Cleanliness: How to Get Children to Clean up After a Mess

Catch them while they're young!“I don’t think so!”

In his still baby voice, but in a very non-baby (for lack of a better expression) way, my five-year-old tells me that he doesn’t think the room is messy.

I can spot twenty toy cars mounted on top of a pillow, while the blanket has been thrown onto the floor where it covers the poor little stuffed lion that had been a prized possession and is now, “something that only babies play with” and he’s saying there’s no mess! (Phew! That was a long sentence.)

So, what my point is here?

Children make a mess and we all know that. What a few of us may not know is that they cannot recognise mess as we do. For most kids, things that are lying around don’t seem messy. They have a different understanding of tidiness and keeping things clean or in place than adults.

This point was pointed out to me recently when I visited an educational funfair for kids and met a few teachers.  The following are the various points highlighted by a few of them:

1) Music to the fun

“At most events, we play music or rhymes to get them in action.”

I’m talking to a few representatives of MILLK, which is a recreation centre for kids in south Mumbai. They host parties for kids as young as two years old and managing children is their forte. How do they do it?

“We obviously have staff that cleans up after the children. But some fun activities also involve children putting the things back in place.”

Music is played for activities which involve quick action. Children readily put things in place if it involves competition and fun.

Hmmm, room for thought?

Imbibe music

“We are a musical family. I don’t remember playing with her in any other way. For everything, we have a song,” says Smriti, teacher at Ranchi-based playschool, Shemrock Champs (www.shemrock.com).

Here, she is talking about her efficacy as a mother as far as cleanliness and playtime are concerned. She and her three-year-old sing songs as they clean up and slowly, Smriti is letting her daughter do most of the putting the toys away on her own.

“I just want cleaning to be part of playing,” she concludes.

2) “Same time, same place”

Well, when I first heard her out, I thought she was kidding. How can you discipline a child so much that play time and clean up time are the same every day? I mean kids are not robots!

However, I had misunderstood her. Here’s what Urvashi meant: “Everyday, half an hour before dinner, Jiyansh has to clean up.”

So, if the dinner is at 9 pm, he needs to clean up by 8.30 pm and if it’s at 8.30 pm, he needs to get it done by 8 pm. By making a fixed routine for cleaning up the house and putting things back in order, Urvashi makes cleaning compulsory in her home.

Urvashi works at a Mumbai-based children’s book store Spellbound and deals with children and parents on a daily basis. She makes sure to implement her professional learning in her parenting skills.

With Responsibility

“Making them responsible for putting things in order, by making a fixed schedule for it, teaches them the value of time and also gives them a sense of dutifulness.”

She explains that when we teach children to keep things safely and properly, they know the value of those things. Also, “If something needs mending or repair, it comes to our notice since we are regularly arranging our things.”

It’s time for making a schedule. Don’t you agree?

3) “Nap time is not clean-up time”

Says Atan, an erstwhile preschool teacher at Oxford Kids School near Greater Kailash in Delhi. She is currently on her long maternity break. Her son is 15 months old now. “Old enough to start cleaning up after him,” she says.

Start young

Most mothers wait for children to sleep before they clean the mess created by them in the house. Even for regular household cleaning, kids are sent to school first.

“Yes, they make a mess, a lot of mess,” says Atan, but she thinks that making a mess does not mean that they are not shown the way around cleaning it up.

A young mind is like a blank slate—a very clichéd statement that still makes a lot of sense. If we show the toddlers that mess they create needs to be cleaned up and it’s a painstaking process, we will instill the same feeling in them.

They will start cleaning up after them earlier in life–precisely what we want, isn’t it?

A baby but without baby talk

Well this one may not go down very well especially with mothers like me, who put in requests (like contractors putting government tenders) in front of children, to get them to listen.

Although there is nothing wrong in being polite, at the end of the day, a parent is authority.

For young children, especially those who have just learnt how to move around on their own, it is imperative for parents to order cleaning around, instead of requesting.

Balance of power

“Don’t create an imbalance of power in the house early on in their lives. They need to know what goes,” Atan says.

Her insistence is upon telling children, with confidence (yet politely) to clean up. Not as a choice but, as a way of life.

“The less anxious you seem in making your baby work, the less you have to struggle with a grown-up child later,” she wisely concludes.

Organise4) Make a list of expectations

Make a to-do list that children can easily follow and understand. It can be a standard list that says cleaning after play involves a certain set of things, while cleaning up after study time involves another set.

Children can decorate the lists in their own unique way. Keep the language simple and easy. For kids who cannot read yet, make a list together and read it out aloud whenever you want those jobs done.

This is an idea that I’ve been pondering over for quite some time now, but Smriti has sealed it with her expert approval. She thinks that like in school, this idea is totally doable at home too.

What’s in the list?

“The list can include things like put your dirty socks in the laundry bucket, put toys away in the basket, get your water bottle to the kitchen, and put your school bag in the right place,” says Smriti.

Then she adds, “You can have a holiday list too, which does not involve a lot of post study/post school cleaning but mostly of toys and other mess created everywhere around the house.”

My list includes ‘make your bed.’ Talk about pushing it!

Reward good results

“Rewards and recognition work for every child at every stage, so why not here?” asks Smriti.

She advocates awarding children if they participate in cleaning up. Plus, making a reward system whereby when you collect a few plus points, you will get a small gift as a token of appreciation.

“Getting them something, once in awhile is not going to spoil them. It will definitely motivate them I know,” concludes Smriti.

Offer help

What about our support in all this cleaning-up talk? A very important point to close this discussion with.

“Backseat driving is as bad as driving without a license!” says Smriti, chuckling. Perhaps, this point has tickled some funny bone in her. Anyway, she believes that just orders don’t work.

“Active participation of parents to show how exactly to clean-up is imperative,” she adds.

We need to keep our line of thought clear, the expectations from our children reasonable, and most importantly, the job of cleaning up, fun.

That’s it, easy as said. Why don’t you give it shot?

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How do you get your children to clean up after a mess? Share your views with us in the ‘Comments’ section.
Image Credits: Mufidah Kassalias; Jenny Lee Silver

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Mother to a five-year-old, Amrita Minocha is essentially a teacher. She teaches GRE/GMAT/IELTS verbal courses, English as a second language (TESOL), and Yoga! An MBA in HR, she enjoys juggling between diverse roles. A hardcore bookworm who aims to pen a book someday, she currently writes GRE verbal samples, activity books for kids, and actively blogs on the Flintobox blog.

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