you won’t pick up your toys, huh?

Anyone with children or who remembers childhood is also likely to recall the perpetual challenge the request “clean up time” regularly comes with.

Fortunate is our society that our children have so many playthings.  The bounty also gives us a never-ending conundrum of how many toys is enough, what to do to organize all of them, and how to deal with reluctant children and chaos in the aftermath of building towers, setting up intricate road systems, creating dragon lairs and rescue missions and such.

One of the perpetual missions I find myself on is identifying ways to turn the tides of the power struggle from a battle of wills and rather into an opportunity to explore choices.  My ability to run mental gymnastics finding solutions that give Little Boy practice making choices while still maintaining my boundaries sometimes runs out, but more often than not we find a solution.

Like every other parent of children with multiple toys, the time comes when we must announce cleanup time.  And like every other parent who announces this, it is not infrequent to hear that your sweet child would prefer someone *else* to clean up the mess on the floor as it has become uninteresting since play has stopped.

Umm.  No.  Power struggle…imminent.

One day when presented with this innocent declaration that cleanup would be left for someone else, I had an epiphany.  In my search to stay calm, since in my experience in winning power struggles is exhausting, I hatched a plan that would be acceptable to both of us.

Little Boy was presented with his choices.  We talked about how when you make a mess, you clean it up.  Mom cleans up messes in the kitchen when she makes them, Papa cleans up messes in the garage when he’s building things.  We talked about all the grownups in his life and the messes they might make and then clean up.  Little Boy makes messes too, and part of making the mess is cleaning it up.

So, he was offered his solution.  One of the things I do for our family is keep our house cleaned up.  I have other responsibilities of things to take care of, just like he takes care of his toys, but we could trade chores and I was okay with that.

So quickly I scooped the jumble of playthings into a basket and stashed it in a high place.  We talked about how when he was ready to earn them back, we’d come up with something that Mom was planning on doing to trade.  One cleanup for one cleanup.

Deep breath.  I didn’t feel taken advantage of, the toys were picked up, and Little Boy had some fairly earned washing coming up that he would *choose* when to do!


The stash that I clean up peacefully grows.  Dump trucks, airplanes, random cars, trucks, trains, motorcycles.  One basket for each cleanup, ready for trade with one cleanup around the house.  Little Boy discovers toys he hasn’t played with in a while since his other toys are in hock and he is unwilling to clean for them yet.  The pull to be domestic has not yet grown strong enough to match his desire for the toys cleaned up.

Finally, the day inevitably comes when his attention turns to something in one of the bins.  Nothing else will do.  The time has come to clean.

One bin discovered leads to more needed, and our house gets some deep cleaning that’s been waiting just for him.

Toilets, sinks, small sections of floors, stairs, little tables, wooden arm rests…each in it’s own time has been polished and washed too.

And I sigh with satisfaction.  One more power struggle to release.  That feels good.


8 responses to “you won’t pick up your toys, huh?

  1. Oh that life were nothing but choices…

    Growing up we had choices… do it or get whacked! Cries of “You’re not my boss!” Resulted in the ultimate power grab… “No, I’m your MOM and I’m telling you to do it! So get to it!”

    Most things can be reduced to the logic you wisely apply here. Clean our space or lose the use of our toys. Maintain the car or have it prematurely break down. Pay the mortgage or lose the home. Pay the tax or live to regret it. Eat healthy or die young. Stuff like that. But there is a whole category of issues that have no reward.

    Telling the truth can be one of them. Telling the truth can have quite the opposite effect. Being charitable is another. Giving stuff away can leave you without stuff. Lending a helping hand can leave you without time for your own needs. Working harder in hope of a reward can thicken the work hardened calouses. That’s the problem with a ‘reward’ approach to self motivation. Sometimes we should just do it because MOM said so. Or simply because it’s the right thing to do…

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is precious, Bee. I love your creativity, your determination to avoid will conflict, your successful approach. Congratulations on being such a wonderful mom!

    Love you!

  3. So true Ford. The author and speaker Alfie Kohn details the negative impacts of a rewards-based system…even positive rewards. Great points you bring up. Gulp. It’s a good thing kids don’t grow up faster than they do or I’d be in trouble. Now I’ve got some serious homework to ponder.

    I was reading recently though in the text “The Life Span” that of the different ways you can get kids to do what you want them to (force, withdrawal of love, explanations…simplified grossly here), that full explanations (the text calls it induction) “seems to be the most effective way to promote the internalization of rules, so that children regulate their own behavior by the standards they have learned regardless of whether authorities are present and whether immediate consequences are likely.” (2nd edition, p. 158).

    This gives me hope instead of fear.

    Thanks so much for your comments Ford. Lots to think about.

    ( Thanks 🙂

  4. This was genius, Bee! Genius. Loved it!

  5. Excellent concept. Something I may have to try rather than “well, if i pick it up, it’s going into a bin we call ‘the garbage'”. lol

  6. Good post Gweeg 🙂

  7. You are such a creative and understanding mom. God Bless You

  8. As a mom, I have never subscribed to the school of thought that teaches, “Do it because I say so!” Obviously, little kids can’t always understand the ramifications of decisions they make, but I always tried to explain to my boys in terms that were age-appropriate why they should do things a certain way (usually because of safety issues, or not wanting anyone to get hurt). And we were also very clear about the fact that Mom and Dad love them very much, and our love is not given or withheld based on their behavior. It is unconditional, and always will be.

    As my kids grew, I kept waiting for the terrible, rebellious teen years to hit. I steeled myself for the “inevitable” power struggles that we all assume are part of growing up. But a funny thing happened — all those horror stories never materialized. Our kids have grown up well-adjusted, happy, interested and interesting, able to carry on intelligent conversations with their peers and adults, and chomping at the bit to get going in life. Of course, there were many bumps along the way, but we couldn’t be happier with our wonderful sons and look forward to watching them continue to blossom into conscientious citizens, husbands and fathers.

    It is genuinely possible to raise great kids in today’s world. Ginger, you and Peter are doing a fantastic job with your two little sweethearts. Keep it up!

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