Updated: Mar 4
The battle of getting children to do what we ask is one well-known to parents. In this case, the constant feud between mother and daughter about tidying up, is ongoing and fraught with strong emotions.
With a background as an early childhood teacher, I’m a Mum with a pretty fair tolerance for, and a philosophy to support, toys being left out so that play can be continued at a later time, added to, extended. That said, when it becomes an excuse for not tidying up and the tidying up part gets postponed, delayed and inevitably forgotten, then I am not so patient. When I look around and see countless unfinished games, discontinued play, cluttered corners, surfaces covered with half-finished craft projects, I feel my stress levels rise. My daughter’s room is worse, piles of clothes discarded on the floor, toys and trinkets atop the dresser and side table, precariously stacked books and other random items scattered around.
I’ve given her tubs for sets of toys. I’ve provided cute little boxes for sorting jewellery and containers for art supplies. To little avail I’ve cleaned up for her, with her and we've tackled it together. I’ve reminded and pleaded, with my requests falling on ears too busy and excited about life to listen. She’s nodded and promised and ignored. On my part it seems to go in a never-ending cycle of tolerance then slight annoyance, which leads to nagging and explosiveness, swiftly followed by guilt, hopelessness and resignation, bringing me right back to where I started with reluctant acceptance of the situation.
There is no doubt that there is delicate balance between my need for an organized, functional environment (not a display home, though that might be nice) and her need for fun and play and time to relax after a busy day at school.
Over the past few years, actually for the past 10 since she was born, I’ve tried so many different strategies to encourage my daughter to tidy up. My daughter has an absolute distaste for packing away. As one parent said to me, “Well can you blame her? What is there to like about cleaning up?” Fair point, there are a rare few who derive incredible satisfaction by living with military precision order in their homes, others who live by the mantra that, ‘There’s a place for everything and everything has a place.” (If only it were that simple, Dad!) For the rest of us we just want our spaces tidy enough to think straight.
Whilst my daughter may have a distaste for cleaning up, she can’t resist a giggle and some fun. So rather than nagging and cajoling her, a sure way to engage her is to pack away playfully. Yes, yes! I hear you, “Who has the energy to think up creative, fun ways to get chores done, let alone the time to dance around to make it happen?” I will counter that by posing a simple question to you, “How much time and energy do you currently spend trying to get your children to pack away, only to end up doing it yourself and feeling resentful about it?”
So, on the days where you do have a little energy, here are a few ideas to get you started.
Exaggerating for effect can be a great way to release tension and get a reluctant child on board. One day my daughter rather dramatically complained that she was too tired after school to set the table. She draped herself over the kitchen table. So I draped myself over the kitchen countertop and said, “Oh I’m so tired after work today, too tired to cook dinner. You’ll be alright if we don’t eat tonight won’t you?” She looked horrified. Then I laughed. She laughed too when she realized I was being playful rather than mimicking. The important thing here is to not use sarcasm or meanness to make your point but rather a touch of exaggeration to illustrate another point of view!
Nonsense words, sounds and songs
Nothing breaks tension and improves mood quite like breaking into song. And the sillier the better! I’ve been known to sing instructions about packing away or make up rhymes to the rhythm of a familiar song. Throw in some crazy, unexpected dancing and you are sure to get a laugh. If your brain is foggy from sleep deprivation and you’re stuck for a tune, choose a nursery rhyme you already know and change the words. E.g., “This is the way we…. brush our teeth…. early in the morning” can be changed to just about any household chore and time of day, (wash our hands so late in the afternoon, set the table just in time for dinner.
Add in some exaggeration as you sing “This is the way we pick up clothes...”, except throw them over your shoulder, or plonk them on your child’s head as you sing. Once you have your child’s attention and have had a bit of a laugh, they are bound to be more willing to help put them away properly.
Talk the toys (soft toys, dolls and action figures)
Sometimes children will do things for a treasured toy that they won’t do for you. The toy might playfully request them to pack away. My children’s toys have been known to beg for help, “Oh please my darling, gorgeous, ever so helpful, sweet banana-pie, can’t you pwwweaaase help me. I so tired today! I need your help!”
Or two toys may have a conversation reflecting a child’s inner conflict, kind of like a good cop, bad cop scenario.
“Oh, she’ll never help. She can’t stand to be helpful.”
“Yes, she will. She loves to pack away her things and have a tidy room.”
“Who are you kidding? No, she doesn’t. She loves her things spread out everywhere.”
“No, will tidy up. You just watch.”
“Don’t believe you!”
“Yes, she will.”
“No, she won’t.”
And then the toys have a pretend argument. Children become so captivated that they forget their strong resistance to the unfavorable chore.
One of my children’s personal favourites was a cuddly but mischievous toy sheep called Marshmallow who would do things while they weren’t looking. As my children were tidying up, he would get things out that they had already packed away, or throw other soft toys at them or hide to get out of helping. I would ask, “Where has Marshmallow gone? Is he hiding again?” only to find he was on top of a cupboard, under the bed or in the toy box. Giggles ensued!
I knew this game was popular and effective when my daughter started begging for me to, “talk the toys” as she put it. This will work equally well with dolls and action figures, too. Action figures (or Lego people) are particularly useful at being imbued with power. “I command you to… eat a french fry.” Then I would say, “No, No, Mr. Transformer, you are meant to be getting them to pack away, not eat junk food.” Then I would have the action figure give a few more normal instructions before another nonsense request such as “…lie down and take a nap…or put your big toe in your ear…”
As you can see, toys, exaggeration and nonsense can be a winning combination!
So often children don’t feel like they have very much say in things. Parents and teachers get to spend all day telling them what to do, what to play, what to eat, what to wear. It is helpful to provide children with appropriate opportunities to have choice and demonstrate some power in their worlds. Children like feel like they have a choice in which chores they do. Use some picture of basic chores to make up a simple picture wheel or bingo board. Let them spin or draw from a hat for a luck of the draw chore.
You can provide your children greater sense of control with increased flexibility. E.g., Try allowing your children to choose which chores they will do (from a selection that you’re happy for them to do) and in what order. For younger children simply ask them whether they would like to pack away before or after lunch? (Then ensure they follow through if they’ve chosen afterwards.) Would they like to pack away the books or the blocks? Also allow children other more general opportunities to make choices, including what to eat or wear, which toy or game to take to a friend’s place, or whether to eat inside or outside.
Stand in their shoes
Remember to imagine the situation from your child’s perspective. This doesn’t mean that you have to excuse them from their responsibilities, however it does mean conceding that the tasks we ask our children to do are not always fun. Sometimes our children are tired, sometimes they don’t like the taste of toothpaste and packing away toys can take a long time when they’d rather be moving onto the next game. Acknowledging this as we request our children’s help at least communicates that we understand, whilst remaining assertive that these jobs do still need to get done. Appreciating our children’s efforts to assist with packing away and being responsible for their belongings and their environment is important too. It costs nothing to thank our children and offer a simple positive and genuine acknowledgement such as, “Thank you. I appreciate your help.” Or “I value your assistance. It saves me time when you help with tidying away.”
As you can see, toys, exaggeration and nonsense, together with a little empathy and empowerment, can be a winning combination for getting children to pack away!
Learn skills of empathy and active listening, problem solving (conflict resolution), positive I-Messages, dealing with values differences and increasing your no problem area in your family, at a Parent Effectiveness Training course near you.
For more specific ideas on how to be more playful in your parenting, I highly recommend Lawrence J Cohen’s book Playful Parenting.