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When Kids Don't Want to Clean Up

Teaching children to clean up requires skill and patience.

Many of us would like to be better organized, which is reflected in the rise of Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizational consultant who recommends that we should clean out everything that does not spark joy. The idea of organizing more effectively so that we can function better with less stress is a good one; putting it into effect is often not easy.

An interesting compendium from Intellectual Takeout says that “Americans are drowning in ‘stuff.’” A focus of the piece is that parents often complain that it’s difficult to get kids to clean up after themselves and that this can cause significant parent-child conflict.

I have seen this in my practice: actual, chargeable incidents of violence sometimes begin with a child throwing something at a parent and refusing to pick it up. Parents have threatened to remove children from the family if they make too much mess or do not adequately respect physical objects. And young children refusing to clean their rooms to an unspecified adult standard of cleanliness can result in spanking or more extreme physical punishment.

Teaching children to organize their possessions is a parenting skill; like many others, sometimes parents need to learn the skill themselves before they can aid their children. When I ask parents to think about why they respond so negatively if a child does not put dirty clothes in the laundry hamper or hang up clean clothes, they invariably respond that if they themselves had done that, they would have been harshly disciplined (the word “beaten” is often used). Cycles of abuse are difficult to interrupt; triggers can be disarmed, but it takes time. Among the most amazing discussions, though, is the one in which parents continue with their stated goal ("I just want him to learn to pick up after himself") while clinging to one of the greatest barriers to accomplishing it ("I don’t see anything wrong with spanking. I was spanked and I turned out OK. Besides, he doesn’t pay attention to anything else.")

In late 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement against spanking. This is in accord with all but two member nations that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; the only two member states that have not ratified are the U.S. and Somalia. Over 30 nations including Canada have outlawed spanking. The harmful effects, including health, mental health, substance use, and interference with interpersonal relationships have been well documented in research for over 50 years.

If we want our children to cooperate with us, we are going to have to learn to teach them through means other than bullying and punishment. Fortunately, there are myriad, effective ways to promote child learning based on kindness.

So, for parents seeking to teach children to mind their rooms, I suggest:

  • Know what your child can do at his or her age. Frame your expectations accordingly; at older ages, it is appropriate to develop an allowance based on completing expected chores, but preschool children can only be expected to put away the one toy with which they have been playing, and often with hands-on help.
  • Be crystal clear about the components of “cleaning up.” A child may think that if he puts his dirty clothes under the bed, that fulfills the request, whereas you may want him to put the dirty clothes in a hamper. He will not know what you expect unless you communicate the details.
  • Look for low-hanging fruit. What is your child interested in finding/keeping track of? You should not expect that your child will be as interested in organizing possessions as you are, but if you agree on a priority item, and a place to put it, you can have a successful beginning.
  • Build for success, not friction. It’s more important to have a shared success than to have a spotless room. If you help your child do one thing, that is a success.
  • Let go and ignore, unless actual health hazards are involved. Food in rooms can attract all manner of insects and rodents; restricting food from children’s rooms is a good place to start.

It may take some discipline to implement a new regimen, but it will result in a calmer and perhaps better-organized household.


Intellectual Takeout Lattier, D. Feb. 2, 2016…