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Eat, Play, Sleep, Love

How to Get Your Kids to Clean Up After Themselves

Last week I spent way too much of the start of summer mad at my 6 year old. Why? Because no matter how much I talked about it, she still left messes everywhere! When she gets out of the shower she leaves a pile of dirty clothes in the bathroom. After breakfast there’s a bowl with leftover milk from the cereal she just ate. Her room needs to be picked up and clean clothes need to be put in drawers. No matter what I said, she apologized, promised to do better and then did it again. I was so frustrated!

First, a joke. Yesterday Alexis told me she needed her hearing tested. She said she may even need to get hearing aids. I asked if she was having a hard time hearing things and she said, yes, I can’t hear you every time you tell me to clean up my room!! I reassured her it’s not her hearing that’s the problem. She just doesn’t want to hear it. You know what I mean – kids can go selectively deaf when given commands to do something they don’t want to do!

Kids need to learn to pick up after themselves in the moment they make a mess. It’s part of taking responsibility for their own lives. Some adults still haven’t gotten this down and many wives are married to men who never learned this and expect someone else (you) to keep things clean. I’m not having it!

7 Things Kids Need to Learn How to Do On Their Own

  1. Put their own dish in the sink or dishwasher immediately after eating and clean up the counter or floor if there’s a mess left behind.
  2. Fold laundry and put it in the right place in the right drawer, immediately after the clothes are washed.
  3. Immediately put dirty clothes in the basket as soon as they take them off.
  4. Throw any trash away as soon as they’re finished with it.
  5. Remove items from the car that they put in, including trash.
  6. Vacuum up messes (we like this handheld vacuum for quick jobs).
  7. Clean their own room and take care of their things, as soon as they’re done playing with them.

This list is for little kids. My teenager cleans the bathroom, vacuums the entire basement, washes his own clothes and other tasks. Here’s a task list for chores (although this is more about the everyday things you do for yourself, not household chores to help the family).

One way to avoid messes is to have less things. So we try to limit possessions and focus on doing things like swimming, going to the aquarium, the park, etc. The more trinkets and little things to keep track of the better.  This requires regular purging and donating extra things to charity or for a garage sale. If your kids have too many things to clean up and it’s overwhelming to clean up, that’s a sign that it’s time to simplify.

As I said, yelling is not a great strategy. Punishment is a drag for everyone. The more fun, immediate and positive the experience is, the better. Remember that you’re trying to create less work for yourself not give yourself more work to police.

The solution needs to

  • Give immediate feedback for behavior in the moment. It doesn’t seem to work to yell about it after the fact or when you’re in a hurry to get out the door. They forget every time.
  • Reward when they succeed. Instead of punishing and yelling, it’s much more effective to find a reward and focus on when your child does the right thing, when they do it.
  • Take away or have a consequence when they don’t do the desired actions. It’s not enough to reward kids, they need to have an immediate consequence when they forget or go deaf to your requests.

Our solution: The Marble Jar

Get a jar and marbles.

Here’s what we do that’s working for us. Your child might need another reward. You can also use Skittles or another small candy instead of marbles. I bought a small mason jar from the dollar store and some marbles – she came with me and got to help pick them out. I want her to feel ownership in this too.

Decide on a reward.

Next we decided on the prize. She wants to go to a trampoline park near us and recently asked if we could play some games at Lagoon the next time we went. The games are extra so that is our reward. When we finish that we’ll work on earning a trip to the trampoline park since it’s open year round.

What are your kids already asking you for that costs you extra money or time? That’s what makes a good reward.

Define how to earn marbles (the rules).

Every time Alexis does one of the things listed above, she gets a marble in her jar. I let her put it in so she can hear it against the glass and get the satisfaction. I cheer when she earns a marble. When the jar is full she gets the reward.

Define how to lose marbles.

Here’s the catch though – she can lose marbles too. Otherwise it’s not very painful if she forgets. She has to do her jobs without being reminded to get a marble but if I remind her and she does it immediately, then she just doesn’t earn one. To lose a marble (and prevent me from losing all my marbles on her) she has to completely forget to do her job that day. Or, if I remind her and she still doesn’t complete the task.

I’m happy to report that there are far less tears, use of force (verbal) and fights. She’s getting the hang of it. The overall goal of this game is to graduate from getting rewards to doing your own work without being asked every time. That’s called growing up. It’s its own reward. At that point no jar is needed and society will thank you for raising a kid that doesn’t leave messes for everyone else to clean up. Future spouses and roommates will appreciate that your child has learned an important life skill. Next, you work on cleaning up emotional messes and boundaries with others!

The idea of cleaning up something immediately after or as you go has been huge for me, too. I can’t take credit for it though. My husband Stephen forced me with a lot of immediate negative feedback when I didn’t clean up messes. We fought it for years but now it’s second nature. There are never (or almost never) dishes left in the sink or on the counter. As I cook, I clean up and try to prevent messes as I go. Our countertops get wiped down more than I ever have in my life. Dishes are not overwhelming and don’t pile up unless we have a large group. Neither does the laundry. Still, I can improve.

You have to set a good example for the kids by modeling the behavior you want to see in them. My biggest challenge is the car. I leave too many messes behind. Mostly because my hands are full with my purse and groceries. I’m often in a hurry.

I want to hear from you – how do you teach your kids to be responsible for their own messes? Leave a comment and let me know what’s working!



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