Getting Your Toddler to Clean


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Toddlers love to play, which includes spreading toys over the greatest distance they can manage, taking apart as many puzzles and toys as they can get their hands on, and dumping blocks in the middle of the living room floor. While this is completely normal, it can be frustrating for parents or older siblings who have to clean up the mess while the tot begins to make another one. 

“Toddlers are very focused on what they are doing in any given moment. They live in the here and now, so it doesn’t occur to them that all these things they took out will need to be put back,” says Aviva Pflock, a certified parent educator and child-development specialist, and author of “Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids.”

But worry not! With a little work and a lot of patience, it is possible to teach your tot to participate in the clean-up process. While tots often leave a whirlwind of chaos in their footsteps, they actually need order as much as you do. Toddlers are quick learners and will benefit from parents teaching them how to pick up or put away their toys when they are finished playing. Dr. Laura Feinberg, a licensed child psychologist from Tampa, Fla., says, “Toddlers enjoy rules. Rules provide structure, predictability, security and a source for learning cause and effect.” However, every child is different, and as Dr. Feinberg points out: “A toddler’s ability to clean up after himself is dependent on the maturity of each particular child.”

When teaching your toddler to clean up after himself, it is necessary to keep physical limitations in mind. “The key is in the instruction and interaction,” Pflock says. This means that a generalized task, such as telling them to clean up their mess in the living room, is beyond a toddler’s capability and understanding. You do not want your child to become discouraged due to his or her inability to meet your expectations.  Remember that, as the parent, you are your child’s first and foremost teacher.

Pflock’s suggestion: “Get on the same level with your child and work together to get the task done as you describe it. Next time, just describe the steps and help out only when absolutely necessary. Eventually, it will get to the point where you are describing less and your child knows the routine.” Keeping in mind your toddler’s need for creativity and structure, his or her ability and maturity level, and your role as the teacher, you can use the following five strategies to teach your toddler to clean up:   

Teach by example.
Children are like sponges, absorbing everything around them, including good and bad habits. They imitate the behavior that they see. When you keep your house tidy and put things away after using them, your child will learn from your example and develop similar habits.  Toddlers also love to be Mommy or Daddy’s little helper. So, when cleaning up around the house, let them assist you. For example, when you are dusting the house, give your tot a cloth or feather duster so that he or she can help. Another activity that toddlers love to help with is setting the table. When you are setting the dishes on the table, let your child place the spoons and napkins.  

Make it fun.
Try singing a clean-up song or “whistling while you work.” It can transform drudgery into fun and games, especially for your child. Children love to play, so if you turn clean-up time into a game, they will often jump right on board. Dr. Nancy Eppler-Wolff and Dr. Susan Davis, authors of the book “Raising Children Who Soar,” write “while toddlers cannot be expected to clean up after themselves independently, parents can take advantage of a toddler’s willingness to help out, and set in motion important patterns of taking responsibility in the household. For example, parents can end playtime with a ‘clean-up game’ in which the parent and the child work together to put away the child’s toys. Or, the parent can place a big basket in the child’s room and explain to the child that when he is finished playing with a toy, he can put it away in the basket. These kinds of activities set up expectations that help the toddler learn the satisfaction and pride that comes with taking responsibility.” 

Turn helping into a habit.
Teaching your child to clean up after himself is a process that takes time. Habits do not develop overnight, especially with toddlers. It is important to remain patient throughout the process, gently reminding your toddler when it is time to clean, helping him or her out until they have established the habit, and always praising their efforts. Sometimes putting up a chore chart and placing a sticker on it for each completed task provides more than enough motivation for a tot. 

Be realistic with your expectations.
Even if your toddler is trying her hardest to follow your example, it will take some time before she gets in the habit of picking up her messes. When this happens, fight the urge to correct your toddler. Instead, muster up some patience and gently remind your tot that it’s clean-up time. Then, jump in with a song or game and help your little one clean up the mess. Remember that despite your child’s greatest efforts, it will take him or her a long time to do a simple chore, and it will probably be far from perfect. Nonetheless, praise and reward the child for the efforts.   

Keep it simple.
Simple and specific instructions are necessary when communicating with your tot in regard to chores and cleaning up. Provide a simple explanation as well as a demonstration of the task at hand.

At such a young age, toddlers are not capable of understanding and performing a task as large as cleaning up their room. However, they can perform simpler, more straightforward jobs such as putting clothes in a laundry basket or toys in the toy box. So, make sure that the chores you assign are appropriate for your child’s age.

Dr. David L. Hill, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has provided the following guidelines for age-appropriate tasks:
• “At 15 months of age most toddlers can follow a simple command like ‘Put that down’ or ‘Bring Mommy the toy.’
• By 18 months your child should be able to find a familiar object in another room and bring it to you. This is a good time to start practicing cleaning up, although chances are you’ll be doing most of the cleaning. Expect your toddler to become distracted easily and require constant redirection to the task at hand. After a couple of minutes he or she will probably lose interest altogether, but frequent, exuberant praise will keep the clean-up going longer and make it easier to initiate next time.
• By age 2, many toddlers will be able to follow more involved commands like ‘Put the toy on the table’ or ‘Close the door.’ Clean-up times will get longer, and your child may understand certain objects go in certain places. Still expect your child to be easily distracted and be patient if he or she wanders away from the task after a few minutes.”

While it is important for your child to learn how to clean up, try to remember that your tot’s creativity and curiosity — the reasons behind the constant chaos and messes — are essential to his or her development. By exercising patience and taking the time to teach your toddler how to do simple chores, you will help your child acquire important skills that he will use for the rest of his life. Bear in mind, though, that childhood is a stage of life that passes all too quickly, so try to recognize and appreciate your tot’s interest in the world around him, even if some messes do occur as a result.

Sarah Lindsey is a California-based freelance writer.

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