All parents must decide whether to constantly clean up after their children or let the cleaning go at times so the family can accomplish other things. Of course some adults care more about neatness than others. And some parents fear letting things get too messy because of unexpected visitors or the prospect of large-scale cleanups. Parents who work outside the home may feel a particular desire for a neat house because their cleanup time is so limited.
Although everyone would like help in maintaining a clean home, if you pressure your child to clean up, you may actually stifle her exploration and play, both a necessary part of childhood. For example, a child who’s always expected to put her blocks away eventually may lose interest in using the blocks or may decide it’s easier to simply watch TV. Also, those parents who feel compelled to establish early patterns of cleaning up may find the process frustrating and time-consuming. They usually have to stand over their young children and coach them through the entire chore. The effort expended in such supervising is often greater than the effort of cleaning up without the help. Many parents end up yelling day after day, “Put your toys away!”
Although cleaning up after young children remains an adult task, there are ways you can involve your child. Your two-and-a-half or three-year-old can put a few toys back in place, particularly if you do the job with her or if you hand her the toys and tell her where they go. Your four-or five-year-old can take a more active role in straightening up, although she’ll still be most successful when you’re close by helping.
Your child may be willing to cooperate in cleanups if you give her some warning: “In five minutes it’ll be time to put your toys away.” If your child seems overwhelmed, help her focus by giving specific instructions: “Jesse, you’re in charge of putting the puzzles and books away.” Sometimes she’ll go along with you if you offer concrete choices: “You can either put the trucks back on the shelf or put the toy soldiers in this basket.” And when several children are playing together you can ask, “Who’s going to put the crayons away? Who will clean up the train set?”
If your child resists putting her toys away, there are many other household jobs she may actually enjoy doing. These include dusting, washing windows, vacuuming, putting utensils away, or polishing silver. Children like to do what they watch their parents do, and they usually don’t resist trying a new task.
The most successful and realistic way to handle cleaning up is to compromise and lower your standards. Straightening up is overwhelming to children. Don’t punish or use harsh words with your child. Use a calm tone and offer to help: “I’ll put the books back on the shelf while you put the doll clothes in the basket.” Make cleanup playful: “Let’s see how fast we can pick up these cards.”
Don’t worry about being consistent. Some days you’ll care a lot about how your home looks, and other days you won’t. You might even decide to ignore the mess unless company is expected. That’s okay. Cleanup is a common problem and one that (in the grand scheme of raising children) is not worth battling over.