If only the words to the kid’s song were true: Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do their share.
In our house it’s more like: Clean up, do it, what do I have to threaten you with? Clean up, dammit, I’m not picking up all this shit.
If you’re a parent, you have, at one time or another, struggled with getting your kids to clean up their stuff. There are many methods to instill better straightening up habits in your progeny; from what I call “la-di-da” suggestions, to more “atomic” methods that kick ass and take names (and coats, if necessary).
This primer runs the gamut. Feel free to choose based on your mood or current level of frustration in your own personal “picking-up-my-kids-crap” journey.
The take one out, put one away rule
This technique teaches kids that for every new toy they take out, they must put one away. It also requires many reminders and close supervision of said child while they’re playing, which may immediately render it a hard pass for some parents (myself included). I imagine the child who follows this method is cooperative and mild-mannered, and doesn’t have siblings old enough to tussle with or distract them. But in my house, where none of those conditions exist, it would not work.
Set a timer (and make it a competition)
Some say you can make clean up “fun” by setting a timer and having your kid try and beat the clock. As a mother of three children who could bicker about how to spell “fork,” no thank you; I don’t invite this kind of emotional chaos into my life. In my house, competition leads to crying 100% of the time. Some also say creating a playlist of your kid’s favorite songs can make kids more eager to pick-up. We’ll have to take their word for it.
Make it visual (and be specific)
In this method, everything has its proper labeled place, so kids won’t have to guess where anything goes. (Including bins labeled with pictures for pre-readers.) Set a timeframe with a distinct end time—and tell them to put away specific objects. Instead of saying, “OK, time to clean up,” guide them with bite-sized instructions like, “First let’s put all the cars away” and “Now we’ll pick up red things.” Again, this requires a level of organization and supervision that may not work for everyone.
Make a request, and attach a reward or consequence
It’s tempting to phrase what we want as a question so as not to sound mean or demanding. But when we say, “It’s time to pick up, okay?” that leaves ample room for kids to say “no.” Instead, make a non-inquisitive request like, “It’s clean up time” or “I need you to pick up your things now so you won’t have trouble finding anything tomorrow.” Remind them of any rewards or consequences you’ve attached to the clean-up, whether it’s extra TV or reading time, or a day without the things they don’t put away.
Do it together (and ask if they’d like to donate)
Gentle parenting proponents espouse this method of working together with your child, either by putting your hand over theirs and silently guiding it to the proper place, or picking things up alongside them so they have company. It also normalizes effort through modeling. Or you can calmly ask, “Would you like to put it away or should I put it in the donation bin?”
Tell them how it makes you feel
This article suggests something simultaneously touchy-feely and radical; telling your child how their behavior (not picking up) makes you feel. The concept is that when you let them know how their mess affects you (“I feel sad when I see your stuff lying around like you don’t appreciate it”), it triggers their instinct “to feel connected” and “make other people happy.” It argues that when you kindly convey your disappointment, they’ll be motivated to change their behavior. Hmm. We’re not sure if this is manipulative and guilt-trippy, or honest and effective. You decide.
Now for more drastic measures…
As kids get older, cute games will no longer work. (This is where those atomic methods come into play.) When I asked on TikTok how parents deal with the never-ending mess, the responses ranged from amusing to practical. While responses like: “I usually end up yelling at the top of my lungs” and “I pick it up but throw F bombs while I do” were relatable, they obviously aren’t long-term solutions.
80/20 rule and “Here not there”
One person suggested using the 80/20 rule; where 80% of the time they pick stuff up for their sanity so they have the energy not to pick up the other 20% when they want to teach a lesson (the lesson being pick it up or say goodbye). Another suggested the “Here, not there” philosophy; telling your kids they only have to pick up “here and here” but not “there”— the “there” being reserved for their sibling. This lends itself to everyone thinking they’re getting some kind of break because “there” isn’t their responsibility.
Make them find it (create a “lost and found”)
There are several variations on this technique, which hinges on letting your child experience the natural consequences of not putting away their things. You can either leave things exactly where they left them (which may or may not suit your clutter-and-last-minute-scrambling-tolerance levels) or you can place large plastic bins in areas of greatest offense (or the garage, for extra gravitas). At the end of each day, anything not picked up will be put in that bin; while it will be off the floor, your kids will still have to dig to get what they need.
Pick it up…but charge them
One mom said, “I pick it up, because the principle is that the floor gets cleaned. However, I charge them. Either money or an immediate chore.” Huh. Charging people for the clean-up work we’ve always been expected to give out for free. What a novel concept! (This applies to the bins we just mentioned. Put them high up where they can see—but not reach—their stuff. Tell them they need to clean a toilet to get it back.)
Get it out of your way, but not theirs
One user said, “My mother would block our bedroom doors with the shit we left out that day. She got it out of her way, but never ours.” Several parents echoed this sentiment of placing everything on the child’s bed or floor so while the communal space is ship-shape, they still have their own mess to deal with.
And the most extreme measure of them all…Throwing. It. Out. (Or donating.) When you’ve lost patience with all other methods, give your child a time frame—say, 24 or 48 hours. Let them know if the item is not picked up by then, it will be gone forever. Note: Be sure you’re willing to commit to enforcing this consequence. Are you okay with donating your child’s new winter coat and making them wear a small one from last year if they don’t pick it up? Then, by all means proceed. And enjoy what are hopefully better days of less kid clutter ahead.