Embracing Motherhood Why We Don't Make Our Little Kids Pick Up After Themselves

Why We Don’t Make Our Little Kids Pick Up After Themselves

First of all, let me clarify something. I’m not saying that I’ll never have my kids pick up after themselves, I’m not saying that I’m not currently teaching my children strategies for picking up after themselves, and I’m not saying that I’ll never teach them how to do chores. What I’m saying is that while our kids are little (all four are five and under), there are far more important things for us to focus on than whether or not they are picking up their messes.

I chose this picture of Ruby helping to fill the cat food as my featured image because it represents what I feel is a hallmark of success. She chose to do this on her own without any prompting or teaching from me. Lately, she has shown a desire to pitch in and help me out, and it completely warms my heart to find her “babysitting” Julian, getting a laundry hamper for her room, filling it, and then wanting to help me do the laundry, organizing the ponies in her room, and helping me pick things in the garden. This intrinsic motivation is what will allow her to progress farther than any preconceived notions I may have about where she should be or what she should do.

Why We Don’t Make Our Kids Pick Up

  • The time we interact with our children is valuable. When I think about the amount of time that our children are engaged in independent creative play, working on their basic needs (eating, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, etc.), and of course lots and lots of cuddle time, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for “instruction”. Their attention spans give me these small windows of time to work on the things that I really value and consider important. If I spent these rare teachable moments instructing my children on how to pick things up, I do not feel that it would not be as valuable as teaching things like number sense, the alphabet, reading, writing, and bigger concepts about the world based on their interests.
  • It would take them a long time to clean up, and it wouldn’t be up to my standards. Whenever I teach my children anything, I use the gradual release of responsibility model, meaning that I first model how to do something, then they do it with me, and finally I have them do it together or on their own. So basically, I would be spending hours upon hours of precious time teaching my children where all of the toys go, how they are sorted, how the arrangements continuously change, and how to adapt to this change. The very idea is not only insulting to my intelligence, but theirs as well.
  • I would have to hold them accountable. Whenever I teach my children a rule such as “Clean up your toys after you use them”, I can’t just mean “Clean up your toys only when I’m there to see it”, I have to mean “Clean up your toys all the time”. So I would have to follow them around from room to room ensuring that they indeed cleaned up every mess that they made. Frankly, the very idea of this is wearing me out!
  • I would rather that my children spend their time engaged in imaginative play. I remember when I was a little girl and my brother and I would take out all of the canned food and pots and pans from the kitchen, then take off all of the couch cushions, and finally use everything to make a little store. We would carefully set up all of the food and pans and take turns being the store owner and the customer, then we would play for hours! I also remember taking off all of the books from the bookshelf and playing library. I never once remember being expected to clean up any of these “messes”. (I say messes in quotes, because they weren’t messes to us, they were intricate worlds we created that we became immersed in.) Knowing that I would have had to put everything back “just as I found it” would have been so overwhelming and stifling that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to take out all of those items in the first place. Children need creative and imaginative play. Research has actually shown that their games of pretend have numerous cognitive benefits. Basically, it’s how children learn about and make sense of their world.
  • I would rather spend my time on more important things. Instead of following my children around while they are engaged in imaginative play to make sure that they are picking up after themselves, I would rather use this valuable time to prepare healthy homemade meals, clean up the kitchen, organize things in the background, set up new play and learning stations, prepare materials for guided instruction, or maybe even blog a little. Then, when I do engage with them, I will use my voice to speak to them about things that really matter to me. I will share my passions for learning, creativity, and writing, I will listen to what they are interested in and do my best to take their thoughts to the next level with my knowledge of the world and Socratic questioning (open ended questions that promote critical thinking), I will get down on the floor and play with them, and I will sit them on my lap and teach them about the world through a love of books.

Setting Up an Environment That’s Easy to Clean

  • Don’t cluster too many toys together, like in a playroom. Recently, we had a bedroom open up because our two older kids wanted to share a room, and so I turned it into a playroom. It was fun at first, but it was a concentration of too many toys that were always scattered on the floor. Not only that, but when the kids were playing up there, they were far away from me as I tried to get a few things done around the house. I prefer to spread small concentrations of toys around the house, and I’ve found that they are actually engaged for longer amounts of time and in deeper play when there are fewer toys available. Read more about how I set up this environment in my blogs: How to Create an Environment That Encourages Creative and Imaginative Play and Having a Clean House with Four Young Children…Is it Possible? 
  • Only keep out the toys that get played with. If there are toys out that don’t get played with, I put them away. If I keep them hidden for awhile, bring them out (I like to rotate my toys anyways), and they still don’t get played with, then I’ll get rid of them.
  • Get toys that encourage extended creative and imaginative play. I know that some people go so far as to say “no toys with batteries” or “only wooden toys”, and I don’t go that far, but close. My criteria is that if the toys we have engage my children for extended periods of time in creative and imaginative play, then they are worth keeping. It is also worth it for me to spend ten minutes cleaning up toys that engaged them for hours, but it is not worth it for me to spend twenty minutes cleaning up toys that only engaged them for five minutes.

How to Teach Kids About Chores

  • I involve my children in the jobs I am doing, and I make it fun. When I am cooking, the kids love helping me crack the eggs, stir the batter, and of course taste the batter! Not only are they learning about what it means to help, but they are learning valuable cooking skills that will aid them in the future. I encourage them to help me with whatever I am doing, but I don’t force it. Over time, the kids have enjoyed helping me put laundry into the washing machine, rinse dishes (but mostly play with the bubbles in the sink), pick vegetables from the garden, put dirty clothes in the hamper, empty their potties, and many other small jobs that someday they will be able to do on their own.
  • The kids like helping Daddy too. When Daddy is doing little projects around the house, the kids love following him around and “helping him”. They will hold nails or screws for him, try hammering things, stand on boards to hold them straight, sit on his lap on the riding lawnmower, unscrew and fix computers with him, and many other small jobs.
  • It’s a gradual release of responsibility that lasts for years. I think the toughest thing for kids is when we expect the whole from them when we haven’t taught them the parts. So when parents say “Clean your room!”, what does that even mean? The children might not know how to fold their clothes, how to hang them up, where to put their toys, where to put their books, how to make their beds, and so on. And you can’t just teach all of these things at once. It has to happen layer upon layer in a gradual way over many many years.
  • Using backwards design as a template. When I think about chores with the end in mind, I wonder, “What do I want my children to know, understand, and be able to do by the time they are adults?” Well, I want them to know how to crack an egg, how to shake a rug, how to angle the broom to get under the cupboards, how to fold clothes so you can see the top of the shirt, how to do laundry economically, how to use different brushes to clean different dishes, how to change a vacuum bag, and so many other little things. I want them to understand the value of a clean home and how we take pride in the things that we have by keeping them clean and in working order. And finally, I want them to be able to do all of these things when they are grown and on their own; this includes my daughters and my sons (You’re welcome future spouses!).

Tips and Tricks

  • If you take something out, play with it. I will lay down the law if I see my kids pick up toy after toy and discard them about the room without even playing with them. That is not okay with me.
  • Don’t throw things inside. We really only had to make this rule for our son Elliot because he would throw things that would and could hurt people, but it was also a really quick way for him to make a tremendous mess. We tell him he can throw things outside as much as he wants.
  • Put caps back on markers. Since my kids are capable of it, I expect that they will put the caps back on the markers after they are done using them. Before I expected them to do this independently, I first modeled how to do it and showed them how to make sure the caps clicked on so that they were securely fastened and how different caps fit different markers. I also explained what would happen if we didn’t put the caps on the markers, and how we couldn’t afford to keep buying new markers all the time. Before I expected them to do this independently, I worked with them side by side to make sure they were doing this right. (I give you this detailed example to show the depth of teaching that I put into all of the parts that will one day lead to the whole of me saying, “Clean up this mess!”)
  • Clean when the kids aren’t looking. If you try to clean in the same room as the kids are playing in, it’s a futile attempt because they’re just going to keep making a mess, and you’re going to get frustrated. That’s not to say that you can’t tidy up a bit when they’re distracted, but I’ve found it’s easier to just wait until they’ve moved on to another project in another room. Also, I don’t think it’s good for kids to have to think too much about the cleaning I have to do. I don’t want to thwart their creativity by constantly reminding them that I’m the one who’s got to clean up all of their messes, and I don’t want them to feel entitled to having me clean it up. I just want it to be clean without them even thinking about it. I’m like a magic little elf who works behind the scenes!
  • What to do if kids get defiant about helping pick up occasionally. From time to time, you’ll need your kids to help you pick up (or do any other number of chores), and if they flat out refuse to help you on the rare occasion that you ask for help, then you’ve got bigger issues on your hands, and I recommend you reading my blog: Guiding Children Towards Positive Behaviors for some tips on how to nip that attitude in the bud with positive parenting.

How Kids Learn

Kids learn by observation and immersion. We shouldn’t have to tell our children (constantly, that is) to say please and thank you, they should hear us modeling it all the time (if this is something we choose to model) and it should become second nature to them. I remember when Ophelia was just learning how to talk and kept saying “I know!” over and over again. We were like, “Where did that come from?” but then when we were out walking one day having a great conversation and saying, “I know!” back and forth to each other, it finally dawned on us.

If we value having a clean home, if we model what it means to take the time to organize and clean our living space, if we involve them in the process along the way, and if we gradually release them to be able to do these jobs independently, then it won’t be something that they need to be constantly reminded about, cleanliness will be second nature to them. It will be so ingrained in their very fiber that they will crave it, and they will find a way to make it work without even thinking about it.

Future plans

People often ask me what we’ll do with our children when they’re older, or they’ll make me promise to them that I’ll do such and such when they are teenagers, and all I can say is that it is an ongoing work in progress, and there is no way that I can look into the future right now and know exactly what I’ll be doing or how I’ll be doing it. The way that my husband and I parent is by keeping the big picture in mind while focusing on the details at hand. We know that we want to raise well mannered caring children who have confidence, creativity, passion, and skills that will help them succeed at whatever they choose to do. We want them to know without a shadow of a doubt that they are loved, not just by our words, but through our actions as well. We know that when they are teenagers, we will have long chats with each other into the night about their well-being, growth, progress, and goals – just as we do now.

Right now, when we look at the details and the big picture, we see that there are more important things to focus our energies on than having our children pick up every single “mess” (or remnants of creativity left behind) that they make. As they get older and are capable of more, this may change, but for right now, this is what works for our family.

2 replies
  1. Rich Napierkiwski
    Rich Napierkiwski says:

    A well written blog. You logically took me though a natural progression that made me consider. I especially liked your idea of modeling good behavior and good manners. We truly have so little time, I agree with you…on what do we really want to be teaching. Good wisdom my dear. Love you.

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