Should I make my child clean up?

Trying to clean up after young children is an endless task. They pull toys out of closets, drawers, and shelves, and when they’re done playing with one thing; they drop it on the floor and get out something new. They also take pots and pans out of cabinets, unroll toilet paper, and leave clothes and shoes lying around. In just a short time, a young child can create a mess.

Some of this can be explained. Young children’s interests shift quickly from one object to another, so even a brief play period may result in a big pile of toys. And because they like to play wherever their parents are, they carry (and leave) toys all over the house. Taking toys out is fun, but picking them up is not.

That job usually is left for parents, and the daily process of putting things away can be both demanding and unrewarding. Many parents want or expect help from their children, but until children reach early elementary age, parents get little relief. That’s because young children don’t think about cleaning up in the same way that adults do. Children are truly unaware of the tasks they leave for their parents.

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, parents who pressure their young children to clean up actually may stifle the exploration and play that are a necessary part of childhood. For example, a child who always is 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.

Although straightening up after young children remains an adult task, there are ways you can involve your child. Your two and one-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 will 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 will be time to put the 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 will 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 spends time in day care, strike a balance between your child’s desire to play freely when she’s home and your desire to keep cleanup to a minimum. Most evenings let her play with her toys, and some evenings structure her play so she takes out only a few things such as dolls or a game to use in a specific place.

If your children resist putting their toys away, there are many other household jobs they may actually enjoy doing. These include dusting, washing windows, vacuuming, putting utensils away, or polishing silver. As they get older, they will take on more responsibility for putting their things away. In the meantime, your young children may occasionally surprise you with an unexpected cleanup, done just to help you out and make you happy.

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