Teaching Children to Be Their Own Cleanup Crew
Jay M. Greenfeld, Ph.D., C.Psych.
As the pandemic continues to take over the province leading more children and often parents to stay home for five days, ten days, two weeks or whatever guidelines emerge by the hour. Regardless of what the timeframe is that you and/or your children have been forced to stay home it is easy for the clutter to add up. What adds to the clutter increasing at home is that the cold temperatures have forced people to remain inside. As a result of the limited places to visit because of certain COVID restrictions, combined with the expected and normal frigid temperatures in January, our children have spent a lot of time at home. In the absence of video games, it means when your children are awake from 6am until 8pm or often later, that leads to a lot of activities in the home and the likelihood of a greater mess as each hour passes. The constant mess often leads parents to become very frustrated, overwhelmed, and finding themselves playing the role of street cleaner inside their own house. The pattern is simple: follow the children from room to room picking up their toys or items or reminding them to do so for what feels like one hundred times per day.
The increased stress that has taken over many homes within the province due to the ongoing limitations created by the pandemic has led many parents to hit their breaking points as we move into what would be the third year of COVID. Often times as a parent you aim to make the lives of your children easier, but that does not give your children a pass to do nothing with their items. They need to learn that every action and/or inaction has a result that could create a negative or positive outcome. Regardless of the fact that you may be spending 300% more time at home with your children than you would have in other years, establishing rules with them is still essential, especially when it comes to taking care of their belongings, in particular, their toys.
We are fresh off the holiday season which is often paralleled with an abundance of new items in the house. Thus, establishing firm ground rules for your children from the get go is crucial, to help prevent the negative effects of stress that the mess at home can create. Moreover, the environment you create for your family is one that will often be mirrored by your children. If it is normal in your house to have a mess, you can expect the same to follow suit with your children. The idea is to begin by modelling the patterns you want them to have. Then making a point of sharing your plan of action with them instead of just doing it for them is crucial.
Much like the order and organization that teachers aim to model in the classroom, the same can be done for children at home. Although many students leave belongings at school all the time leading the lost and found to be a small department store by the end of the year, the same pattern does not need to be followed at home. Establishing rules with your children from the earliest age as to why you need to put things away after using them, (not just telling them), but showing them is a necessary foundational step. Secondly, while at home, they are often asking for something, as often as what may feel like every ninety seconds. Although it is tempting to just respond to them immediately, modify the pattern here and let them know they cannot change to another activity until the previous has been cleaned up and put away. Let them know that is how you do things because it will then train them to focus on one task at a time and take it seriously, if you want them to. Moreover, it helps them establish the same patterns for their schooling. It adds up quickly if they leave two games, a puzzle, video game controllers, dishes, random LOL dolls, and Hot Wheels cars in the middle of the room and the list can go on and that is all before lunch.
Thankfully, our children are back in school, but the pattern resumes when they come home. Every time they take out a game or a toy, let them know that if they do not put it away, they will not be able to play with it again until they show you that they can and will clean up. Moreover, when you see them put their things away, reward them with added time for an activity they enjoy. It is too easy (regardless of age) for our children to just shift to the next activity and become so engrossed in it (e.g., video games and cell phone use) that they have no idea that the world is happening around them. Help them focus on one activity at a time that includes taking it out and noticing where they are getting it from so that they are very much aware of where it goes when they are finished. At first, do this task with them so you are involved from start to finish, regardless of their age and then empower them to do it on their own.
The same process can be generalized to their clothing and school work. They may not see it as an important concept and especially as your children become teenagers they attempt to convince you that their age no one cleans their room. However, the cleaner the space they are living in, the cleaner their headspace is to take care of the things they need to and want to when needing to be prepared for school. If they can follow this pattern, it will be easier for them to find any items the next time they need it or remain focused when doing school work in an area without clutter. Helping them see the idea of anticipation and thinking ahead and empowering them to think about the next time they will need this item will be easier to retrieve. The process and system you can create with your children will set the stage for years to come and decrease your stress of constantly reminding them. Your quality time is already so limited with your children, it is probably best to not use it focused on picking up random items to avoid breaking toes, bruising feet, or tripping hazards when coming down the stairs. Instead use the time to reward them for taking responsibility over their items and expressing how much you appreciate the quality time spent with them because of their efforts.
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