Oh, the mess!

“How do you handle cleaning up toys for a three year old? Or should I not have this expectation? My husband asked my three year old to pick up toys and she said, “No thanks”. So he said he would take something away if she did not do it.  I don’t agree with this and my three year old doesn’t care! She says, “Go ahead”. At what age do we start cleaning up together and asking for /expecting participation? And what should the consequence be if they don’t/ won’t do it?”


It is such a common question, so today, I am going to offer some ideas originally shared in the Facebook group, RIE: Raising Babies Magda’s Way that may be helpful in thinking about how to approach this dilemma in a respectful way. Begin by understanding that living with young children means living with some (Okay, sometimes a lot of) mess. Learning, growing, playing, and creating is a messy affair. Letting go of the expectation that your home will be Pinterest perfect goes a long way. As with most things, encouraging cooperation and participation in cleaning puts the onus on us as parents to do most of the “heavy lifting” in the early years. It takes time, modeling and patience, and we have to try to see through the eyes of our children.

It can be very helpful to create a  yes space” within your home, which is essentially the child’s play space, and that way, toys are confined to one area. It can also be helpful to have baskets for easy sorting and cleaning up. But aside from these practicalities, it is important to build the habit and to invite, rather than insist upon or force cooperation, and this can begin at a very young age. During parent/infant education classes, I bring a large basket, and five to ten minutes before the end of class, I bring out the basket and very slowly begin to collect the toys, narrating what I am doing. This is a signal to the children that the class is drawing to a close, and we will soon be saying goodbye. I ask parents to remain seated and to stay relaxed as I gather toys. By the time children are young toddlers, when I bring the basket out, I usually have several eager and willing helpers. I usually pick up just a few toys, and then sit and let the children bring toys to me. I don’t expect  or direct them to help, I don’t sing a clean up song, and I don’t make a big deal of it if some children choose not to participate.

Likewise, at home, I began a similar routine with my girl when she was an infant. I would tidy her play area twice a day, usually midday and early evening. For a long time, she just watched, then she liked to “help” by taking toys out of the baskets, and then one day, when she was about two, this happened:

Look how neat!


I would generally just start and let her join in any way she wanted to. At age two and a half,  she eagerly participated in cleaning up. She had started to build these tall block towers, and I would always ask her if she’d like to leave them or if she’d like to knock them over and put them away and rebuild them later. Engaging her in the process and seeing clean up as a “wants something” caregiving time, and a cooperative effort was important. A good rule of thumb for both younger and older children is to not allow access to more toys than YOU are willing or able to pick up all by yourself. This does not have to be a battle. Children don’t need to be threatened with consequences, manipulated or bribed in order to participate in this process.

Janet Lansbury adds: “Children are more likely to help out when they don’t feel pressured or on the spot, aren’t too tired, and have been approached with a positive, polite attitude. When we don’t give them a ton of these kinds of rules and we stay on their side,  they feel genuinely loving towards us, and want to help. I would only ask in the most open way, “Would you mind popping some of those blocks into this bucket?” If she says no or just doesn’t do it, keep going yourself, maybe asking her again with something else. If you ask children any question, it has to be okay for them to say no. What I’m saying is to stop trying to find an approach to get her to do this. Ratchet this all back to being perfectly willing to pick up yourself. My advice would be to put out less stuff if you don’t want a big mess to clean up. You can’t force these things. You can’t force someone to like and respect you. That’s a kind of old-school thinking that leads to punishment and a less intimate and trusting long-term relationship between parent and child. Yes, a child may be perfectly capable of cleaning up, but that will always be a voluntary activity on her part. You cannot force this, unless you want to resort to punishment and creating more of a divide between you. Being capable and wanting to do it are two different things. From my point of view you are trying to straitjacket her into being more mature than she is and that always backfires, because we don’t get what we want in the end. We might get a “good” child that feels a lot of shame inside and doesn’t feel particularly intimate with her parents.”

Kate Russell, of Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids, echoes Janet’s advice, saying, “Children are inherently good, kind and helpful. They don’t need to be taught to be these things. When children are able to act these qualities out it is because all their needs are met. They are feeling safe, supported, trusted, accepted, loved, connected. They aren’t hungry, tired, overwhelmed, overstimulated, etc. When you get annoyed or frustrated with your child for not following your orders, you undermine her feelings of safety, support, acceptance and  love, and therefore it is nearly impossible for her to naturally and authentically want to help or follow your orders. I would encourage parents to explore further where these ideas that children must experience consequences for not complying are coming from. Often, it’s related to our own upbringings and values we had forced on us early on.”

Finally, Shiva, mom to a four year old, reflects, “Last night I found myself a bit frustrated about my child’s lack of participation in cleaning up before bedtime so I took the time to search for some guidance. After reading the comments above, the first thing I did this morning was to declutter and put some of her toys away (with her input). I slightly shifted my perspective and tone during our clean up routine tonight and noticed a huge difference! We also started cleaning up a little earlier than usual to ensure that she’s not too tired, and I set some limits, telling her if she’d like to play with her toys that she needed to make sure they stay in her room.”

So, what do you think? Are you ready for a shift in how you approach clean up with your children?

Respectful Parenting Symposium With Janet Lansbury

August 23, 2017

I am so excited and honored to be teaming up with Janet Lansbury to offer an afternoon question and answer symposium in Santa Cruz, CA , on October 7, 2017. I hope some of you will be able to join us. It is sure to be a lively discussion! Tickets are available now, and you […]

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Meditation on Motherhood

April 27, 2017

  My girl is adopted.  She is my biological niece, and my daughter. We are four and a half years into our relationship together. I  unexpectedly became her mother at the age of forty nine years old, (after twenty five years of being a professional infant toddler caregiver and educator), under the most unusual and trying of […]

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Please, Thank You, I’m Sorry…Trusting Children to Develop Social Skills and Manners In Time

April 2, 2016

“Can you explain why we don’t need to tell toddlers to say sorry, thank you, please, etc? My child’s caregiver told her she needs to say sorry when she “does something bad”, which in this case was poking the caregiver’s eye. My daughter is 19 months old. “Say please.” “Say thank you.” “Say you’re sorry.” “Say […]

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Baby Connect- A Useful Tool For Parents

July 25, 2015

My child is three years old now, but has been having some health challenges which make it necessary to carefully track food intake, medication, diaper contents, sleep, mood, and activity, in order to share with health care professionals. Enter Baby Connect. Rarely (Okay, never!) have I been as excited about an app as I am […]

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Entering Into A Conversation With Your Baby

January 25, 2015

“What are some things to say to a baby when he is upset for no clear reason (fresh diaper, fed, not too cold/warm, not tired, etc)? My husband and I have gotten into the habit of saying ‘You’re OK’ to our 3 month old. We say it more as a reassurance that he is indeed […]

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The Gift in Slowing Down to a Child’s Pace

May 24, 2014

Tabitha writes, “I wanted to share an experience from my family’s first vacation. I just returned form a two-week stay in Mexico with my husband and 15 month old daughter. The first week was shared with my entire extended family as we celebrated the wedding of my younger sister. I was extremely excited to introduce […]

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No Ifs, Ands, or Buts: Setting Limits With Empathy

April 12, 2014

Calmly setting and holding to necessary limits can be trying for parents, especially in the face of a toddler’s strong feelings of displeasure or upset. One of the most frequent questions I receive from parents is “How do I set or hold  a limit when my child is upset?” For instance, “It’s time to get […]

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Is Tummy Time Important For My Baby? (My Final Answer!)

January 4, 2014

      “Is Tummy Time important for my baby?” (Read more here: No Tummy Time Necessary, and here: Tummy Time Baby’s Way.) The above video is courtesy of Kids In The House, which is a (still) new web site that was launched in April 2013, and is a tremendously valuable FREE resource for parents. The site’s creator, Leana […]

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The Cat in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party!

January 1, 2014

(With thanks to Janet Lansbury for the title!) I actually took this picture of R’s play space about three weeks ago, but it seemed appropriate to post here, today. R had been playing, and then went for a nap, and I went to tidy up her play space and happened upon this scene, which just […]

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