Toy Troubles: My Toddler Won’t Help Clean Up!

You and your child have had a blast building a tower of blocks. Clean up time comes and you ask for some help putting the blocks away. Next thing you know, your calm cutie is gearing up for a major melt down. Sound familiar?

Encouraging clean up is a common struggle in many families. Whose job is it? If you clean them up are you letting them get away with something? Is it worth the struggle to make them do it? Lets take a look at these common questions.

The first step is to be clear on what you are trying to accomplish by having your child help.  Do you want help so you don't have to do it all yourself, or is it because you want to teach responsibility and care for possessions? When my daughter was a toddler, I would look at a room full of toys and worry that she would never clean up after herself if I always did it for her.  I spent some time thinking about what it was I was trying to achieve.

I wanted her to know that she is capable. I wanted her to know we are responsible for our own things.  I wanted her to learn that part of playing is cleaning up. Immediately, a sense of relief came over me. I realized this was not something I could teach in one day, in one power struggle. These were big life lessons, things that would take years to help her internalize.

With a little more rational perspective, I began to think about age appropriate expectations and what a room full of toys everywhere would look like to someone one-third my size.  It would be like an adult looking at an entire gym full of toys.  I know I would be overwhelmed and not know where to start, possibly leading to a meltdown of my own!  It's a lot to ask a toddler (even a 5 year old) to clean up an entire room, so they just get overwhelmed and resist.  If it becomes a power struggle, it’s just not worth it. It’s hard for us to learn big life lessons when we are in the midst of defending our position.

The question now becomes, “What do I do in the short term to help my child learn these values in the long term?” Here are some options depending on what your goal is:

1) Make a game of it! Say, “I will pick up all the red toys, would you like to pick up the blue or the yellow?” Give choices when you can, it gives little ones some control and gets their buy-in.

2) Pick one small area that you want their help with. "Let's work together to clean up the cars.  When you put the red cars in the box, I will put the blue and yellow ones in."

3) Only get one play item out at a time. "I see you would like to play with blocks. Lets get the blocks out and when we are done with those, we can put them away and pick another toy."

4) Ask your child for their ideas. "We seem to end up with so many toys out that the room looks like a mess to me.  I want us to be able to play with toys, but I need your help in keeping our space clean and safe from things we might trip on. Do you have any ideas?"

5) Decide it’s not worth the struggle. If it’s been a power struggle for a while, I might let it go for a bit and just spend the 5 minutes doing it after they go to bed. If this is already a charged issue, it just needs to be dropped for a week or two.

Sometimes the frustration of trying to get help and not getting it is more stressful then just cleaning up the toys.  Even if we cleaned up their toys for the first few years, they can still grow up to be healthy adults who know how to take care of their stuff.

6) If you do let it go for a bit, or decide to try a new strategy by playing with one item at a time, I would talk about it.  For example, "We have really been having a hard time trying to figure out how to get our toys cleaned up after we play.  I don't want to argue about it, so for the next week, I am going to clean them up.  After that, we will try a new way to solve the problem.  What do you think about only taking one toy out at a time? Do you have any ideas of how we can work together?"

7) If your child picking up the toys is your bottom line, clear and explicit rules are a must.  For example, "I want to be clear with you about the rules for picking up toys so we don't have to worry about it every day when it’s clean up time.  When toys are not picked up, mom picks them up and puts them in a basket out of sight. They will be returned to you in a week.”

Once you have said that, you can decide if you will give a reminder or not when clean up time occurs.  It is important to not be judgmental or harp on it.  If the toys are not picked up, no guilt tripping or lecturing.  Just a simple "Ok, I notice you the blocks are still on the floor.  Mommy will put them away until next week." If we add judgment, we invite defensiveness instead of an opportunity to learn.

No matter which strategy you choose, the critical part here is the follow through. I see parents set rules which then are not stuck to, either because they have set an unrealistic expectation and realize that midway through follow through, or they just can't stand to see their kiddo upset.  Both of those come up for all of us at times, which is why it is so important to be clear on the goal you are trying to achieve and keep in mind realistic age appropriate expectations.  

When new limits are set, it is natural for kiddos to challenge them. Will mom really take it away for a week?  If I cry hard enough will she give it back?  If you stick to the rule you set, it often makes for a quick flare up of tantrums, followed rather quickly by a change in behavior...i.e. picking up the toys.  

Consistency and follow through are so important when helping kids change a behavior.  And, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received about parenting- it is OK to change your mind.  It is absolutely ok to realize you are in a power struggle with your child and say to them, "You know what, I can see how important this is to you and now that I think about it, I can see your point. How about we try this instead?"  It is ok to change your mind occasionally. This is different from doing it every time your little one has a meltdown.  It teaches kids that it’s ok to be wrong; it’s ok to say, “I'm sorry, lets try a different way.”  It teaches empathy and resilience.

Remember, with every parenting decision, we have the choice to act for the immediate situation or for the long-term value we wish to teach our children. When we choose the latter, we actually reach our goal quicker.