The One Secret to Get Kids to Pick Up After Themselves Without Being Told

Ever walk in your house and become immediately overwhelmed with the stuff lying around? Whether you have younger kids or older kids, it is possible to set good habits so kids clean up their own mess

It’s bad enough when you have a kitchen junk counter stacked 3 layers deep with kid’s artwork, random books, and those gadgets for your door that you don’t want to throw away but you don’t know how to install…

Read: Organize your Kid’s School Papers Like a Boss

Add that to all the stuff your kids leave laying in the living room or crammed onto the top of the family room game shelf and you have the makings of a meltdown.

You clean it off one weekend and then a few days later the junk pile returns only this time, it’s all new junk.

Wish your kids would consistently pick up after themselves? Want to know how to make kids pick up a family affair?

Read: How to Get your Family to Pick Up Around the House

How to get kids to pick up after themselves

There are so many games that we can play to offer short-term fixes. 

Magic Piece of stuff:  one thing on the floor is worth a prize. Only you know what it is. For example, pick one toy from a pile of toys scattered on the floor. If the child ends up picking up that one toy during the clean up process, they win a prize.

Set a timer for clean-up: Watch kids hurry as they rush to beat the clock.

Have the toy fairy visit: She likes toys, but will only take those that aren’t put away after bedtime.

Throw everything away: More on this later…

These work for one-time solutions. The problem occurs when you need to keep using these tricks to get kids to pick up.

We need to play the long game instead.

This isn’t a quick one-and-done solution, but its fairly simple to do long-term and will teach kids to clean up after themselves with no coercion and no creative trickery.

Why do we need to clean up?

If you asked me this question as a kid, I would have replied, “Because my mom and dad told me to.”

Which works as long as my mom or dad always tell me to clean up. I’m sure you’ve experienced this as well.

I used this reason as a parent too and frankly, it annoyed me. Who wants to tell someone to do something over and over again only to have them tune you out?

For instance, I don’t want to tell my kids to constantly pick up their dirty clothes. Instead I want them to develop the life skills to see the dirty clothes on the floor and put them in the hamper.

This is something we teach more how to do in Calm & Happy Parenting.

Let’s level with our kids and give them more control over their lives.

William Stixrud, PhD and Ned Johnson, authors of The Self-Driven Child: The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives suggest that we parent our kids from three basic assumptions:

  1. You are the expert on you
  2. You have a brain in your head.
  3. You want your life to work.

But for them to use the brains in their head and get their lives to work, they need to have all the info.

READ: The 3 Step Plan to Change Your Kid’s Spoiled Behavior

How do we get kids to see their own mess?

We need to tell our kids the benefits of having an area picked up. In a nutshell, those are:

  • When it’s clean, you know where everything is and,
  • You can think clearly and not constantly be reminded of something more you need to do.

Stixrud and Johnson caution that “Kids often resist doing what is good for them if they feel pressured to do so.”

But if they come to the decision on their own using all available information, they’re much more likely to help out.

Teaching kids how to pick up their stuff

For young kids in Kindergarten and up, be honest about how the mess makes you feel.

It sounds weird and odd that this is a post about getting kids to tidy up and I’m talking about sharing feelings.

Trust me, it works.

Humans – including tiny ones – value relationships. They want to feel connected to others. They want to make other people happy.

Your kids want you to be happy, but they’re not quite sure why you’re upset.

You need to tell them.

I use phrases like,

“I can’t think clearly when there is stuff everywhere”

“It makes me feel sad when I see your stuff lying around like you don’t appreciate it”

Let it sink in. Ask them how they feel about what you said.

You say it with kindness, but your goal is to communicate how you feel about the mess without placing blame on them as a person. Rather, you’re telling how their actions – something that they can easily change – affect you. You’re setting realistic expectations for behavior.

A powerful lesson for any kid to learn.

Parenting with honesty builds trust. Being honest with your feelings is one way to do that. 

Next time you’re frustrated by the mess in the entire house, kids see that and are better able to figure out the true reason for your disappointment.

They will know they aren’t bad people, but they need to pick up all the toys because they know that messes upset you.

It’s a process

We can fill our lives with sticker charts and constant reminders to our kids to pick up, but if kids don’t know the reasons behind tidying up, it will be a neverending battle.

For kids to start taking the initiative they must know how a clean area affects their minds as well as the emotions of others.

We don’t need a complicated system. We just need to tell our kids our feelings and help them from there.

How to continue to encouraging kids to do more on their own

  1. Sign up to get No Guilt Mom emails. If you need someone to lift you up and empathize with you – while pushing to grow in all the best ways – welcome to No Guilt Mom. Plus, I send you a free gift when you sign up that will immediately reduce your stress.
  2. Enroll in Calm & Happy Parenting. Serious about changing the way your family communicates and deals with conflict? After taking our signature course, you’ll get more cooperation from your kids and WAY less pushback. Plus, you’ll create a strong family bond where your kids come to talk with you about issues instead of hiding them. 

JoAnn Crohn

CEO/Founder at No Guilt Mom
JoAnn Crohn, M. Ed is a parenting educator and life coach who helps moms feel confident in raising empowered, self-sufficient kid while pursuing their own goals & passions.

She’s an accomplished writer, author, podcast host of the No Guilt Mom podcast, and speaker who appears in national media. Work with her personally in Balance VIP

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  1. I’m trying this with my 7 year old kid… Her toys are everywhere and I always tell to pick it up every time and it’s really tiring. 🙁

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