Why I Clean Up My Four Year Old’s Messes

March 31, 2016

When my daughter was one she would drop her food all over the floor. I would clean it up.

When my daughter was two she would throw play dough all over the room. I would clean it up.

When my daughter was three she would pull all her toys out and leave them everywhere. I would clean it up.

Now my daughter is four. She still drops her food, leaves her toys out and occasionally draws where she isn’t supposed to. I still clean it up.

You are probably thinking I live in a crazy house where anything and everything get thrown everywhere. Where the kids rule the roost and I’m their servant. But this is not how we live. Far from it.

And you are probably thinking that she is definitely old enough now to clean up after herself. That she needs to do it to learn responsibility, to learn respect, to learn to not do the same thing again. THAT THERE NEEDS TO BE CONSEQUENCES!

I disagree.

Here’s the thing. (Well, a few things)

1. Our expectations of our kids are too high.

Small people are going to spill things. They are going to throw things around. They are going to wear their muddy boots in the house.

2. Our kids experience the world differently than we do.

One person’s mess is another person’s science experiment….or art project…or future snack.

and the real kicker:

3. We actually don’t need to teach our kids anything for them to learn.

Yes, if my kids make a mess I clean it up. Sometimes I invite them to help if they want to. But the answer is allowed to be no.

Instead of worrying about teaching them a lesson I model cleaning up after ourselves. I model keeping a tidy home. I model helping them when they need help, even if they haven’t asked for it.

Young children will learn responsibility, they will learn respect, they will learn to help others. They just won’t learn these things by being forced to clean up spilled drinks or bits of play dough, by being dictated ultimatums or arbitrary if/then scenarios like not being able to go outside until their toys are put away.

How they will learn it is from WATCHING YOU. And they are always watching, and listening. Always.

They will learn by seeing you model these things for them, over and over again. Model respect, model helpfulness, model gratitude. Live your life as the adult you want them to become.

If something about my kids’ mess frustrates me then I know it’s something I need to change, it’s MY frustration.

So if your child draws on the walls then put the markers away when you are not there to supervise. If your child dumps their toys everywhere and it takes too long to clean them up then give some thought to how many toys you have. If your child drops food from their high chair every time she eats and it bothers you then consider changing the seating arrangements. Make the changes you need to make to lower your frustration level.

And just stop. Take a deep breath. Put the idea of “logical consequences” aside. Seriously. Even the biggest mess you can imagine does not need consequences. Arbitrary rules like one toy must be put away before another is used or if/then scenarios such as they can’t go outside until they pick up their shoes will do nothing to help them become the people you hope they will be.

Instead just be the person you want them to be. Work on yourself instead of working on them.

And trust them. They will get there. It might not be when they are four or five or seven but they WILL grow into the well-rounded people you want them to be, because that is what they will know.

I trust my daughter. Some days she already takes pride in helping us clean up our living spaces. Other days she throws her blueberries all over the living room floor because they are too squishy.

So some days I smile and watch her sweep the floor and put away our shoes, and on the other days I clean up the blueberries and decide not to give them as a living room snack for the next little while.

I will keep cleaning up my four year old’s messes. And it will be the same when she’s five and even when she’s ten.

It’s all good. She will get there. I will show her the way.

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  • Reply Sarah August 22, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Montessori is great, but it is teacher driven, not necessarily driven by the child. My child’s playroom is his playroom. It is not mine. I have never pushed my guy to clean up. He sees me cleaning up and on his own at times will run around and clean all by himself. And Montessori is not a “democratic” space. My ome is my child’ home. He gets a say.

  • Reply Natashia July 6, 2016 at 4:42 am

    Yes. I agree with modeling behavior. As a mother of 8, I have noticed that my children learn a lot more from modeled behavior than anything else.

    • Reply The Mamas July 6, 2016 at 10:07 am

      That’s great to hear, Natashia, especially from a mother of 8!❤

  • Reply Trisha July 5, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    I enjoy some of your articles, but couldn’t disagree any more with this idea. Watching is powerful, but doing is how real learning occurs. There is power in cleaning up ones own mess, even at the age of 3. A prepared environment will allow a child to play purposefully, but when that environment is disturbed, it empowers a little one to be able to clean it up again. The Montessori curriculum teaches their 2 and 3 year olds to clean their dishes, make a bed, and sweep the floor, but because it is to shame them or deny them their childhood, but to empower them to be self-sufficient. Doing is more powerful than watching.

    • Reply The Mamas July 6, 2016 at 10:08 am

      What are you going to do when your child doesn’t want to? Force them? Punish them? By leading by example and modeling joy while cleaning, they will eventually choose to do the tidying because it just becomes part of who they are. It isn’t seen as a chore, negative or punishment, but as part of the process of play, at their own pace. In Montessori, yes
      …they do those things.
      They also say never interrupt a child’s play in order to clean or tidy up a previous activity. They say play is a child’s work and that we should just quietly pop the activity away or clean the mess.
      They set up those “work” type activities to provide real life experiences, yes, but not to enforce those experiences.

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