I used to find myself re-setting our house every Sunday. After a full week of work and school and sports and weekend activities, it would look like someone had picked up our house and shook it like a snow globe. I was organized, I had systems in place to deal with the stuff that would come into our lives each week, but I just couldn’t keep up. And I finally realized why … I was spending tons of time picking up after my kids.
Kids should be kids. They should play and be silly and make messes. They should do art projects and build forts and have tea parties. They should go to birthday parties and bring home goody bags full of little toys. They should play with legos and little collectible figures that comes in 67 different versions and yes, even be allowed to set them up around the house. But why don’t we hold them accountable for putting those things away?
I started out thinking that my kids were too young to clean up after themselves. And then when they were technically old enough, I continued to pick up after them because it took them too long, or they weren’t doing it the right way, or I hated nagging them. But when I realized that their stuff was taking up all of my time, something had to change.
If you are struggling to keep your home organized in spite of your kids, here are five ways that you can get them on board:
1. Keep it simple, obvious and easy.
I think sometimes we worry that organization can only be achieved through some complicated and time consuming process. But the reality is that the simple solutions are the ones that usually work best. This is especially true for kids, and the simpler the better.
One of my pet peeves is abandoned charging cords, particularly the ones that are left hanging from the wall long after the device has been detached. All of my kids are guilty of this because yes, I occasionally let them stare at screens for entertainment. I was always unplugging them, re-wrapping the cords, and putting them away.
After a lot of unpleasant nagging and one failed attempt at a charging station, I finally realized that the real solution was to make cord storage easier. So I moved all of the charging cords to a large decorative bin in the bottom of a bookshelf in our family room. No more wrapping the cords neatly or trying to organize them, they all go in the bin and the kids are responsible for finding the cord they need and returning it to the bin when their device is charged. An added bonus is that all of their devices get charged in the family room anyway so there is no excuse for not putting the cords away.
Does it hurt my brain a little to look inside the bin? Yes. But is it functional and are the kids now putting the cords away? You bet. The best part? This works with almost anything you want your kids to put away. Keep it simple, show them what to do and where to do it, and don’t stress about whether it looks perfect.
2. Make it a normal part of their lives.
Putting things away when you’re finished with them should not be a Sunday activity. It should be something we teach kids to do every day, sometimes many times a day. Preschool teachers use the “clean up song” to teach kids that at certain times of the day, like before a meal or before going outside to play, they must clean up their toys before moving on to the next activity. And guess what? It works! But the kids didn’t know how to do this on their first day. The teachers had to explain to the class what was expected of them, and then they repeated the clean up routine for weeks until it became a regular habit for the classroom.
Getting kids to put away their toys, books, or really anything, takes repetition. We can’t expect them to learn this skill in one day or even one week. Explain your expectations, show them how to do it, and then be willing to patiently remind them for the first few weeks. Kids and adults alike need anywhere from three weeks to several months to form new habits. Making this part of their daily routine will help make this a normal habit that truly becomes a lifelong skill.
3. Let them be part of the solution.
OK, I know this might sound crazy, but it works. If you let them be part of the solution, not only are they much more likely to stick with it, but you might also be pleasantly surprised by how well they do it.
We’ve always had a playroom in our basement. The toys have changed a lot over the years, but when my kids were really young I tried to corral most of their toys there. Anything that could be ridden, jumped on or made sounds was definitely a basement toy. Despite wanting to keep it neat, I quickly learned that playrooms were truly not meant to remain organized. You could spend hours organizing the toys, but then the kids would appear and take out every single one in a matter of minutes. I probably could have left it looking like a toy bomb had exploded in there, but I discovered that when the kids went down to play and the room was picked up, they would often play with something different each time because they were starting with a clean slate.
Realizing that organized might be too unrealistic of a goal, I let my kids lead the way on putting things away. I explained the basic concept – that at the end of the day, the goal was to clean up the room so that they could come back and have space to play again the next day. I made some suggestions such as putting like items with like (i.e. all the cars in one bin, the trains in another, the puzzles on the shelf) and they weren’t allowed to just throw things on shelves, but in the end they were allowed to put things away the way they wanted to. The puzzles and games might teeter precariously on shelves at times, and there would forever be kitchen items mixed in with every other toy, but in the end it was ok. I could ask them to clean up the basement, and they would. I didn’t have to stand over them and tell them what to do, and better yet, I wasn’t the one doing the cleaning.
4. It’s OK not to keep everything.
With three kids, the amount of stuff that appears in my house on a weekly basis is remarkable. It can range from recycling to keepsakes, or my least favorite category…something my child insists on keeping but then never touches again. My kids know that I value the keepsakes, but the rest of it was starting to take over my kitchen.
I started dealing with this problem by throwing things away when my kids weren’t looking. Yes, I’m that mom. During school or after they went to bed at night, I would happily purge and declutter without having to painfully discuss the value of every little – often unused – trinket. But then, again, I realized that I was spending my time cleaning out their stuff.
So I made them part of the process. I started by holding up abandoned items and asking, “Do you want to keep this?” It was their decision to keep it or not, but if they decided to keep it, they needed to find a home for it in their rooms. At first they wanted to keep everything. But over time, they realized that they weren’t actually playing with everything they kept. They also started to run out of places to keep everything!
One important note about this process: If my kids say that they no longer want something, I have them throw it away. For a while I was the one throwing the item away. But then I realized that when they threw the item out, it was helping them learn the concept of actually letting it go.
5. Be a good role model.
Whether you know it or not, your kids are watching you. When we set rules for them, but then don’t follow those same rules ourselves, they notice. The other day my oldest son called me out for not making my bed. And he was right! I ask all of my kids to make their beds in the morning, but I hadn’t made mine.
If we want their help keeping our home organized, we have to show them that we are willing to put the work in too. I have to put away my phone charger, keep my office neat and continue to let go of items I’m no longer using. We can spend all day telling our kids what we want them to do, but guess what’s more effective? Showing them that we’re doing it too.