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How to Get Your Kids to Clean Up Their Own Messes

How to Get Your Kids to Clean Up Their Own Messes

A familiar battle cry heard from parents 'round the globe is, “Clean up that mess!”

A familiar response heard round the globe is, “ I don’t know how!” or “I can’t!” or “I don’t want to!”

Parents frequently tell me, “I know he can clean up his mess; he has to do it every day in preschool. So why won’t he do it at home?”

In a lot of homes the answer is that at some point the parent breaks down and cleans up the mess herself. It's easier, and less dramatic than waiting for her child to do it. Sound familiar?

Circle of Moms member Benitta S. has the opposite problem. She wants to know, “Should I let my almost 3-year-old clean up? My 3-year-old will purposely make messes just to run and get the broom or mop.”

No matter which situation you’re facing there is a way to get your child to clean up the messes and have it done the way you want it done, or pretty close to it.

Avoiding “The Clean-up”  Power Struggle

Asking a child to clean up a spill or a mess can easily turn into a power struggle.

The spill happens.
The parent makes the request for the child to clean it up.
The child begins the clean up but the parent stands over the child bellowing instructions.
Then after a few minutes, in the name of teaching, the parent takes the job away from the child to show him the correct way to do it.


The problem with that is that children are very observant. They’ve been watching you and your reactions to things for years. In fact, during the first five years of life your child gleans most of his knowledge about how things go in life from the non-verbal clues he picks up, more than he does from your instruction.

Your child knows that if he does a lousy job, you will, at some point, take the job away from him and do it yourself. He also knows that he’ll have to live through your grumbling about his inability to complete the task, but he’s willing to bare it, as long as he doesn’t have to clean up the mess. Sound familiar?

Even though the clean up may not get done as well as if you did it yourself, you can, and should allow your child to clean up the messes he makes. There’s a reason teachers ask children to clean up the messes they make — it exercises fine motor control and teaches self-control.

Teaching Clean-Up Skills 

One-way to do it in your home, and avoid any power struggles, is to use a list of questions.

Post a series of questions on the refrigerator that will cause your child to do some think about the process of cleaning up.

An older child can read the questions and do most of the cleanup on his own, while you observe. A younger child need a series of photos to tell the tale so he can figure out the clean-up process.

Here are some slightly-different-than-normal questions that get to the heart of the matter and allow you to teach your child the way you want messes to be cleaned up.

  • “What messes are you not allowed to clean up?”
  • “What messes are you allowed to clean up?”
  • “Is this a wet mess or a dry mess?”
  • “What tools do you need for wet/dry messes?”
  • “Where does the mess end up, in the sink or the garbage?”
  • “What will this mess look like when it’s cleaned up?”
  • “Will you be using my version of ‘clean’ or yours?”
  • “What happens if this is not done as we agreed?”
  • “What should you do first, second etc.?”
  • “Where do you put things when you’re all done with them?”


Those questions naturally point out all the rules and expectations you have for cleaning up. The questions allow you to point to what to do next so you don’t have to be the clean-up police or clean things up yourself.

Finish the Clean Up When He's Not Looking

If your child doesn’t do a good job, let it go, unless it’s his way of trying to get you to clean up for him. Try not to complain or correct him. He’ll get better at doing this with more and more practice. If further clean up is required, make sure to do it when he isn’t looking or he’ll feel defeated and less likely to try to do a better job next time.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Discipline Consciously and Become the Parent You Want to Be, and the founder of Proactive Parenting. Her book and site help parents gain more patience by responding instead of reacting as they deal with the whirlwind of emotions created by raising kids ages 1-10. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.

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