It seems a popular topic of discussion lately is how to motivate our children to clean up after themselves. Many people use behavioural techniques such as sticker charts, rewards, taking away toys that are not cleaned up or other privileges. For some children, these external reinforcements are highly motivating, many children find them motivating, but lack impulse control and focus, so they are unable to stay on task (delayed gratification) and some children do not care at all about your sticker chart (this is my eldest spirited child). These techniques, although popular because they sometimes yield immediate results, actually create extrinsic motivation. You might say “I don’t care, I just want them to clean their room.” But you will care when they are no longer motivated by whatever reward you have been offering. See we think if we can convince our children to clean their rooms by rewarding them, they will develop habits of cleanliness and eventually not need a reward for the task. This is actually not true; extrinsic motivation, not only distracts from intrinsic motivation, it has been shown to hinder it. *this is something that behaviourists do not agree with. Most of their strategies are based on extrinsic motivation so they spend a lot of time trying to debunk the theory. I believe for this reason, you will find a lot of contrasting research on this subject.

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In the gentle parenting community, we gave up on behavioural techniques a long time ago. Regardless, so many parents seem to be struggling to find a gentle way to encourage their children to WANT to clean up their toys. Many end up choosing the exasperated option of donating or throwing out a lot of the toys. I get this, but I am not sure how it is any different from the behavioural technique of taking away toys as a consequence for not cleaning them up. I am pretty sure to the child, it feels like a punishment, especially if the narrative during the time of picking up the toys is along the lines of “we have to throw all these toys out because you won’t help me tidy up!” Now I do not say this from some high horse. In moments of extreme frustration, I, myself have muttered similar phrases.

(I will admit, I often catch myself saying something in a less than gentle way. I recognize it, change my tone, rephrase and move on. If what I said requires an apology, I will offer a sincere apology and spend time reconnecting before trying to continue whatever task is overwhelming me at the time).

But ask yourself, would you donate the toys of a nine-year-old or a twelve-year-old? What do you think would happen if you went into your twelve-year-old’s room and told them you were donating their Xbox because they never turn it off? Your twelve-year-old would likely be very angry, frustrated, feel out-of-control, confused, hurt, feel their trust had been broken. You say, “yeah but that’s an Xbox, we’re talking about items that cost a couple dollars.” Three-year-old’s have no concept of money. For them, everything is an Xbox.

My five-year-old saw me putting puzzles in a pile for VarageSale. They were not even his puzzles, but of course, he thought they were. I casually explained what I was doing. He panicked! My usually not materialistic and generous child became obsessively protective of all the toys in the basement. Now every time I go downstairs with toys he becomes concerned that I’m selling them. He’ll yell “no, mom you can’t sell my toys in the garage sale!” Although I was not enacting some sort of punishment at that time, I realized, in that moment, how cruel it had been for me to threaten to take toys away in the past, how painful that actually was for him. He never became better at cleaning, but I did break his trust and I have still not earned it back. This was probably a year ago. When we know better, we do better, right?

So, what do I do instead?

Try to focus on intrinsic motivation. There are many factors that go into intrinsic motivation. Probably the biggest part of intrinsic motivation, that we miss as parents, is when it actually begins. Until children develop theory of mind, they can only be intrinsically motivated by joy. Theory of mind develops throughout early childhood but does not become a concrete concept until after age five, for most children. So, if something is fun, they may want to do it. Now I can hear the parents counting down the days until their child turns five, unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. As they get older, they can develop a desire to live in a clean space but let’s be honest, this doesn’t usually become a personal priority until at least your 20’s, unless you are naturally a very organized and clean person. Usually these people fight their own battles, they aren’t just living in a blissful clean universe, they are constantly working to maintain order, often at the sacrifice of other, more important and beneficial things. Highly intelligent people are usually messy because they just find cleaning boring and they just aren’t willing to waste too much of their time on it.

If children were faced with a lot of external pressure to clean (even gentle) it can make it next to impossible to create intrinsic motivation to clean, while under your roof. Cleaning is now seen as something they do to please their parent (extrinsic motivation). Intrinsic motivation starts when they go to heat up leftovers in their dorm and notice they have no clean dishes or when they have to go to work in pants that smell like chicken grease because they forgot to do their laundry and now they’re scared to stand by that boy that they like at work because they stink. Intrinsic motivation is not something you can teach but it is something you can encourage by allowing your child to develop their own desire to clean and modelling grace.

I also find children who have trouble focusing often make very large messes and really struggle to clean them up. I think this is cause for a lot of family challenges around cleaning; so many children struggle to focus. My son has the kindest, biggest heart and I know that if he really understood how helpful it would be to clean up his toys, he probably would do it, but he is five years-old and cannot put all that together, nor do I want him to. I don’t want him to clean his room for me (ok well sometimes I do, but deep down I don’t). Luckily for me, I have a background in Early Childhood Education, where we have spent countless hours discussing and researching how to foster and expand play while still maintaining some level of order. In child care, it is a safety hazard if there are toys everywhere, so you need to keep pathways clear and clean up before most transitions. Also, many educators struggle with a lack of order. We view this issue as the educator’s challenge, not the child’s. From this perspective, we face the challenge of the natural messiness of play.

What do we do?

  • Minimize
  • Organize
  • Rotate
  • Offer variety, not quantity
  • Provide project space
  • Have reasonable expectations

Minimize: Minimizing can seem unnatural for some reason. Our highly-organized brains do not want to leave most of the blocks in the box and only put a few out, it says “all the blocks need to be together.” But once you have seen the positive impact of minimizing, you tend to be more motivated to limit how many of everything you put out. Knowing this, I often still put out lots of materials (I have to meet the needs of a five-year-old and a one-year-old) but I try to take responsibility for my own choices that led to a mess that they can’t clean on their own. If you give a three-year-old 100 pieces of Duplo, you will likely have to pick up 80-90 of them yourself. They will only need a couple to build with, because they aren’t at the point of creating architectural masterpieces. Only put out 10-20 blocks. One doll, one bottle, one blanky, you get the idea. I would expect a typically developing child around three to be able to pick up 10-20, items with lots of reminders and assistance. This is not every child, I watched my seventeen-month-old clean up twenty-five fake snowballs, about five times yesterday, but he did not do it because I asked him to, it was a game, just to me it looked like cleaning.

Rotate: We rotate our toys in child care, and I also rotate them at home. One month have the kitchen out, next month the vet materials, next month set up a grocery store. Rotating toys allows you to always have something new, without adding to your toy collection. It is a way to keep things interesting and exciting. I actually love rotating toys and the children love it too! They get so excited about the new toys coming out. Putting away the other toys can be more of a challenge and lots of conversation about where the toys are going and how we can bring them back out anytime, often needs to happen. I will warn that during toy rotation time, toys that have sat in the same spot for a month will suddenly become the most desired object of all time. I try and let them choose one or two things to stay out and then start talking about what toys we should bring up from the basement. Some people may try to do the toy rotation when the child is not there but you run the risk of breaking their trust. If you are going to do it this way (admittedly, it is way easier), make sure you let the child know what you are planning on doing, This way they don’t feel betrayed, and ask if there is anything special that they would like you to leave out. In most cases, young children are so excited about all the new toys, they soon forget the old ones, but there still may be something special that you were unaware of.

Organize: In child care, everything has a spot and a label, and it is usually back in its spot, upon every transition. I would love to say my house runs the same way, but…. not even close, however, my children’s toys are never just left in a random pile (unless they are currently amidst a mess). Children have a hard time organizing their play when their toys are not organized. Imagine looking for your socks in the morning in a pile of clean laundry (we all know what that feels like). Now imagine you go to your drawer and pick out the socks you want. Which scenario was easier for you to achieve your goal? The thing is, children need this level of organization but they are not able to recognize that need. So, it is our job to find a way to facilitate expansive play without causing ourselves too much anxiety over mess. Organization does take more time but it also facilitates more learning, when your child is choosing to help you. They are exposed to far more vocabulary, as your request is not repeatedly “can you put the toy in the bin?” Instead it varies from “can you put the block on the shelf with the other blocks?” to “Oh where does your dolls blanket go? Oh, on your doll to keep her warm? You take such good care of your baby.”

Offer Variety, Not Quantity: Children do need access to materials that foster growth in a variety of developmental domains. One way of doing this is trying to focus on loose parts and open-ended materials, over traditional toys. You can have less because your basket of pine cones is used in the kitchen, used to build, used for art, used to roll down a ramp, used as a porcupine family. Another way is just to try and make sure you have materials from multiple learning areas. Especially, I would urge you to try and not genderize your children’s toys. Make sure all children have blocks, cars, dolls and kitchen sets. Mostly children love to mimic the adult world (why? We still don’t know, I guess we make it look fun lol), so toys that facilitate imaginative play are usually a universal hit.

Provide a project space: A high quality child care centre would provide project spaces. This is an area that can stay messy for an extended period of time. It has been shown in research that children are often engaged in project work (long-term complex play scenarios) and when we make them clean up, they are unable to continue their play into the next session. This type of complex, extended play encourages divergent thinking, along with so many other benefits.

Have reasonable expectations: When your child helps you with the dishes, do you expect them to actually do the dishes or just play? Young children will just play and we are ok with this because we understand doing the dishes is too advanced for them but helping is great! Same goes for cleaning; expecting your child to make changes so that they become more organized, for a small child, this is an unreasonable expectation. Hoping they will help and asking for a little help, in a kind and very specific way, (“hey can you put that blue block in the red bin?”) helps lay the foundation for intrinsic motivation. As children age, they are more capable of understanding why they should clean but excessive pressure can make them very resistance. It can be challenging waiting for intrinsic motivation to set it, but when it does, you will be so pleased that you chose to foster this gift for your child.

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