How to Have Your Kids Clean Up Without Screaming

Moms are tired.

So tired.

Tired of cleaning the same mess every day. Tired of losing our tempers after having the same kids clean up the same mess for the 10th time in a row. Tired of stepping on Legos on the way to the crib to get the crying baby.


In between yawns, we ask each other for the secret. How do we have kids clean up without screaming and losing our minds?

Why Won’t Kids Clean Up?

While pregnant with my fifth baby, I was huge and miserable. Hubby was busy, working full time and earning a degree. Heck, we were all busy, all the time. And our home was a giant mess.

So bad, in fact, that a couple of friends had mercy on me and came to help me dig out of the giant mess. All I could do was sit and stare at the disarray and think “Once I’m back on my feet, never again will this house look like this.”

Now, I’m not going to say that I never yell at my kids about their messes. I still have nights when my head hits the pillow and I instantly wish I had handled my day better.

But the messes have dramatically improved over the past few years, as have the ways we handle “clean up time” in our home.

I’m going to lay out the steps we took to make that happen. Because I know you can make this happen for you, too.

Problem 1: It’s Overwhelming

Consider the number of items you are asking your child to be responsible for. One article claims that a child, on average, receives 70 new toys each year.

You might be thinking “No way. Not my kid!” But really think about it. Your kid likely gets toys for their birthdays, holidays, treats from friend’s birthday parties, fast food toys, at the dentist, etc, etc.

Is it really reasonable to ask a 5 year old to clean up her stuff when she owns hundreds of things? Tell the truth…you’re overwhelmed just thinking about doing that yourself!

What to do about it

Pare down. Get rid of it. Throw it away, share it with others, sell it on eBay.

We’ve all heard of the KonMari method by now, haven’t we? Or perhaps you like the FlyLady method.

What this comes down to is that you need to take a day when the kids aren’t home and tear apart their room. Don’t forget any toys or objects they own in other rooms.

You might be thinking,No way. My kid plays with every toy he owns and he’d know immediately if I got rid of anything.

Stop and think about that. Does your child play with everything…or does he frantically move from one toy to another because his room is so overwhelming? Does he play with everything…or is he really just moving things from one room to another looking for an open area to play in?

In my own experience, I have found that my kids almost never miss the toys I remove. What they certainly do notice is that they have so much room for activities!

Here’s how I do it:

  • If it’s broken beyond repair, I throw it away. It doesn’t matter if Grandma gave it to him for his first Christmas. Seeing it just makes me sad that he can’t play with it anymore. If it truly is that beloved, we’ll make sure he gets a new copy for his birthday.
  • If it’s outgrown, I put it in the closet for the next child to grow into. With 5 kids, we almost always have a next child that will enjoy it. Things that the baby outgrows are sold, handed down, donated, or tossed.
  • If I’m just not sure if a stuffed animal (or book or toy or jewelry or etc) is totally loved, I hide it. I keep a big tub of objects in the attic or basement or closet.
  • The kids have no idea that this tub exists. That step is super important! If they lay eyes on it, you will never be able to get rid of it.
  • The child has to remember the toy and specifically ask for it before I return it to them. They don’t know about this rule. Don’t give them reasons to sit around and remember every toy they have ever owned.

It’s OK to Do This One Alone

At the time of our purge, my kids were not old enough to make a reasonable decision about each toy. Yes, I love teachable moments… but a giant purge is not a teachable moment.

It’s a big ordeal.

It’s taxing for an adult to do this job. It’s unfair to ask your child to make these big decisions about every single thing they own.

To create an actual teachable moment, I sometimes ask a kid to go find one toy that they no longer love or want. Then we can donate it to a less fortunate child. It can be tough for them to find one to part with. But if you do this exercise regularly, you’ll find that it gets easier for everyone.

Problem 2: There’s not a place for everything…so how can everything be in its place?

I remember feeling irritated and asking my boy why he couldn’t just clean up his mess. I watched him reach to pick up a toy…and then look around the room, confused as to where to put it.

That’s when I realized that I wasn’t sure where to put that toy, either. How could I be irritated with him if I didn’t know where it went?

I’ve already talked about some different ways to organize kids toys in this post, so I won’t repeat myself. The important thing is to find a system of toy boxes, crates, storage bins, and other containers to make it super easy to clean up.

You want to set up a system so simple that a brand new babysitter can walk into the house for the first time and know where the toys belong. Then you’ll know that you’ve simplified enough that a child can do it, too.

Problem 3: There’s no routine

If you want kids to clean up regularly, then something needs to signal to their brain: *Ding!* It’s clean up time!

Maybe you don’t eat lunch until the toys are put away. Or 2:00 means clean up time.

Problem 4: They need incentive

If your kids are older and Minecraft addicts, then create a rule that there is no screen time until they’ve cleaned up. That one is unbelievably effective!

For younger kids, maybe their reward for cleaning up is a snack or Netflix or outside time.

You might be against the thought of rewarding your child for doing something they should do anyway. In our home, they aren’t getting extra snacks or extra screen time. It’s simply a requirement that the room be clean if they want screen time.

Problem 5: Who’s In Charge?

Do your kids hear you when you ask them to do something nicely? Sometimes I get the impression that my kids think I’m just kidding unless I yell the words instead of speaking them.

Clearly that’s something I’ve accidentally taught them. The only way to change their thinking is to skip the yelling altogether.

I try to ask my kids to clean up a mess in a specific way. “Please hang up your coat.” “Please empty your lunchbox and put it in the pantry.” I don’t want them to be confused by what I expect.

If they don’t do it right away, I sometimes take them by the hand and physically move them through the motions. I don’t hurt them, but I’m firm about them getting this done.

Another option for the child who ignores your request is an immediate consequence. “I see that you need some practice. Now please hang up your coat and all of these other coats.”

These methods take some time to put into place. But if you dedicate yourself to getting them done, you’ll find that it’s much easier to have kids clean up after themselves.

Jamie Jeffers writes tips for raising your family at She also posts money saving tips and writes about her family’s journey toward paying off debt.

Originally published at on March 16, 2016.