How To Get Your Stubborn Kid To Clean Up

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Dear Home Ec 101,

My 4 year old son absolutely refuses to clean up his toys! I’ve tried making it a game, I’ve also tried taking his toys away when he doesn’t clean them up. He still refuses to clean. Any ideas for getting him to clean up after himself?


Messy In Muncie

retrochick.JPGIvy says:

Some kids are harder to get cleaning than others. My oldest son likes order and hates chaos, so it was very easy to get him to clean up. My youngest son is the exact opposite- he apparently loves chaos and hates order, so getting him to clean practically takes an act of God.

With my youngest son, I’ve found that one of his problems is feeling overwhelmed when I ask him to pick up his toys. Even though it seems totally obvious to me what he should do, he doesn’t “get” what he needs to be doing, so I tell him to pick things up One. Thing. At. A. Time. It’s frustrating to me, because it is so slow, but it does get the job done and it makes it a lot harder for him to refuse, as I’m asking him to do one very simple task at a time. “Pick up your Spiderman doll. Now put him in the toybox.” “Pick up that piece of paper. Throw it in the trash can. No, the living room trash can. There’s no need to go all the way to the kitchen.” Like I said, it seems like an exercise in frustration, but it’s less frustration than telling him to pick up all his toys, and he totally ignores me.

Sometimes he gets cranky and flatly refuses to even do one thing at a time. In that case, I go to the thing he hates the most- being sent to bed. If it’s pre-dinner, it’s a nap. If it’s post-dinner, it’s bedtime. Even if that means I’m sending him to bed when it’s still light out. Now, you have to determine what your kid will dislike the most. For my son, it’s heading to bed- for your son, it might be something different, so experiment. But make sure it’s a punishment the kid considers to be pretty serious, otherwise you’ll be facing flat refusals all the time.

I’m not huge on punishments, but when it’s time to punish, like for clear refusals to obey, I do so. Don’t forget the positive side of things- when he’s doing a good job, praise him. I always tell Nate things like, “What a big boy you are, I’m so impressed!” I’m not big on bribing kids to do work- in our household we all pitch in and you shouldn’t have to expect a reward for that. The reward is not having to live in filth, as I tell the kids when they whine about their friends whose parents give them ponies and unicorns for not throwing trash on the floor.

Anyway, that is what works for me, I hope it works out for you too.

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18 thoughts on “How To Get Your Stubborn Kid To Clean Up”

  1. The problem is willful defiance – purposely defying your direction. Tell him that if you have to pick them up then they are yours. While he’s in bed, take any of his toys that he won’t pick up and pack them completely away. Pack them up in a bag or box and hide them someplace — even if you have to put them in the trunk of your car. Keep them at least a week, no matter what he says or does. Don’t back down. Don’t listen to him whine, scream, bargain, etc. – just simply remind him that he didn’t do as you said. After a week, if he has been compliant to your directives, let him earn them back one at a time by doing chores. Don’t give them back all at once. If he doesn’t comply, keep them hidden. I’m the mom of young adults and believe me, I learned the hard way – it’s much easier to teach him now than when he’s a teenager. He has to know that you mean what you say – the first time. And always remember, the same strength that makes a child stubborn, when properly directed, will be the strong persistence that he will need as a man.

  2. I have a friend that says any toy left out overnight goes in toy “jail.” Her kids then earn good behavior tokens when they do good things. The tokens can be used to “buy” the jailed toys back.

    This reinforces the need for good behavior.

  3. When my 5 yr old refuses to pick up, I turn him into my skill crane. I stand behind him and put my hands on his forearms – and use his hands to pick up a toy and then we walk together to put it away.

  4. Toy Jail! Laughing as I see the transformer behind bars, with Mr. Potato head. My 5 year old doesn’t like picking up his stuff either, so we do the one thing at a time also. Pick up all the cars, pick up all the blocks, and right down the line. Also depending on the mood we have races. He loves racing to pick up toys against his brother, because he always wins, and his brother is only 3 and doesn’t care yet so it is a win, win situation. Not every trick works all the time, so there are days when the big black bag comes out, and things disappear for a specific time period. But that is usually the last resort.

  5. I think Susan and dcfullest have it exactly right: make the consequence be directly related to the transgression. That’s what I did with my son.

    Two thoughts:

    1. Bedtime as a punishment might not be a good idea in the long run. Kids are psychological enough about going to bed, and tend to get worse about it as they get older. Why can’t you just send him to time-out in a designated spot, with the condition that he will stay there at least 5 minutes because of his defiance, but he can’t come back out until he’s willing to start picking up the toys on his own. Make it clear that he’ll go right back into time-out if he doesn’t do the chore assigned, and finish it. It will take several cycles of this until he “gets it” and realizes you’re done playing his game.

    2. Is the putting away chore a straightforward exercise? Maybe simplifying the toy bin arrangement, or putting the trash can near the toy bin might help? My son had issues putting his clothes away until I bought him a better dresser – after that it was never a problem. Turned out that he had trouble opening and closing the drawers on the old dresser.

  6. My kids do best when they are the helper. I will sit on the floor and make piles of toys that go into a bin and they so the leg work. They love being little helper, so this works out great and my middle two fight over who gets to hel pmom next. My nine yo can clean up on his own, but also still likes this method best. I think it helps them from getting overwhelmed and they know mom is right here and they are not going to miss something.

  7. Ivy,

    What a good suggestion. I have used the same idea for my kids with great success. Like you, I hate to watch over them like a taskmaster, telling each simple command though. Here is what I have found works for this:

    When they are feeling overwhelmed with cleaning up, as opposed to willful defiance, I have found that suggesting they pick up all the yellow legos, or all the stuffed animals, for example works. This keeps me from having to say every item separately, but keeps them focused on a manageable task.

    To help them learn how to do this on their own some kids need more help than others. I did this game with my daughter for a while, and now she can do it on her own without my prodding and clean up pretty well. On the other hand, my son needed a bit more help to figure out this strategy for cleaning up. So, after suggesting some items I had him make a suggestion of what to pick up next. That has helped get him thinking for himself on how to break things up into manageable parts, and now I can leave them alone to the cleaning up at least a bit more, instead of hovering over them.

  8. Only you, his parent, can tell if it’s will-full defiance or just being overwhelmed, and you can respond accordingly. I always tried the cheer-full make-it-a-game way ………. unless, for instance, my youngest son was absolutely defiant. That’s different.
    Two thoughts: first, from a letter to FlyLady. One woman’s son had all his toys but a few quiet/creative ones taken away for defiance, and his behavior IMPROVED because it was the chaos that was causing him to malfunction. And he didn’t really want back what was missing. That’s a thought.
    Second, my youngest son early on decided — because of his father’s “lack of homemaking participation,” shall we say? — that only girls or mommies had to clean up. That’s a different thought, too. (He still hopes that is true, at 19, but is reluctantly taking care of himself right now. His wishes for a wife to do it all for hiim in the furture are greeted by hoots of laughter from his sisters and brother, all older!)
    Try to figure your little guy out. Try different approaches for a few days at a time. Then you can figure out what works with him (at least for now; 6 months from now it might be different!)

  9. I have the same issue and mine is 5 also. I’ve tried everything here…nothing works. Yet, there are days where he will clean up and be a perfectionist about it without being asked.

  10. In response to Keter’s point #1, I know Ivy didn’t say it explicitly but I feel fairly certain that she’s tried the time out thing with her son. She did explicitly say, “I go to the thing he hates the most- being sent to bed”. If being sent to time-out was the thing he hated the most, then I imagine that what the punishment would be.

    I believe the point was to say, this is what works for my kid and you’ll need to find what works for your kid. I sincerely doubt she’s at risk of psychologically harming her son with such a punishment.

  11. Our 5yo daughter has a clean-up game of sorts–this has been going on since she was 3. We say it is time to clean up; she says, “I want to surprise you!” Then she disappears into her room with the door closed for a while. When she emerges, closing the door behind her, she says, “It’s time to clean up, Mommy” (or Daddy). Then it is our job to come quickly, pretending to nag: “Time to get to work! Let’s clean this place up! Chop, chop!” etc. Then she flings the door open, the room is clean (basically), and our job is to put on a gigantic show of being STUNNED and complimentary.

    How did she get started on this? I believe that she did a pretty good job cleaning one time on her own, and I was genuinely very surprised and praised her up and down. I wish I could bottle this behavior, but I have a suspicion it is the product of one people-pleasing little gal living in a household of neatniks.

  12. Keter,
    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. Many times when my children are acting out, whether it’s through temper tantrums or through a refusal to be cooperative (in Ivy’s example) the underlying issue is being overtired.
    I remember well being a kid and hating the idea of a nap, of fighting it tooth and nail, but waking up in a heck of a better mood.

    I know that when I’m frustrated with my children’s behavior that an early bedtime can be a timeout for both of us.

    Since the early bedtime is post dinner, it’s obvious Nate is not being deprived of anything.

  13. Heather, I’m with you on this one. As children, we were sent to bed as punishment when it was warranted, but I never made the connection of bed itself being bad, more so being alone and away from everybody as the consequence for my actions. And that realization didn’t come because I was unusually perceptive, believe me. I think you just have to find what works best for your kid and for you.

    • You haven't started too early, just be consistent. Using a clean-up song works well with our kids; at least with their toys. Not so much with their food messes. The song we use goes something like "Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up" repeated a few times. I'm sure the tune doesn't matter, in fact you probably don't need any tune. Today and yesterday and a few other times we'll be in the other room and our son will start singing the song and putting the toys away himself until all the toys in the room are put in their bins. Our oldest is almost three now and we started doing the song thing when he was one or so.

  14. Sometimes child difficlut to clean up his toys. You can give examples to clean up his toys and talk to your kids to clean up his toys


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