Updated: Oct 3, 2018
Getting young children in the habit of organizing their spaces is a priority for many busy parents. The language we choose plays a big role in the early development of responsibility.
"I'm sorry, but you have to clean up"
Parents frequently use variations of this phrase when attempting to nicely ask children to take responsibility for their spaces. "I'm sorry" seems to gently acknowledge their children's grief or disappointment during clean up and other transitional times.
Why it's confusing:
Often parents imply "I'm sorry that you have to stop playing now" however this subtlety isn't typically apparent to a child feeling grief or anxiety. Leaving a game behind can be sad. Moving on to something unknown can be stressful. Adding information about those things can be helpful, like "We're going to clean up and make dinner in two more minutes" for example.
"Sorry" however, is still a problem. It implies to your child that their grief is warranted.
[No doubt that it's real. It's just not useful in the context of the daily clean up.]
It implies that the child should feel grief when met with a challenge. It says that being responsible is like being punished, "Poor kid, has to clean up her own toys!" so undermines the value of responsibility the parent is trying to instill in the first place.
Try this instead:
"If you aren't responsible for your things I'm going to put them away" (in place of my choosing).
This is clear and true. This is the reality. Parents will always pick up the toys. We are highly motivated by the desire not to feel this...
...more than twice weekly...
Be explicit about what this responsibility looks like. It might mean putting all the toys away, it might mean helping (picking up one toy alongside the cleaning parent is helping). You define success here. Know what your own needs are. Think about how much time you can devote to the toy space. When there's friction around clean-ups, it often means parents are feeling overwhelmed. We knew it'd be a messy job... but really kid?
And often, that's the reality for the child too. If they are telling (or screaming at) you that they're overwhelmed by having to clean up all this stuff, that means you've given them a developmentally inappropriate task. If you want your child to develop a strong sense of responsibility, set them up for success.
Make it manageable. Get a big box or bag and clean up. Leave favourites. Expect grief. Take responsibility.
"I'm sorry I gave you too many toys to take care of. I'm going to put these ones away in the closet" [Don't threaten to throw out or destroy things that aren't yours]
This might sting, despite opening with "I'm sorry" [always followed by "for/I" - never by "you"]. Remember that you are dealing with a person. No matter how extremely they show their young emotions; they are a person experiencing grief. Let them.
You can't regulate other people's feelings... even if they came out of you... damn...
Know that their grief has very little to do with having fewer toys on the living room floor. It is mostly about failing to meet your expectations. It's about confrontation with someone they love very much. So let them feel it. Stay near and keep them safe.
Maybe have a drink or something.
When they're done feeling, crying, throwing, collapsing, yelling, sobbing, flailing and whatever else it takes, remind them that you love them. Feel good knowing that the toy tornado won't be back today.
Feel great knowing you have the strength to sit with your child in their pain. Taking charge in a way that causes our babies distress is always a challenge for parents. Following through with the clean up shows your child that they are cared for by a strong adult who loves them enough to gently regulate their environment. In other words, that they're safe.
Using clear, kind language that constructs a value of responsibility is vital. Acknowledge your child's emotions in concrete ways. Give them clear expectations and realistic opportunities to meet them successfully. Then celebrate like crazy when they do! No avoidance of punishment or level of bribery rivals the experience of celebrating your accomplishments with the people you love, and for parents of young children, a clean space is truly an accomplishment worth celebrating.