) had 20+ different neighbor kids come through my yard and house who had to help clean at the end.
I’ve seen and worked with a lot of kid personalities.
These methods work.
How to make cleaning a “concrete” concept
I have four tried and true, absolutely fantastic ways to make cleaning a concrete activity for kids and help them be successful with cleaning. And help you be successful without nagging, yelling, or just doing it yourself.
And put a pin in “just do it yourself” – we are going to circle back to that at the end.
Let’s break this down so you can try these methods in your house today.
Clean-up method 1: Pick a number
Once kids are in a “counting stage” of development (that’ll be a different age for each child), try giving them a specific number to clean up.
With this approach, they know exactly how much they need to clean-up rather than having to guess if they’ve done enough or satisfied the cleaning requirement.
Here’s some cleaning math: For my family, if we all pick up 12 things x 5 people = 60 things. That makes a big dent. In my backyard, when it’s 13 neighbor kids each picking up 9 items, that’s 117 things cleaned. This is a game changing method.
Why this works:
Cleaning is no longer ambiguous: it’s specific and exact. Kids know what’s being asked of them and what their role is in the cleaning process. They have a goal and an ending.
Clean-up method 2: Assign a specific item
If you have lots of toy sets or collections out, try giving each child a specific toy to focus on. “Your job is to put away the train set.”
This cuts down on clean up related fights, too (“I’m cleaning blocks!” “No, I am!”). If there’s a lot of stuff out, let kids know when they finish their job to check with you for their next task.
Why this works:
Having one specific job to work on is so much less overwhelming.
Think of how it feels to walk into that post-dinner dinner kitchen. As adults, we know what to do: work on one thing at a time. Kids don’t know to do this until we teach them. Using this strategy helps kids learn to bite off smaller chunks of a task, one at a time.
Clean-up method 3: Pick a color to clean
Kids not counting yet? No worries! Try the color method for clean up – it also makes cleaning more of a game and a treasure hunt.
“Your job is to pick up everything that is green.” When kids focus on a single color, it channels their energy into a cleaning activity and keeps them on task.
Why this works:
Again, looking at a giant messy room is overwhelming. It’s overwhelming for adults – imagine how kids feel! Breaking it down by color is manageable (and more fun).
Clean-up method 4: Dance party clean-up
Turn on a banging jam that your kids love and tell them “this is a ONE SONG dance party/clean up.” The race is on: “How much can we clean while the song is playing?”
Why this works:
This trick works on two levels:
1. It makes cleaning a race. How much can we do before the song ends? Kids LOVE races and gamifying tasks.
2. It puts a time limit on cleaning. We will not be cleaning all day. This is a quick blitz in an amount of time kids can understand easily.
RELATED: Did you know time is also an abstract concept for kids? Solve a lot of power struggles with this tip!
What if kids still won’t clean-up?
We’ve all been there. We do every parenting trick we see on the Internet but the kid still won’t budge.
Couple of notes and thoughts from 20 years of asking kids to help clean:
- This happens from time to time.
- It is going to take some extra parenting work to reform the clean-up boundary and new expectations for this child.
Scenario 1: When I’m outside asking a dozen neighbor kids to clean up, I watch for a moment to make sure everyone is helping. If a child isn’t, I go talk to them. “The rule is, we all help clean. The job today is 13 items to clean up. I’ll stand with you while you do this.”
Proximity is your friend. It’s an old teacher move. Remember when the teacher would just go stand by the desk of the kid not on task? That’s what we are doing here.
Scenario 2: Clean-up qualifies my kids for the next thing. That might be dessert or screen time or going to the playground or playing with a different toy. The job is to clean-up. Just like in an adult job, if we don’t do our work, there are potential consequences (like docked pay).
If you want to qualify for the next thing, you have to do your job. I say this on repeat to my kids.
This also means that kids have missed out before. They’ve had to wait or be last to whatever is next or missed an entire trip to the playground because they refused to clean their share. Kids don’t love that. They figure out pretty quickly that they need to do the job.
Is this fun for me? No. Does it create more work for me to stick to the boundary? Yes. Is that what parenting is? You bet’cha.
Scenario 3: A specific toy or activity is creating a large mess and the kids aren’t doing enough to help minimize the mess or clean at the end.
Stop allowing the toy or activity (for a while). Let the kids know know, “This isn’t being cleaned up at the end so we are taking a break from it. When I see you’re doing a better job at clean up, we can try this toy or activity again.”
We don’t have to let kids play with everything and messes are not a requirement of parenting. If a toy or activity is creating a burden for you to clean, don’t feel you need to continue with it. Or at least, give it a time out for a bit.
Don’t miss this tip (it’s about you)
One last tip. Wait, it might be two tips. Yes, two tips but they both have to do with you, the parent or caregiver.
- Stop cleaning up alone. Break the habit the kids may be in of relying on you to clean up. Your words may have become meaningless since they know you’ll just step in to clean. Take the power back in your words. Stop cleaning up alone.
- But help clean up. When it’s time to clean up, pitch in. Kids will work longer if we model working. If I say, everyone clean up 17 toys, then I clean up 17 toys too. I don’t sit on the couch, scroll my feed, and watch.
I know I didn’t make this mess. But in life, we help clean up a lot of messes we didn’t make so I’m modeling that for my kids. I’m happy to help them with their messes, literally and figuratively.
Frequently Asked Questions
From the moment they start playing with toys. Kids want to help. Let them. Let the 12 month old put the blocks back in the bin. Ask the 18 month old to “put the scarves away.” Sit with the 2 year old and put back the train pieces together. Start this habit and family value that everyone helps with clean-up. Parents are not the cleaning fairies.
Change that. Start tomorrow. If they have reasoning skills, say, “You are going to help clean up the mess you made. I didn’t make this mess but I’m willing to donate my time to help you.” Then give them their specific job or number of items to clean and hold them accountable to it.
Clean-up goes 1000x easier and better if things have a (rough) home. If your child knows where items go (as opposed to tossed into random bins or a toy box), they’re more likely to play with the toy and clean up the toy at the end. Why? Because we’ve given the toy a CONCRETE home.