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Multiple times during the day, we have our 4 year old take a break from playing to clean up her toys. It's a huge battle every time. Usually, she ends up on the ground saying that there are too many toys, she's too tired, her feet hurt, she's itchy, her throat hurts, etc. There is no end to the excuses for why she can't clean up. We make promises (e.g. we can do fun things if you clean up) and threats (e.g. read one book at bedtime instead of two). We follow through on the promises and threats, but the struggle is taxing on everyone.

We've tried:

  • Taking toys away. This causes tears, but does not motivate.
  • Praising when she does pick up toys. Still, the battles continue.
  • Yelling. You can guess the efficacy of this one.
  • Chore chart. She gets a sticker when she does her job. She ends up getting the sticker, but only because we have hounded her for a long time.
  • Cleaning up with her, but only cleaning when she helps. Sometimes effective.
  • Other ideas to little effect.

The toys are just one example of something we have to routinely do throughout the day that grows into something much more contentious than it really should be. Other regular battles are washing her hands, getting dressed, sitting on the potty, etc. The stress is bleeding into other areas of our life.

How can we get our 4 year old to do what we ask without the fight?

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Something that preschools do that works wonders is taking photographs of the toys and putting the picture on the shelf/box/etc of where the toy belongs. It helps the child remember where to put the toys away. For more on why praise/punishment doesn't work, see my answer here: parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/6397/… –  Christine Gordon Nov 29 '12 at 18:54

12 Answers 12

It helps if cleaning is a standard part of every activity rather than a big event. For example, you can make a rule that she can't play with a new toy until the previous toys are put away. If she can't grab a new toy until she's cleaned up, then she only has to clean up one toy at a time. If she isn't already in the habit of cleaning up, it may take her a little while to get used to the new expectations, but if you're consistent, then cleaning up will become "normal" for her.

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This seems to make sense. At the beginning, I expect to have dozens of "mini-battles," but hopefully that will diminish over time. –  Jim Jul 30 '12 at 23:55
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This sounds like a good idea, but we have found that it doesn't really make very much sense in the play style of our children. Some imaginative children like to pretend that random toys are the walls of a zoo or the refrigerator in a make-believe house or biscuits for their stuffed dog or whatever else they happen to think of. Our girls somehow manage to utilize all of their toys in one "activity". So, this one-toy-at-a-time rule can get kind of hard to enforce sometimes it and requires an unacceptable level of micro-management of their imaginative play time. (Just an observation.) –  Jeff Wilhite Aug 6 '12 at 13:45
    
@JefWilhite: In my home it works well when the activities overlap in space ("you can't play with the train set until the LEGO is gone") because there's not enough room for both at once. If there's no overlap then you "just" need to find other reasons. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 8 '12 at 11:29
    
@Jeff Wilhite As the parent, you can offer a certain amount of flexibility. If the child is honestly using both types of toys that is one thing, but just as often one toy is honestly abandoned for another in which case the child can be reminded that if it isn't being used, it should be put away. –  balanced mama Nov 19 '12 at 16:59

Taking toys away...

have the tears caused the return of those toys?

Try making sure they don't come back, after giving fair warning. At some point he'll get it. But you have to be tough and not fall victim to his tears.. .kids are great at making us feel guilty.

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Taking toys away has caused tears. The toys have been in a bag for over a week, though, without any complaint. So, another issue might well be too many accessible toys. –  Jim Jul 30 '12 at 23:57
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@Jim: If toys aren't missed for a week, then quarantine them for a month. If they still aren't missed, get rid of them! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 8 '12 at 11:26

With our 3.5 year old son, we do this by making sure he knows that he won't get to do the next thing until he puts away his toys. Want to watch TV? Put away your toys. Want to eat some snack food? Put away toys. Play hide and seek (his favorite game) or get thrown onto the bed? Put away your toys. Once he believed us, that he wasn't going to get away with not putting away his toys, then he started doing it on his own. The first few times you put your foot down, there will be a struggle, unless you can make it into a game (ie, "I can only play hide and seek with little girls who put away their toys...." etc)

Also, my wife spent a great deal of time putting everything into its own separate bin. This organization helped him make sense of all the toys he had available to him, and also gave him a clear spot where to put everything back. Just throwing everything into a closet wasn't enough guidance; if he got the toy from a specific spot, he wanted to put it away in that same spot.

You say you're doing all of these things. Honestly, there's a big difference between saying you want something ("Honey, please clean up your toys.") and offering a choice with a clear consequence ("Honey, if you do not clean up your toys by the time the timer goes off, I'm going to put them in the garage until Saturday.") With the second, she has a clear idea of what to expect. If she really doesn't care about her toys, she won't complain about them going into the box until Saturday. If she doesn't notice that they are gone for that entire time, you could consider just giving them to Goodwill or your local charity, and your cleanup problem gets solved more permanently.

The first time you offer her the clear consequence, she will not do anything. She will not believe that you are willing to do anything, if you've been using yelling as a motivational technique rather than action. Once she sees that you're doing the action-- putting the toys in the garage (or wherever)-- she might flip out. But that's because you've changed the tune; you've just skipped right to doing something about behavior you dislike, rather than just talking about behavior you dislike.

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Absolutely agree with this - stick with the warning and follow through, otherwise they will learn to ignore you. –  Rory Alsop Jul 30 '12 at 22:22
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@RoryAlsop: Instruction; Warning; Consequence. That should work for all the asker's chores, not just cleaning up. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 8 '12 at 11:25
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@balancedmama-- If you say so. He's doing it pretty well by now, three months to his fourth birthday. –  mmr Nov 29 '12 at 18:17
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@balanced mama and mmr, I think this is another of those short-term, long-term debates. Is the goal to get her to put away her toys, or to teach life-long skills in self-regulation, cleanliness, hygiene, self-care, independence, etc? I'm not sure what taking away her toys teaches but certainly it would force compliance in the short-term for most people. The challenge will be when she's an adult and there's no one there to threaten taking away her toys/belongings if her apartment is a mess. So, to each their own, but these are the sort of questions I'd be asking myself. –  Christine Gordon Nov 29 '12 at 18:48
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@beofett of course you can establish habits before they fully cognitively understand consequences of their actions etc, my approach is to do this using methods that encourage them to internalize these habits so that they are actually habits and not just tools for keeping dad/mom quiet. –  Christine Gordon Nov 29 '12 at 20:13

make this activity fun for her. Make up some game:
Like who will gather three red toys faster?
or what toy should go to what box?
or take a big bag, draw a funny face on it and tell your baby - "this is mr. ToyBag. He likes toys. Lets give him some. would you like this pink truck, mr ToyBag? I see you like it a lot"

Another way, tell her that toys want to go home to their boxes. Imitate toy crying "ohh..I wanna go home, please get me home". And once she put the toy in the box say " Its soo good here, thanks a lot!! its so comfortable!! i'm so happy etc"

Also I would recommend to eliminate amount of toys, and don't make her clean ALL of them. Kids are getting bored/tired fast.

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+1 for using the opportunity to reinforce other concepts she should be mastering at this age (color, number, shape, etc)! –  Christine Gordon Nov 29 '12 at 18:50

You could make it into a game, that also teaches the GTD methodology for handling tasks.

Put a big box in the middle of the room, and together put all toys in the box. Then take out the toys one by one and decide where it goes.

This teaches handling incoming "stuff" one at a time as well as archiving it properly, and there are elements of suspense when taking toys out of the box (what will the next toy to sort be?) and achievement when the box is empty (Inbox Zero yey!). The actions involved are very simple and there is no decision paralysis. You are helping her which makes it more likely that she'll join in.

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Allow the problem to solve itself.

Explain that any toys that aren't picked up, get placed into the Toy Void. These toys can be given away to charity, or you could allow the child to retrieve one toy from the void whenever they successfully pick up their toys after being asked.

If they don't pick up their toys after being asked, new toys will be added to the Toy Void, until no toys remain. Eventually, they will either pick up their own toys, or they will only have a few toys that you will have to pick up (or zero). If it gets to this point, you can allow them to have only one toy to play with once per day/week/etc., but only if they pick it up when you ask. If not, the problem will solve itself since the child wil not have any toys eventually by their own choosing. You are just helping them, by giving them fewer toys to pick up (win, win, right).

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I love this idea: direct, tangible consequences for bad behavior! It even has a built-in reverse gear as a reward for good behavior. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 8 '12 at 11:20

Well, any time you need a child (or anyone, really) to do something that they're NOT in the mood to do, it's going to be an emotional struggle.

It'll always be an emotional struggle, so here's the list of what I go through:

  1. is it worth the struggle? (YES! getting your child to put away their toys IS worth the struggle) But many of life's arguments are NOT. At times, you may find yourself arguing about things like "whether Barney should sing so loud". In this case, CAVE and get on with life.

  2. have you explained ALL the logic and have they understood ALL the logic? Some parents think that explanations are wasted on children. I think they are what make children smart. But it does take effort to explain EVERY little nitty detail and especially get all those details INTO the child's understanding.

  3. can you change the mood? Sometimes, ice cream is not bribery. Sometimes tickling is a good idea. Telling a joke CAN help a child pick up their toys.

  4. does the lesson need to be learned RIGHT NOW? Sometimes, it's better to give up on the first or second attempt. You must accept failure sometimes. But don't give up. That's pretty much the ULTIMATE rule of parenting - NEVER GIVE UP.

In general, my main rules of parenting are

  • logic should always trump emotion

  • you can't learn anything in a bad mood

  • never EVER give up on ANYthing

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I have a slightly different take than the answers I've read here: listen to the child - "there are too many toys" - have you taken a look around? I bet you've got a lot of toys, and I bet your child needs almost none of them.

My kids (1, 2, and 4) love to play with a toy for 1 minute, then chuck it, and move on. It makes a tremendous mess. However, they will vacuum the house for HOURS. They will play outside on a home made water table for HOURS. They will hang out at the beach for HOURS. There's a pattern here.

Toys are just that, and the kids know it. They are not for doing anything 'real', and young children love things that are real.

Depending on the age, give them real tools. Brooms, knives, drills, saws, rags w/ soap and water, etc. Things they see you use and that they value.

That became somewhat of a tangent, but the point is, try to reduce the amount of clutter you all have to deal with. Leave only the bare minimum toys. Then clean up will be much simpler.

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those are very good point, but also with "real" tools and things the children have to learn cleaning after "working" - which leads us to the original question –  BBM Aug 8 '12 at 21:42
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@BBM that's true, however I think cleaning up tools is actually a bit different. First, you usually don't have an endless supply of crappy tools strewn about because nobody really uses them. You usually have a relatively smaller number of useful tools with a particular purpose and a particular home. Keeping organized while using tools is a pleasing part of the process of doing real work, and it is constantly demonstrated (hopefully!) by the parents. How complex and overwhelming is it to put a vacuum away? –  Henry Aug 10 '12 at 6:01
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i loved the "listen to the child" part. You nailed it there. –  Ebenezar Dec 7 '13 at 7:13

This is what works for us (our eldest daughter is 18 months old)

  • Show the example ! Tidy your things in front of her, and have her involved. Concretely she loves to help in doing the laundry, putting small things in the bin or putting her brother's clothes to the washing basket.
  • Install a routine : we clean up her room every night between supper and bath. Same with the dining room.
  • Do it with her ! She helps more or less (more and more with time going) but at least she feels involved and does not feel it is a chore, but just something we do every day together.
  • Do not make a fight about it. This is probably different with an older kid, but for us every time we picked up a fight it ended with tears and frustration on both sides. Now unless she is physically endangered (such as standing on a chair or a table) we do not show any anger or impatience.
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I was a preschool teacher that dealt with the issue frequently with little ones. Generally, punitive styles do not really motivate kids with cleaning up. sometimes too many toys out can be overwhelming, sorting skills can make cleaning up more challenging than you realize if different things go in different bins AND they have to transition from playing to cleaning. Transitions are often tough for this age-group.

You might try a rule where he can only have one - maybe two kinds of toys out at a time. If he is playing with his train and train set, those have to be put away before he can switch to blocks. This way there is less to clean up and less sorting involved.

Give a five and 3 minute warning before ending play time to help in transitioning. "Okay you have five more minutes before it is time to clean up." "Okay, now you have three more minutes."

Doing this in conjunction with Michel Daviot's suggestions may make a big difference for you.

You can also try making a game of it. Sing a song, "Clean up Clean up everybody every where, Clean up clean up, everybody do your share". is a common one (just make up your own tune). There is also, "Whistle While you Work" from Snow White and "Happy Working Song" from Enchanted.

See who can get the largest number of toys cleaned up in 60 seconds.

Can he "beat the clock?" set a timer and celebrate together with cheers and dancing if it is done before the clock beeps.

Make it a learning practice game: Okay, how long will it take to clean up all the red cars? Can we do it in less time than the blue cars took?

If these methods don't work, THEN as a LAST RESORT you might try the more punitive answer given here. The idea that he can earn toys back from the toy void is far better than just giving the toys back after a set number of days, because he is learning that he has to rectify the problem that caused the toys to be lost in the first place.

I might also add that if it gets to the point that the bin is full (and your child is fully past the stage where it is questionable whether cause and effect are understood) then it is time to give away the majority of the toys in the bin because your child isn't missing them and earning them back anyway.

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Plus, I think choosing toys to give to charity could be part of an important pre-Xmas/birthday/major gifting holiday ritual. This would help keep down the overall number of toys, too, and could be a positive experience for the child if done well and they're old enough to understand other kids don't have toys. –  Christine Gordon Nov 29 '12 at 18:53
    
@ChristineGordon yes - we actually do that, but I'd've never allowed her to choose from a bin of toys that had been taken away because she wasn't cleaning up. –  balanced mama Nov 29 '12 at 20:42
    
Oh I know, I was thinking as an aside. You know I wouldn't take away toys either! But giving toys to charity or younger cousins as a routine can be part of the environmental influences that help indirectly. –  Christine Gordon Nov 29 '12 at 20:58

try throwing the toys out onto the yard, when she asks where the toy is, tell her she has to go get it. Once she has retrieved her toy, and asks why it is outside, tell her that you put it outside because she didn't put it away, and that you will throw every toy you find that has not been put away outside. She will hopefully get tired of having to go outside to retrieve her toys and learn to put them away (I know this may seem a little harsh, but it's how my mom did taught me to put away my toys, and boy did it ever work)

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Make it a game! "Yo Gabba Gabba" has a great song that we sang with our oldest boy that really got him to clean up. Don't ask, don't tell, don't suggest - announce that it is time to start cleaning up, then break out the song. Start singing (huge smiles and dancing are an added boost to motivation) pick up something, hand it to her, pick up something else and put it up where it goes. When it's all picked up, end with a "YAAAAAAAY!!! We cleaned it up!" and reward her a quarter, a special "all-cleaned-up" snack, or another special "all-cleaned-up" reward. Make sure the reward is unique to getting everything cleaned up.

Link to "Clean It Up"

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