Q: My 3-year-old daughter is generally agreeable about cleaning up toys after playing or doing a pickup at the end of the day. Recently, however, she has started intentionally making messes and then refusing to pick them up. Things like getting a bowl of Cheerios at breakfast and then dumping them on the ground, spilling a box of crayons on the floor after coloring, tipping over the box of Duplo bricks we just picked up (agreeably!) together. It seems to happen at transition points and feels like an attention-seeking behavior, as well as testing boundaries. After she dumps the items, she runs away and refuses to come back to clean them up. I usually end up cleaning up the mess, and we determine some kind of consequence for her. I've found that natural consequences work best, but I'm struggling to connect one to this. We've tried a timeout, but she doesn't seem fazed by that and still doesn't participate in the cleanup. I've taken the toy in question away for a while, but then the same basic thing happens with the next toy (or food), so I feel as if I'm not helping with a more lasting fix. What would you suggest?
A: Welcome to parenting a 3-year-old. The No. 1 message I want you to take away is that this behavior is so normal that if your child didn’t display some kind of defiance, I would think something might be wrong. My own parenting mantra when my children and I are locked in the messy middle of life is “This is tough, and this is normal.” Take my mantra and repeat it to yourself.
Why is your child defiant out of (seemingly) nowhere? To begin, she is right on track, developmentally speaking. Two-year-olds are intense but also quick to please because they don’t grasp that they are a person, separate from their attachments. If Daddy likes to make pancakes, the 2-year-old wants to make pancakes. If Mommy wears hats, the 2-year-old will put on a hat. Two-year-olds will sit in timeout not because they realize what they did was wrong but because they want to please their parents.
But 3-year-olds are different. Their desire to be like you wanes, and they suddenly have a lot of opinions. The child who was previously happy to clean up with you is not interested in “going along to get along.” Worse yet is if you have an idea that is similar to hers. Even if she wants to clean up, as soon as you suggest the chore, she bristles, because she has realized she is not an extension of you and needs to assert that. She wants to have the idea. She wants to do it first. She wants to be the boss. This is not a problem or misbehavior. This is how development works: First the child is unaware of herself as an individual; then she is completely focused on herself, and her emotions are paramount. As your daughter matures, she will be able to shift her focus outward and understand others’ feelings and begin to have true empathy. Not sympathy or pity, but empathy, which is the ability to feel other people’s feelings. That is mature work, and I know adults who never get to that point.
Essentially, your daughter doesn’t care about cleaning, and she is allergic to being bossed around. She doesn’t care whether those Lego bricks sit on the floor for the next six years, because it is not her developmental work to care about that. Disciplining her, doubling down, talking to her about the importance of cleaning up, bagging up her toys to give away, putting her into timeout — none of it will really work. Oh, sure, if you punish a 3-year-old enough, she will clean up. Fear is highly motivating and can effect some change, but you have to ask yourself whether threatening your child and adding separation and punishments over blocks and dolls are worth it. (Hint: They aren’t.) And don’t listen to people who tell you that you will raise a brat. If you punish a 3-year-old to clean up toys, you will just raise a child who obeys you until she is taller than you, and then she will walk out of the house. Fear is motivating until it isn’t, and it will ruin your relationship with your child.
So what can you do?
1. Let some of this go. You didn’t have a kid expecting her to be a Roomba, so accept that you may be doing some evening tidying. Or just leave the toys on the floor. I had a designated room for toys that sat on the floor because I just had to stop caring for a bit. For toys that migrated to the rest of the house, we had some group cleaning sessions, and I did some of it myself, because I am the adult.
2. When you suggest cleaning up and your child is defiant, see that as an invitation for you to be mature. Three-year-olds love to play and be silly, so I have seen intuitive teachers and parents say: “Oh, well, I love to clean! First I am going to find everything red, then I will find everything green . . . ” If you look really happy and don’t glance at your daughter, I am betting that she will join in, because attachment is stronger than anything else . Turn on music and dance while you clean, give her a choice of how and when to clean, or be as silly as you want. It will mostly work, but when it doesn’t, don’t take it personally.
3. Let routines rule. I have coached many families to put on fun music and do a five-minute family cleanup every evening before bed. Some families prefer to pick up in the morning, and some leave it for the weekend. It doesn’t matter; what is powerful is that everyone works together. But if your daughter is exhausted and having a tantrum, let it go.
4. See punishments as harmful to your connection with your child. Here’s how it works: Your daughter doesn’t clean up, you push and threaten, she digs in, you dig in and make good on the punishment. Now you have a hysterical child who needs consoling. You are resentful because your child is hysterical, and the toys are still on the floor. All of your energy must be channeled into repairing the relationship, and the cleanup job is not looking any better to the 3-year-old. Don’t be afraid to let go of something that isn’t working.
5. As your child gets older, you will get better at deciding which boundaries to hold and when. You may decide one day that you will not walk to the park until the toys are cleaned up. And without threats or yelling or passive aggressiveness, you simply hold that boundary, no matter how much she cries or begs. It may mean that there is no park, or that after the tantrum, you both clean up. The point is that you don’t punish or give in; you hold the boundary. I know there is nothing simple about this; it calls on you to be mature and patient. But if you can hold a boundary without attacking or giving in, you will have an easier time of parenting.
Remember: Every day is a new day. Some days, your daughter will be accommodating and sweet, and other days, she will be defiant and surly. Sometimes, she can be all those things in a span of a few minutes. Ride the wave, choose your boundaries, don’t take it personally and keep your sense of humor. Good luck.