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You know how it goes: the kids are in bed and the playroom is a disaster. Or they all run outside to play, but Legos and video game cartridges are scattered everywhere. Why? Why doesn’t it occur to them to put things away before going on to something else?

You know the answer. Children – most children, anyway – are not born neat. The impulse to put things back is virtually nonexistent in most kids. It’s an impulse that has to be carefully encouraged. If your children leave their things everywhere, it’s because putting them away hasn’t been a priority – for you!

If your children are very small so that playing independently (and making messes independently) is a fairly new thing, then it’s easy to create new patterns. But even if your children are older and leaving a mess seems perfectly normal to them, it’s not too late to break an old habit by starting some new ones. Here’s how.

Have places for things. It’s hard to put things away when you’re not certain where they go. Invest in shelves, colorful bins, and dressers, many of which you can find at thrift shops and garage sales. Since part of the problem of mess-making is associated with dumping out a box to find the one item that’s buried, choose shallow storage and plenty of it. One large, deep toybox is not the answer. Many small drawers and bins is.

Make certain storage is accessible. Tall shelf units make it hard for children to get things down and even harder to put them back up. Make certain that containers and drawers are easy for children to open and close. If you decide to label bins, label them with your children’s abilities in mind, using large, easy-to-read print or pictures.

Edit what’s available. Often there’s just too much stuff: too much to buy boxes for it all, too much to fit on the shelves, too much to have in a room and still have room for play. So move the excess into a closet. Rotate what’s handy for play every couple weeks. There will be less clutter simply because there’s less stuff and children may find it easier to play without distractions when there’s less stuff getting in their way.

Make time for putting stuff away. Too often we hurry kids off to bed or off to Spanish lessons without taking time to put toys away first. But if you want to make being neater a habit, you’ve got to give it some attention. Start by cleaning up at key points during the day: before lunch time, before leaving to go somewhere, before dinner, and before bed might be good points to make it a point to pick things up. It’s easier to clean up at several times during the day – many small messes – than to just once a day put away an entire day’s accumulation.

Teach how. Children who haven’t been asked to put things away may not really know what “away” looks like or how to tackle the job of cleaning up. So just ordering them to put away their things isn’t enough. You have to show them. Get down on the floor and participate. Share the job. Work together to decide where things go. Help them to be efficient by setting a challenge – “how much can we clean up in just two minutes?” Take time to admire the nice neat space you achieve together.

Set a good example. Take a look at your own office or kitchen and see if looks as messy as the children’s playroom. You’re busy – just like your children are busy – and of course you don’t have time to put things away before starting something new. But this is the same excuse your children make. Instead of making excuses, set a good example by being more neat yourself.

Help your child to break her careless habit. Understand that if a child has been leaving strewn toys in her wake for years, it will take time for her to learn to be neat. Don’t expect overnight success and don’t punish lapses too harshly. Instead, teach and reteach. Be firm and clear with your expectations and be consistent in what you expect. A week of consistency from you will get quicker results than a month of off-and-on attention to the problem. And remember to talk with your child about the problem and the solution. Get her on board at the beginning and let her help in keeping track of her progress.

Most children were not born neat but every child can become a bit neater than he is already. Take time to teach what you want to see and see what good things can happen.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.