Trying to clean up after
young children is an endless task. They pull toys out of closets,
drawers, and shelves, and when they’re done playing with one thing;
they drop it on the floor and get out something new. They also take
pots and pans out of cabinets, unroll toilet paper, and leave
clothes and shoes lying around. In just a short time, a young child
can create a mess.
Some of this can be explained. Young children’s interests shift
quickly from one object to another, so even a brief play period may
result in a big pile of toys. And because they like to play wherever
their parents are, they carry (and leave) toys all over the house.
Taking toys out is fun, but picking them up is not.
That job usually is left for parents, and the daily process of
putting things away can be both demanding and unrewarding. Many
parents want or expect help from their children, but until children
reach early elementary age, parents get little relief. That’s
because young children don’t think about cleaning up in the same way
that adults do. Children are truly unaware of the tasks they leave
for their parents.
All parents must decide whether to constantly clean up after their
children or let the cleaning go at times so the family can
accomplish other things. Of course some adults care more about
neatness than others. And some parents fear letting things get too
messy because of unexpected visitors or the prospect of large-scale
cleanups. Parents who work outside the home may feel a particular
desire for a neat house because their cleanup time is so limited.
Although everyone would like help in maintaining a clean home,
parents who pressure their young children to clean up actually may
stifle the exploration and play that are a necessary part of
childhood. For example, a child who always is expected to put her
blocks away eventually may lose interest in using the blocks or may
decide it’s easier to simply watch TV. Also, those parents who feel
compelled to establish early patterns of cleaning up may find the
process frustrating and time- consuming. They usually have to stand
over their young children and coach them through the entire chore.
The effort expended in such supervising is often greater than the
effort of cleaning up without the help.
Although straightening up after young children remains an adult
task, there are ways you can involve your child. Your two and
one-half- or three-year-old can put a few toys back in place,
particularly if you do the job with her or if you hand her the toys
and tell her where they go. Your four- or five-year-old can take a
more active role in straightening up, although she will still be
most successful when you’re close by helping.
Your child may be willing to cooperate in cleanups if you give her
some warning: “In five minutes it will be time to put the toys
away.” If your child seems overwhelmed, help her focus by giving
specific instructions: “Jesse, you’re in charge of putting the
puzzles and hooks away.” Sometimes she will go along with you if you
offer concrete choices: “You can either put the trucks back on the
shelf or put the toy soldiers in this basket.” And when several
children are playing together you can ask, “Who’s going to put the
crayons away? Who will clean up the train set?”
If your child spends time in day care, strike a balance between your
child’s desire to play freely when she’s home and your desire to
keep cleanup to a minimum. Most evenings let her play with her toys,
and some evening's structure her play so she takes out only a few
things such as dolls or a game to use in a specific place.
If your children resist putting their toys away, there are many
other household jobs they may actually enjoy doing. These include
dusting, washing windows, vacuuming, putting utensils away, or
polishing silver. As they get older, they will take on more
responsibility for putting their things away. In the meantime, your
young children may occasionally surprise you with an unexpected
cleanup, done just to help you out and make you happy.