How to Get Your Kid to Clean Up After Herself without Anger or Warnings

Dear Kid Whisperer,

My daughter is four. She does a lot of sensory play activities. She used to be OK at cleaning up after herself, but she’s been really messy lately. I keep reminding and warning her to clean up, which is not helping. I don’t want to take these fun and educational materials away from her, but I want her pick up after herself. Do you have any ideas? -Dorothy, Boise, Idaho


No. I don’t.

This is going to be the worst column ever.

I suppose that I am still well under my word limit, so I guess I will explain.

You cannot teach responsibility. Consequences teach responsibility. There is no way for a kid to learn responsibility without suffering the consequences of being irresponsible. So the answer to the question, “How do I get my kid to be responsible without suffering consequences?” is simple: You can’t.

Your current stance on your daughter’s possessions seems to be that she is allowed to do whatever she wants with her possessions, no matter how she uses them. Your daughter does not have a constitutional right to high-quality sensory play activities. You feeling that she is entitled to things is going to lead to her feeling that she is entitled to things. Woe be unto you if she has this outlook as a teenager.

Try this paradigm shift on for size: your daughter should be allowed to use and play with things as long as the use of these things does not cause a problem for anyone else. If she does cause a problem, she will not be able to use those things until you feel that she has shown a high enough level of responsibility in the other phases of her life to be able to try using these materials again.

Feel free to use questions to guide your daughter to be responsible if and when that is convenient for you. Asking, “Where do your blocks go?” or “What should you do now?” when she looks like she might be about to walk away from her mess but hasn’t yet can gently guide your daughter to take responsibility for her own stuff.

Other than that guidance, this is how I would deliver the logical consequence of not allowing your daughter to have things after she has used them in a way that caused a problem:

Kid Whisperer: Oh, boy. Honey, I noticed that you didn’t pick up your super-sensory touchy-feely hippie-squishy edu-toys. They were all over the living room floor when you went to bed last night. I had to clean them up so no one would trip on them.

Kid: Alas, such is life for you, the parent of a sensitive, precocious tot like myself.

Kid Whisperer: Hmm. Well, here’s the deal. Right now you aren’t very good at taking care of those toys, so I’m going to put them away until you can show me that you can take care of things. I will be watching how you take care of other things. When I see that you are better at taking care of your stuff, you can have those toys back.

Kid: Your insolence offends me.

Kid Whisperer: Fair enough.

Kid: Very well. Just to clarify, you only took the toys I left out?

Kid Whisperer: Of course. From now on, you are allowed to keep all of your things that don’t cause a problem for anyone.

The best solutions with kids are the ones that are the most simple, make your life easier, and give your kid two choices: to exhibit positive behaviors, or suffer the consequences of not exhibiting positive behaviors.