Skip to main content

Refuses to Clean Up

What to do:

Self-Talk. Say to yourself, "It's annoying when I see the messes my child makes and doesn't clean up, but I can handle being annoyed. It just tells me that I have to teach her that keeping clean and organized makes life easier. I can do that."

Empathy. Tell yourself, "I sometimes don't want to clean up messes I make either. I understand that my child doesn't know how to keep our home clean and neatly organized-or want to! She just wants to play!"

Teach. Tell yourself, "I can teach my child how to clean up when she makes a mess-keeping her toys, clothes and other stuff neat can be fun and makes life more predictable. It's important for her to learn to be organized-that will serve her well her entire life. When she cleans up after she makes each mess, the clean-up job is easier!

Clean as You Go. Show your child how to put away his toys immediately after he's finished playing, to limit clutter as he bounces from plaything to plaything. Help him pick up the picking-up habit early in life, to encourage him to be a neater child and, later, a more organized adult.

Be as Specific as You Can. Instead of just asking your child to clean up his room, tell him exactly what you'd like him to do. For example, say, "Let's put the pegs in the bucket and the blocks in the box."

Confine Messy Activities to a Safe Place. Avoid potential permanent markers on the couch, carpet or table by letting your child play with messy materials (finger-paints, clay, markers, crayons, and so on) in appropriate places-non-carpeted areas, or on a table with newspaper on it and a mat under it.

Use Grandma's Rule. Say, "When you've put the balls in the basket and the cars on the shelf, then you may go outside to play with your friend." If you think she needs help, happily show her how to do what you ask.

Make Cleaning Up a Habit. When it happens every day, cleaning up toys or putting away clothes or dishes becomes a habit, just as taking a bath or brushing her teeth is part of your routine. At the end of the day, clean up toys, art supplies, the kitchen and clothes with your child before starting her bedtime routine together. She'll learn that it's important to you, so it will be important to her.

Play Beat the Clock. When your child is trying to beat the smartphone timer, picking up toys is a fun game. The timer uses your child's competitive nature to encourage her to complete a task quickly and makes cleanup (and other tasks) more fun. Set the timer for 5 minutes and say, "Let's see if we can clean up all of these toys and put them in the toy basket before the timer rings. Go!" When she finishes the clean-up before the timer before it rings, praise the quick work!

Make Small, Do-able Tasks. When a very young child is asked to clean up a mess, he may not be able to even find a place to start. Help him by pointing to one toy and saying, "Let's start with your truck. Put the truck in the toy box first." Then move to the next toy or item until they are all put away.

Teach Older Children and Teens to Put Their Things Away. After you have told an older child where things belong, such as hanging a backpack on a hook in the hallway or putting shoes in a bin by the door, then praise his neatness. If shoes are found in the middle of the floor, put them in your closet. When your child asks where his shoes are, tell him he can have them back after he has completed a job for you, such as vacuuming the floor. This will help him remember to put his shoes where they belong.

Make Household Jobs Chart. As soon as your child is old enough to put a sticker on a poster or a mark on his very own "job chart", you can make completing chores a fun way to reap praise and feel good about helping. Say, "Let's put a sticker on the chart" every time your child accomplishes a goal-even if he can't read, he will read your smile and joy as a job well done. If your child is too old for stickers to be motivators, create another reward for reaching the milestone of marking a chart for a week or month. The lesson is all about being responsible-as much as it is cleaning up a mess.

Jobs can include making the bed, clearing the table, loading and unloading the dishwasher, and washing and drying the dishes after cooking. This also cuts down on fighting between siblings-whose job it is to do what when can be on the chart. For example: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday-Manuel washes the dishes. Thursday, Friday and Saturday-Sarah washes them.

Praise Cleanup Effort. Compliment the terrific way your child is cleaning her closet, for example. Say, "I like how you are clearing off the floor, so you can walk in the closet and not step on clothes. Thanks for keeping your clothes hung up so they stay clean.

What not to do:

Don't Expect Perfection. The fact that your child is trying to clean up means she's learning how to do it. She will improve over time. The big lesson is to make it a habit, not a one-time event.

Don't Punish Messiness. Punishing your child for being messy will not teach him the cleanup skills he needs to learn.

Don't Use Labels. Calling your child a "slob" because he makes messes with his toys and clothes and doesn't clean them up won't teach him how to be neat. Labeling will become his identity. If he believes he is a slob, he will behave like one.

The authors and Raised with Love and Limits Foundation disclaim responsibility for any harmful consequences, loss, injury or damage associated with the use and application of information or advice contained in these prescriptions and on this website. These protocols are clinical guidelines that must be used in conjunction with critical thinking and critical judgment.