Training Kids to Pick Up Belongings

McCullough, based in Colorado, is the author of five books on home management.

One of the most difficult family problems is training children to pick up their belongings. The solution is hard but not impossible.

For toddlers and preschoolers, the answer is to train yourself to allow five minutes before lunch, nap, dinner and bedtime to go with the child to help in the regular pickup. If you have giant messes time after time, the answer is to cut down the number of things available to dump by putting some of the toys and books out of reach and rotating them. After a child is 5 or 6, you can use other tactics.

At my house, we first tried standing guard. As soon as the kid would lay something down, we'd grab it and they'd have to pay a fine to get it back. That meant we were always on duty and that we were asking them to live a law of perfection that we, as parents, did not follow.

We did not mind that things were temporarily laid down, but it angered us when those temporary spots became permanent. For example, one of our sons had three coats. He would go to the closet every time he needed a coat and only when there was not another one in the closet would he think about where he might have laid one of the others.

A Need for Compromise

We decided to compromise. We invented the 8 o'clock pickup plan. Every day we went through the house at 8 o'clock and impounded anything left out. To redeem the item, the child had to do a chore.

The collection box was titled the extra-service box because the children had to perform an extra service to get the item back. Children were not allowed fun time on Saturday until all their belongings in the box were earned back, just in case there were some things in there that they did not feel were worth working for.

Along with the discipline, we tried to make positive comments whenever we noticed good behavior: "Lisa is saving herself a chore by picking up her shoes, hurrah." An important ingredient for changing a habit is giving positive recognition for the desired action.

We made the 8 o'clock rounds in the morning and at night. The box was conspicuously left on top of the refrigerator as a reminder.

Parents Not Exempt

If the children found Mom's or Dad's stuff out at 8 o'clock, they could also put it in the box. After several weeks the box was put away because the children had improved. Three months later, we used it again for a few days to reinforce the principle. The 8 o'clock plan worked for seven reasons:

--The children were mature enough (older than 6) to understand and to be accountable. Mom and Dad took care of the baby's things.

--The 8 o'clock rounds were easier to enforce than the all-the-time rule.

--The extra-service box was left in plain sight.

--Redemption chores were kept very simple.

--Special efforts were made to give positive attention when the children picked up and put things away at other times.

--A gentle, one-time reminder was often given before the 8 o'clock rounds were started.

--Things left out in the child's bedroom did not count in this program.

Fairness Is Important

Parents who create an atmosphere of fairness and gentle consistency will usually have responsible children. Fairness would be to understand the child's needs and maturity. Perfection can be the enemy of good. Perfection can interfere with creativity.

Establish consistency by setting aside regular times to take care of chores. When the child knows what to expect, he/she can meet those reasonable requests and organize time for the other parts of his/her life (play, homework, friends). Simple rules of consistency may read something like this: Make the bed before breakfast; clean the bedroom once a week (deadline is 5 p.m. Saturday); put away clean clothes every week; gather up anything left out in the general living areas of the house before 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Most children need prompting, deadlines and occasional discipline. Children do not notice tasks that need to be done or feel an urgency to take care of things. Set up a program of reasonable assignments with logical consequences and you'll all feel better about the house and have more time for yourself.

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