Teaching Your Kids to be Tidy

How’s your summer going? I hope you have fun plans lined up and some time to enjoy a slower pace of life. One thing I always do in the summers is establish a new routine for chores. When new chores become habitual in the summer, the coming school year goes more smoothly… and it helps a lot!

Another thing I work on during the summer is teaching my kids to be orderly. I wish I were one of those people who are oblivious to clutter, socks on the floor, and toys randomly scattered throughout the house. Instead,  for better or worse, I’m kind of a neat freak. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, I have learned to put on my blinders and ignore scattered toys, especially the path of destruction left by Hurricane Junior, (a.k.a. the three-year-old). However, order is an important virtue. So it’s something we work on throughout the year, but especially during the summer.

Teaching toddlers to be tidy

Like learning a language, tidiness is much easier to learn while very young. Keep in mind that orderliness requires some logic, because being tidy means putting things in their logical place. Toddlers are anything but logical. Still, they can develop simple habits. For example, when Junior turned two, he learned to put his shoes in the closet. Yay for Junior!

To teach toddlers habits of tidiness, use the following steps:

  • Role play (look at how I put my shoes in the closet), 
  • Routine (as soon as I come in the house, I put my shoes away),
  • Consistency ( I do this every time I come in), and
  • Oodles of praise (Woo hoo! You put your shoes in the closet!  — accompanied by high fives, fist bumps, and floss dance).

Only work on one tidiness habit at a time. This way you don’t overwhelm your toddler with too many instructions throughout the day. Some appropriate habits for 2 and 3 year olds are:

  • hang up your coat on a hook or put it in a basket when you come in
  • put your shoes in a closet or cubby
  • pick up your toys and put them in a bin before dinner
  • put your dirty laundry in a laundry basket

Make sure one habit is firmly in place before introducing a new one. A habit is a habit when your toddler is doing it automatically, without being reminded. You’ll get more co-operation if you only work on one tidiness habit at a time.

Junior’s attempts at trying to help out. Thank you, Junior!

But what if your terrible-two doesn’t want to put his shoes in the closet or tidy up his toys? At this age, I wouldn’t  battle it.  I’d just encourage him to do whatever tidying you want him to do, but if he resists, shrug your shoulders and move on. If you make a big deal over it, you might actually be giving negative reinforcement for not putting his shoes away or whatever it is you want him to do. You will have many other more important battles to pick with your toddler, such as brushing teeth, bedtime, and eating veggies.

It helps to structure your home environment so that it’s easy for toddlers to put things where they belong. Also, be mindful of your expectations. You want you toddlers to put their books away at the end of the day? Don’t expect them to line the books up on a shelf. Have bins where they can toss the books in. Bins and baskets are the easiest way for little ones to organize their toys.

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Teaching kids to be tidy

With older children, make sure your kids understand why orderliness is important. Studies show that too much clutter causes stress and anxiety. If tidiness is necessary for mom’s mental health, that alone is a very good reason. But it’s not the only one.  Being tidy shows consideration for your family members who also live in the same home. It teaches kids how to properly care for the things they have and the space they live in. Tidiness also helps with safety (I know a lady who broke her leg when she slipped on a match box car), and with cleanliness (putting dirty socks on the kitchen counter is just gross.) Tidiness shows respect for people and hard-earned things.

Start by teaching your children to make their bed every morning, first thing. Keep bedding and pillows to a minimum so making their beds is as easy is possible. If your children use extra blankets, they may find it easier to fold them and place them under their pillows rather than spreading them out on their beds. Remind them to smooth out their bed covers as they finish. It only takes two minutes to make a bed, but what a difference it makes in making a room look neat!

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Teach your children to put things where they belong — dirty clothes in the laundry basket (not the floor), shoes lined up neatly in the shoe closet (we’re still working on that one), and so on. Everything should have a proper place, and your kids need to know exactly where that proper place is. Don’t say, “Put this away”. “Away” is too vague and can easily be mistaken for the kitchen counter. I’ve made that mistake too many times. Instead, give specific instructions, such as “Put this paper clip in the tupperware that’s on the top left-hand shelf of the school cabinet.” Then ask your child to repeat your instructions, so you both know for sure where the item should go. Better yet, ask your child “Where do you think this belongs?”. Be sure his answer is precise and not just “In my room” or “Upstairs.”

Encourage your kids to organize their own things in their own way. This helps them to take ownership of the process and exercise the logic of assigning things their proper places.

It does help to have a catch-all basket or drawer. This is great for random screws, rubber bands, and other things that appear out of nowhere and no one knows where they should go (yet). Also, sometimes you and your kids need a quick, easy place to put something. Putting it in a catch-all basket is tidier than leaving it on the counter or floor.

A child’s level of tidiness should depend on his age. Younger kids should clean up all their toys before dinner. Older ones should learn to do one activity at a time, cleaning up after each one. Encourage teens to have a “tidy-as-you-go” mentality:  as they walk through a room, they should pick up one thing that’s out of place and put it in its proper place. How wonderful if we can teach them to have that spirit of service and sense of personal responsibility for the cleanliness of the home.

What if your kids don’t make their beds in the morning? Breakfast will wait until the bed is made. What if they don’t clean up their toys or pick up their clothes? You take them and hide them. If they don’t take care of their things, they lose the privilege of having them. Sometimes my boys leave their sweaters around the house… a few times I’ll kindly remind them to put their sweaters in closet. If they persist in leaving their sweaters around, I’ll confiscate them for a week or two. My boys only have two “cool” sweaters each. So if they are not orderly, they either have to wear old ratty sweaters that are too small or wear their bulky coats. They learn… and then after a few weeks they forget and we start all over again. 

One of the easiest ways of helping your children to be orderly is to minimize the amount of stuff they have. The fewer things they have, the fewer things they have to clean up. Furthermore, confiscating a toy won’t teach your child to be orderly  if he or she has five million other toys to play with. Our kids probably don’t need half of the stuff they own. Get your children to purge their toy boxes and closets on a regular basis. If you see toys lying around that your kids have not played with for a few weeks, put them in storage or give them away.

So in a nutshell:

  • Tidiness is a habit; it requires constant reminders and practice. The earlier your kids develop this habit, the better.
  • Tidiness is the habit of putting things where they belong as soon as you are done with them. This means that everything should have a proper place for storage.
  • The fewer things your kids have, the easier it is to be tidy.

Some children learn to be tidy more easily than others. You will need to be extremely patient with the ones who never seem to notice there is no floor space left to walk on in their rooms. Teaching your kids to be orderly takes a lot of patience and consistency, but it is totally worth the effort. In the long run, it’s a lot less work for you, your children will learn to appreciate neatness, and your home will be a lovelier place.

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