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How to get young kids to pick up their toys

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Q: Any advice for getting children to clean up their toys? Our daughters, 6 and 4, drag all the stuffed animals and art supplies all over the house. Then they whine, cry and find something else to play with when it's time to clean up. When they do clean up, it's pretty haphazard, and items are not put back where they belong. We're out of carrots and we're out of sticks. I would like them to learn the pleasures of a tidy space where you can find what you need; my husband just wants a clean floor and tidy shelves.

A: I will admit to laughing out loud when I read, “We’re out of carrots and we’re out of sticks.” I think every parent has felt this way! And the truth is, I really don’t know a lot about what’s happening here. Is this an organizational issue? Is this a communication issue? Is this a control issue? Is this a poor-timing issue? Is it all of the above? Because I don’t know, though you’ve given me a hint with the carrot-stick reference, let’s start at the beginning.

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Here’s a Parenting 101 tip: Don’t do anything in the evening. Seriously. Young children plus the evening equals commands, demands, frustration and not much of anything getting done. I am a big fan of not doing what doesn’t work, and this is an easy one. Stop expecting big cleanups in the evening. Do it earlier, and if you are going to straighten up at the end of the day, make it bite-size.

Another Parenting 101 lesson? Remember that you and your children do not share the same expectations, values or needs around items and tidying. Parenting is a lifelong apprenticeship, and this is the time where we help our children see the benefits of keeping things tidy. But it’s best if you don’t assume that you and your children have the same goals, because this will help you from being chronically disappointed. It isn’t personal; it’s just the way it is.

And one more Parenting 101 tip: Children love to complete tasks and do real work when the tasks are clear (all dolls go in the basket); are preplanned and co-planned (you and your children have decided what will happen before the evening); and have a defined stopping point (the tidying ends with the dolls, no more, no less).

To tidy in a way that is clear, preplanned, co-planned and defined, let’s use the easiest strategy I know: the family meeting. On a stress-free Saturday morning, for instance, call everyone to the table, floor or wherever you’d like. Then say something such as: “I’ve noticed there are a lot of toys out every night. I’m afraid I’ll step on them, break them or trip, and it’s safest if they’re put away. What do you think?” Then wait for your children to respond. This is an opportunity for them to be creative with their solutions — and for the family to come together to meet everyone’s expectations. It is more important for you to co-create small, clear and doable solutions than it is for you to conquer big, sweeping, generalized ideas. For example: “All wooden blocks go in these two baskets,” rather than, “Put all the toys away.”

That’s a lot of Parenting 101, isn’t it? But let’s also look at best practices for tidying. I reached out to my friend Rachel Rosenthal, a professional organizer, for some tips.

“There should be a spot for everything,” she says, which means that you, the parent, need to help create order, so tidying can occur. You need to designate and label the baskets, drawers or containers before you start tidying. (And yes, children can help with that, too.) She also suggests decluttering first. “Schedule decluttering before birthdays and holidays and certain times of year, so that they are only having to organize things they use.” Because children often have incomplete or broken toys, frequent decluttering will help; it’s always easier to tidy when there’s less stuff to begin with.

Whatever you all decide, make it work for your family. You can search online for chores and cleaning tips and tricks all day long, but the system must fit your needs. As your children and home change and develop, so, too, will your cleaning needs and chores. Stay flexible, keep it lighthearted and let the routine support your larger family values. Good luck.

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