How to Get Kids to Clean Up

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

“My kids make such a mess,” is a common complaint of many parents. “I'm sick of cleaning up after them, they need to clean up their own mess.” This is a reasonable position, but how is it accomplished? Asking children to clean up often simply generates resistance. It may be more difficult to get them to clean up than it is to just clean it up yourself. 
Threats and punishments don't seem to work very well either. My clinical experience shows that they just result in more misbehavior and not very much cleaning. 

How to Get Kids to Clean Up - NY, NY - Tribeca Play Therapy

How To Get Kids to Clean Up!

So how do we motivate them? To answer this we need to understand an important principle: children crave self-determination. Every child has a great need to feel in control of his or her own life. However, getting kids to clean up by telling or even asking them makes them feel bossed, ordered and commanded and this takes away their feeling of self-determination. A child’s fledgling sense of self is very fragile, and compliance with orders to clean up could damage it, especially as parents often unfortunately and unintentionally insult and criticize children who make a mess: "Why do you always have to make such a mess!” “Can’t I ever get you kids to clean up?” "Why can't you ever keep things clean? You are a disaster!” This further wounds their sense of self and puts them in no mood to comply. Children who are ‘put down’ or criticized feel terribly ashamed and this creates a lack of energy, so that they simply can't find the strength and resolve to comply.

Try Describing The Problem

Fortunately for us, Haim Ginott, famed psychologist from the 1960’s, invented a solution called describing. I've synthesized his work with my own ideas.

When a child makes a mess, instead of criticizing, lecturing, putting down, ordering or commanding, describe what you see. "I see orange peels left on the couch," and the child can conclude for himself what needs to be done. I've been amazed to see this work! Say, “I see a coat left on the floor in the hallway,” and the child does not feel criticized, insulted, or bossed. Instead he has simply been provided indirectly with information about what needs to be done and the choice is now his to step up to the plate and do the right thing. This is a wonderful opportunity to actually achieve self-determination. By describing we give the child a chance to decide on his own to behave appropriately. This gives him a feeling of pleasure which inspires him to comply. Describe, “I see Legos here on the floor,” and then walk away and you'd be amazed to see your children clean it up of their own accord. Describing works because it is an extremely polite, subtle and respectful form of communication, sort of like an indirect hint. I have seen fantastic results with this technique used by many parents, and may be the best method available to get kids to clean up.

Find out the key to getting kids to do what their parents ask, here.

How to Get Kids to Clean Up - NY, NY - Tribeca Play Therapy

In addition, after describing the mess you should walk away a bit so the child doesn't feel you are standing over him waiting for him to comply, as that might make him feel bossed. When a parent tells a child what to do and then stands by insisting that he comply immediately, it becomes very ego-deflating for the child. He may intuitively know that he should clean up but this threat to his sensitive, frail ego often makes it just too great for him to comply. By describing, however, we avoid this whole problem, as we don’t need to issue any orders. 
In addition to describing the mess describe your own values. “In our house we keep things clean.” “In our family we put things away when we're done with them.” This inspires the child to rise to the occasion and do the right thing by teaching values without criticizing, condemning insulting or commanding.
You may further describe your feelings as "When I see such a mess it upsets me.” or "It makes me angry when things aren’t put away.” This communicates that you are a person who has feelings too, feelings which need to be respected, and you can thus express this without attacking, putting down or ordering. Describing your feelings makes children feel important because you are honouring them by revealing your feelings and trusting them to treat those feelings with respect.

Instead of struggling with how to get kids to clean up, lower your expectations a bit!

When a child is 1 year old we don't ask him to clean up at all. When he's 25 he'll clean up his own house by himself. How do we get from here to there? The answer is we can get kids to clean up gradually! A person needs to learn gradually the responsibility of cleaning up. In the meantime we as parents have to clean up for them to a certain extent, more when they're younger and gradually less and less as they get older. So there's a magic amount that a child of a particular age can be expected to clean up. The child may be physically able to clean every day but he may not be emotionally mature enough to handle the responsibility, so expecting him to clean up even a little bit too much for his age will put pressure on him and create resistance and conflict. Therefore I recommend to all parents to lower by 10 percent the amount of cleaning that you expect and request your children to do. Forcing kids to clean up can put a recurring and heavy strain on the precious parent-child relationship. It is better to err on the side of asking them less. 

To find out how to deal with a child who seems to act immaturely and irresponsibly for his age, click here.

In addition we as parents need to engage in what's called reframing, that is, we shouldn’t fear that our child's lack of motivation to clean up means he is heading towards a life of laziness, irresponsibility, lack of consideration, selfishness and delinquency. We reframe the behavior as actually being well within the range of normalcy and no cause for alarm. Be reassured that he will learn to clean up in good time.  Remember our family life is not a TV show such as “Little House on the Prairie,” where children do two hours of chores each morning before walking miles to school. A sense of responsibility to clean up is like good wine - a taste that needs to be acquired gradually. So in addition to describing, have patience with your children and they will learn to be more responsible when the time is right.

How to Get Kids to Clean Up - NY, NY - Tribeca Play Therapy

Make them happy

Children who are generally happy, content and have their emotional needs met are much more likely to comply with requests. On the other hand children who are unhappy or suffering emotionally are irritable and very disinclined to help out. Therefore, as I have recommended generally throughout this blog, it should be your daily goal to make your children happy. Each day, think "How can I make my child’s day pleasant.” Strengthen the parent-child relationship, as it is the most important asset in any child's life. That means you should always be a source of pleasure to your child and never a source of stress. Communicate to the child that you are aware of and accept all of his emotions as I have outlined elsewhere in this blog, and above all, be exceedingly nice to him or her. Do all this and you'll be surprised how much more often he or she complies with your requests.
Please be aware that the above represents a parenting ideal and one shouldn’t expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement these new ideas gradually. Feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialties on this website or download one of my informative free reports.

If you are struggling with “How to get kids to clean up” or other issues, and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan,

you may call me at 646-681-1707 for free 15 minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!

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