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Why I Don’t Make My Kids Clean Up After Every Activity

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I heard a knock at the door… it was an unannounced visit from a lady who lives in our building. And, my house was a MESS!!! My 5 year old daughter has recently been on a rampage of creating things using BIG pieces of paper and sticky tape. The photo above is what it looks like just at the start of one of her creative moments. She can sit there for an hour, ferociously cutting, and taping, and trying out her inventions. This is what it looked like after only half an hour.

The other day, she stayed up until 10pm and made a ‘cage‘ for her Beenie Boo out of rolled up paper (she had taken a nap that day and we homeschool, so it’s not like she had to be anywhere the next day).

And, the night before our unannounced visitor, she had been making HUGE paper airplanes, standing on the couch and launching 2, 3 and 4 at a time. One particular one was a ‘double’ with a bag attached.┬áThere were pieces of paper everywhere! On top of that, her other sister and brother were busy making their own creations. Duplos, embroidery string, knitting wool. OMG! The house looked trashed!

So, the neighbour said what she needed to say about the body corporate stuff, and as she was leaving, I sort of apologised for the mess (even though I shouldn’t of) and she felt the need to tell me about how when she was a parent… blah blah blah, she used to know a person who made their child clean up every time they moved to the next activity.

I was like, “Um… yeah… I know… that doesn’t really work for us.”

See, I like when they get all creative and I don’t want to stop it for something as little as cleaning up. To ME it’s important to clean up. But, to my kids, not so much!

I’ll never forget something I heard from one of my yoga teachers who was leading the teacher training of a parenting course I was taking. He told us to be able to recognise the difference between a ‘mess‘ and and when they’re being destructive.

A child’s ‘mess‘ could be their masterpiece! He told us once how he walked into his daughter’s room and there were cardboard boxes and stuff strewn everywhere! He asked her what she had made. She said, “It’s a town, daddy!” And proceeded to show him where all the buildings where.

Most little kids won’t naturally clean up after themselves. Because, usually, they don’t see what they’ve done as anything messy! What were they doing when they were making a ‘mess‘? They were being BUILDERS and INVENTORS and DESIGNERS! They were not being messy… Not in their minds anyway.

When I was a teenager, I used to sew clothes like a mad woman! I can’t even imagine my mother coming into my room and telling me to stop what I was doing to clean up my fabric scrapes. No way! I was in the depths of creating! And when I was finished, I had to move onto something else. Eventually, I would clean it up.

My oldest daughter is 8, and with her, she understands the idea of cleaning up after a certain point. But, my little ones, they are just SO in the moment, it’s really hard, almost impossible, to get them to pause and clean up before they move to the next thing. It’s just about as hard as stopping a freight train!

I realised that if constantly made my kids clean up every time they wanted to move to the next activity, it was going to take some bribing, threatening, etc. And that’s NOT what I wanted to do.

Nobody bribes or threatens me to clean up… so why should I bribe or threaten my children to do the same?

Older kids can be more reasonable.

But, of course, we don’t want to always live in a pig stye. I get that… So, a few things I do to stay relatively organised are:

  • Be realistic about their age and what I’m asking for them to clean up.
  • Toys live in a shallow basket (otherwise, they ALL get spilled out when they’re looking for what they want)
  • Rotate toys and items that don’t get used, to avoid having too much clutter in the house.
  • Ask their permission if I can ‘ruin’ their creatives before I (or we) put them away.
  • Recognise MY limit for how much mess I can tolerate, not let other people influence me (like my neighbour sticking her nose in my house, nor will I listen to people who read Marie Kondo and don’t have three children that are homeschooled)
  • Stop kids if they are truly being destructive. When my son starts chucking things off the kitchen table, I certainly don’t think he’s creating something… he’s angry. So, then I stop him. I also stop any behaviour (creative or not) that’s going to destroy something that I feel is valuable. You definitely need some limits.
  • If I feel the mess is getting in the way of us functioning, we take all the time out we need to clean up. That means, no going out to play, no doing anything ‘fun‘ until it’s cleaned up. They do get the point that at some point, we need to clean up. It’s not total mayhem all the time.

So, anyway. You can come to my house, it’s not very tidy. But, if you look close, you will see all the amazing creations my children have made that are stacked on their messy desk. Who am I to stop them??? One day, they may be creating something that is important to more than just themselves. It’s not my job to squash their enthusiasm. In the meantime, I might make a sign for my door, “The house was clean yesterday, sorry you missed it.

3 Responses »

  1. My husband actually bought me a sign that says just that and I love it. It has proudly been displayed on my front door for over 10 years, well before I had kids. The whole mess vs creation thing is something I have been struggling a lot with lately. We are sort of adopting a if Mama can’t walk from the toilet to the kitchen without standing on something then we need to clean up rule. It seems to be working out okay. Throwing out about half of our stuff has also helped a lot!

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  2. Provide an orderly, beautiful environment to begin with. If a room or space is cluttered, if the child is overwhelmed with toys, there is little hope of them cleaning up and putting away. Children need to know where their toys go, where to put them. This needs to be clear and obvious. Set the child up for success, make it easy for them to clean up.

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