How to Raise Kids Who Pick Up After Themselves

Toys, socks, crayons, stickers, sippy cups, sweatshirts, backpacks.  The list goes on and on of the many things children can leave “littered” around the home.  Not only do they make the house feel messy and cluttered, they can be downright annoying for parents who work hard to keep a tidy home.  And, for me, I thinks it’s disrespectful to leave your items lying around in a space our family all has to share.


Please Excuse the Mess…..


I often hear parents say “My house will always be this messy until the kids grow up.”  Or I see those signs that say “Please excuse the mess. My children are making memories”.  How does a million toys strewn across the living room equate to making memories?  I would say my kids (9 mo., 2 yrs, and 7 yrs) live a pretty great childhood and yet our house doesn’t feel like a tornado just ripped through it.

It’s Never Too Late

No matter what age your child is it’s never to late to start teaching them clutter-free habits.  If you don’t like the term “clutter-free”, think of it as teaching them how to respect their home, their toys, and, most importantly, their other family members.  There are steps you can take today to begin cultivating habits which lead a cleaner, more organized home that also has laughter, fun and great memories.

When “Type A” Parents Rear Children

I am a Type A personality.  I like order, habits, the whole “everything has a place” mentality.  So what happens when the Type A parents welcomes a bundle of joy into their home?  They learn to adjust… within their comfort zone.  Since my first son was very little, I have been constant on making sure he always picks up after himself.  Maybe the reins and rules have loosened a little now with three but to this day I don’t have a kid-messy home and I don’t follow behind my children picking up after them.


Here’s some ways I have taught my kids to pick up after themselves:

Start Early

Just like we want to create good sleeping and eating habits for our children, we can also cultivate a culture of everyone picking up after themselves.  From around 1 1/2 yrs. on, you can work with your child on cleaning up as they go.  Once they turn 2, you can be more firm in your approach that they put their own toys away.  Here are some tips on starting clutter-free habits early:

  1. Learning a song that goes along with the pick up process can make it fun and be a great transition from playtime to cleanup

  2. The “race” game is always a winner.  For example, ask the kids “How many toys can we pick up in two minutes?” And make sure to actually time it.  It’s no fun if you just pretend to keep track.

  3. Celebrate small successes.  Little toddlers may not be able to clean up their entire mess but putting even two or three toys away is a big accomplishment.  Praise and celebrate their good job.

  4. Make picking up fun.  We always try to see how many blocks we can make into the bin or how many stuffed animals can hit the “target”.  Add some fun into the mix and they will see it as play rather than work.

Pick Up As You Go

I am a firm believer that you pick up toys as you go.  Children seem to have the attention span of a flea.  As soon as they take one whole bin of toys out, they move on to the next and the next until every. single. toy. is on the floor.  Parents – stop the madness!  I always have us pick up the toys we were playing with before we move on to the next thing.  Playing with blocks – great.  Let’s pick them up before we play dress-up.  Moving from the playroom to the family room – awesome.  Let’s clean up our mess in here before we head downstairs.  It may seem maddening at first to constantly be picking something up but it will soon pay dividends.  You will find your child will actually be more thoughtful about what they take out and how long they play with it.

*As my oldest has grown, I have discovered some exceptions to the “pick up as you go” rule.  Sometimes he sets up “cities” or “battlefields” using legos and blocks.  He might play with them on and off throughout the day.  These can stay up as long as he is currently using them but typically must be cleaned up before bedtime.

Certain Toys for Certain Rooms

I have toys in specific rooms throughout the house: living room, office, playroom, garage, basement and bedrooms.  The toys for that room we try our best to keep in that room.  This helps keeps sets together such as Little People playhouses, game pieces, train tracks, etc.  It also helps cultivate the “a place for everything” rule.  Rather than searching for a toy when you want to play with it, you’ll know exactly which room to go to and where it will be.

Make Storage Solutions Kid-Friendly

Make it easy for kids to pick up and they are more likely to follow through.  I try to use simple storage solutions that keeps things corralled but are also easy for them to get out and use.  Storage bins, canvas totes, and smaller toy chests work well.  I have found many great solutions at a surprising place… The Dollar Tree.  I try to avoid large toy chests or large bins as the child has to pull everything out to get to that one toy they want.  When shopping for storage, try to picture how your own child will be able to use it, reach it, and carry it.

Develop Habits by Picking Your Battles

It’s not fair to expect our kids to be 100% perfect 100% of the time.  Are we as adults perfect?  Why should we expect anything more or less from our children?  You need to decide what clean up habits are most important to you and which battles you want to fight.  I have some steadfast rules I expect my kids to follow each and every time.  They are my “battles” and what most help me in keeping the home clean:

  1. make your bed each morning

  2. clean up toys as you play

  3. put toys away where they belong

  4. put clothes in the hamper

  5. put backpack away with any papers on dining room table

  6. never, ever put things on the kitchen counters

Other things I am more lax on like how many stuffed animals they have, if their dirty clothes are inside out, and what toys they play with and when.  And if you want to have a super loud marching band through the hallways – go for it.  Just put the musical instruments away when you are done.

Stay Firm….. Every Time

My best tip is to stay firm every time.  Good cleaning habits don’t develop overnight.  In fact, good habits in general take time.  My son is in second grade and he still will sometimes place his backpack on the kitchen counter (my biggest pet peeve).  Resist the urge to take care of the problem for them.  I have my children drop whatever they are doing and address the problem right away.  Dirty towel on the bedroom floor?  Sorry, even if you are ready for bed, it needs to get hung in the bathroom.  Refuse to pick up the pieces to a game?  Then next time you will not be able to play the game with us.  The best lessons take time and dedication to learn – be strong and firm for them.

Coming Full Circle

The most important piece I want my children to learn from their cleaning habits is that we are all in this together.  We share a home together and we want to make it a nice place for everyone to enjoy — not just them and their toys.  We work together as a team to clean up as more hands make for a lighter load.  We offer grace and kindness to each other by helping out even when we didn’t make the mess.  We respect our children by setting them up for success.  We teach them to respect their parents by taking care of the home.  Most importantly we learn that we take responsibility for our own “stuff”, our own messes, and, most of all, our own actions.  No, Mommy doesn’t have the time or energy to follow behind you picking up your messes.

To my children’s future college roommates – you can thank me in about 12 years.

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