26 answers

3 Year Old Refusing to Pick up Her Messes

I could really use some advice on how to get my 3 1/2 year old daughter to clean her room. I know that she is only 3 but she knows how to do it and has done it before and now all we get is a stern NO from her. I have tried pursuation by giving her the option to clean or go to the corner until she is ready. That only worked once. I have tried treats or something that we do not normally do but I know she really likes to do, and now she just says take my toys away. At this point I'm seriously thinking of doing just that.

Her room is such a mess that my husband and I have to clear a path to get to her bed. She really doesn't seem to care. We use to help her clean up but now we thought she was old enough to do it on her own. We have also tried sitting in her room while she picks up everything but that just gets really frustrating because she keeps asking, " Where does this go, what is this, you put it away." If we are not in the room though she will not pick up anything and has spent most of the day in her room because she refuses to do anything.

I have also tried getting her to pick up a specific thing like all of her books or all of her stuffed animals. That worked but I had to go in there about 5 times to get her to do it. Then there was trying to get her to clean a very small section so she could see her accomplishment but she didn't even want to do that.

I really need some guidence on this struggle.

What can I do next?

Featured Answers

Hi E.,

I have found with my 3 year old son that if we make it a "race" where we set a timer for 1 minute and see who can pick up more things, then he thinks its a game instead of a chore. Or you can take the more stern approach and just take away all of the "toys" and fun things in his room and don't give them back until he picks up the other clothes, etc. It's hard at this age to teach them how to respect their belongings, but if you are consistent and do it every single day (try around the same time), then eventually Elizabeth should start to get it. Also, try singing or maybe playing one of her favorite songs. Give her a goal of what to pick up before the song ends. Good luck!
J.

A friend of mine had the same issue with her 3 year old and did this technique. She told him, "You are allowed to keep whatever toys you clean up off the ground and put away. What you do not pick up off the ground and put away, I will give to the boys and girls that do not have any toys." That night he only picked up a few things. She then picked up all the stuff on the floor and put it in a bag and gave it away. The next morning he saw that his toys were gone. That night he began picking up his toys without arguement or resistance.

This might sound a little harsh but it worked on both my 3 and 5 year olds. When you ask her to clean her room and she says no, tell her that if you have to do it you will throw everything away. pick anything on the floor up and put it into trash bags and make her think you are throwing it in the trash, put the bag in a place she cannot see until she can start helping clean up her messes. mine threw fits about it and I hated taking their stuff but it works!

More Answers

Sounds as if she wants you to help her to get your attention. Do you play with her in her room? My daughter and I played with her toys at times and we would put them away together. Then when she played alone she did the same. To avoid having all her toys to clean let her get 1 toy only allowing the 2nd when the 1st is put back into place. I am a grandmother and raised 1 daughter this was how I taught her. She played with one thing then returned it to it's proper place and got the next. This worked very well for me perhaps it will help you. My daughter will be 23 in May and has utilized these organizational skills throughout her life in school and at home. She will be graduating college in June and her son will be 1 in June. She has worked full time, gone to school full time and been a mother for the last year. Now she is teaching her son to be structured and organized. I hope this will be of some help to you.

1 mom found this helpful

Hi E.!

Wow! You have a very smart little girl! It is very clear who is the boss here! Please note that I am not trying to be judgmental, but just offer advice. First of all you are NOT consistent. By all the things that you have tried, how long did you stick with them? Probably not very long. However, I think that no matter what you do, unless you stick with it (for longer than a week or even a month) she knows that if she sticks it out, SHE WILL WIN! Let's remember that you are the Mommy and she is just the child. What you say goes. No ifs, and or buts. I would maybe start with one group of toys at a time (just books, or just dolls, or just blocks) and say "Elizabeth, I need you to pick up the dolls and put them away." If she says no, or acts like she doesn't know where they belong, again you repeat, "Elizabeth, I need you to pick up the dolls and put them away." You DO NOT need to have a conversation about them because frankly that just wastes time and she KNOWS it! You don't need to explain WHY she needs to put them away or WHERE they go, she ALREADY knows! The 3rd time I would say, "Elizabeth, I need you to pick up the dolls and put them away or I am going to take them away." If she says, "Fine, take them." THEN DO IT! Don't give them back until she learns to pick up ALL her toys. The next time she thinks she is going to call your bluff, start with the blocks. Warn her twice and then take them. DO NOT give them back until she learns to pick up her toys. YOU didn't make the mess, YOU weren't the one playing with them. Make 3 your magic number. You shouldn't have to tell her 5 or more times to do something. You say she is ONLY 3 1/2, but a very SMART 3 1/2 it sounds like. Once she realizes that you really aren't going to give back the dolls, then the blocks (and hopefully not much more than that!!) she'll know that there are now rules to keeping her room clean. If you think she has too much to clean up for a 3 year old, then TAKE OUT SOME OF THE STUFF!!! Seriously, if you have to clear a path to get to her bed, there is too much stuff! (ONLY MY OPINION!) Do you have storage problems? We just bought one of the "steel" looking shelving units from WalMart for under $40 I think. You can easily girl it up with ribbons, paint, stickers, etc. You must be consistent whatever you do. She knows that if she calls your bluff, she wins. For the sake of her future as a tidy/organized person I think you should set boundaries. My 4 & 8 year old neices are absolute piglets! But so are my sister and brother in law! They leave their clothes everywhere and their toys. Puzzles are missing pieces, as well as games. How they play with anything is beyond me! Also, don't ever make an "empty threat". For example, "If you don't pick up your toys, I'm going to throw them away." If you're not planning on throwing them away, don't say it! It just reinforces that you NEVER MEAN what you say! Anyway, this was just one mommy's opinion. Please let us know what happens with your shining star!

@---<-----J.

1 mom found this helpful

"Clean your room" is not an age appropriate request. I have a 10 year old and "clean your room" is barely OK at that age! You really do need to break down the tasks. You said you tried "put your books away"--- that's actually perfect. She needs this enormous task broken down into bite size steps-- and at her age she still needs your guidance every step of the way. Also, if you can't walk through her room because she has so much stuff on the floor, one long term answer to your problem may be to be proactive-- remove some of her stuff so there is no chance of it all being out at the same time, then spend the time teaching her to take out one activity at a time and cleaning that up before starting something new. Also, she shouldn't have to ask "where does this go". Have shelves and bins with clearly marked labels-- obviously you need picture labels, but putting the word next to the label is great for prereading skills.

1 mom found this helpful

I agree with Janine. You have to stick to what you say or not say it at all. Break it down into small tasks and get in there and help the first few times. That does not mean to go in and clean it up while she sits and watches. Get some bins or shelves and let her decide which toys belong together and which area they should call home. When it's time to pick up, go in and be specific... "It's time to pick up now; gather all the dolls and find their home, please"
Don't be delusional in thinking that general instructions apply to very small children. They need guidance and step by step instruction at her age with supervision. Going into her room and saying... clean your room and walking out will do absolutely nothing. In her mind it's like what you would feel if you were sitting at a desk piled with paperwork to the ceiling and someone coming and telling you to get it cleaned up asap. It's overwhelming.
Also, something that works in my home is the toy switch plan. Kids get bored with the same toys every day. They want new stuff. Every couple of months we switch what toys are out. We take the toys that were out and put them in the closet. They don't really forget, but it becomes unfamiliar after a couple months and it's like they just got brand new toys again. They play more with them, there is less clutter out in the open and they appreciate what they have instead of constantly buying new things. That may be something you would want to try. Everyone takes better care of things that are "new"
Be patient and consistent... it does get better.

1 mom found this helpful

Hi E.,

I have found with my 3 year old son that if we make it a "race" where we set a timer for 1 minute and see who can pick up more things, then he thinks its a game instead of a chore. Or you can take the more stern approach and just take away all of the "toys" and fun things in his room and don't give them back until he picks up the other clothes, etc. It's hard at this age to teach them how to respect their belongings, but if you are consistent and do it every single day (try around the same time), then eventually Elizabeth should start to get it. Also, try singing or maybe playing one of her favorite songs. Give her a goal of what to pick up before the song ends. Good luck!
J.

A friend of mine had the same issue with her 3 year old and did this technique. She told him, "You are allowed to keep whatever toys you clean up off the ground and put away. What you do not pick up off the ground and put away, I will give to the boys and girls that do not have any toys." That night he only picked up a few things. She then picked up all the stuff on the floor and put it in a bag and gave it away. The next morning he saw that his toys were gone. That night he began picking up his toys without arguement or resistance.

My 3 year old daughter does the same exact thing and 2 weeks ago I finally took all her toys away exept for her legos which are the only ones she picked up after I nagged for hours. She thinks that I threw her toys in the trash but they are actually hidden in the garage. I am testing her with the legos, if she uses them and can manage to pick up after herself with those then I will let her earn her other toys back. Otherwise she will just be toyless!!Anyway, I will let you know if it works. Good Luck!!

E.,
First thing, lower your expectations. Yes, she is capable, but 3 year olds only have a three minute attention span. It it totally unrealistic for her to stay in her room and clean up everything until it is done. Yes, you may have to stay in there the whole time and yes, you may have to help her. If she has enough toys to cover the floor, she has too many toys. I would take a garbage bag, let her choose her top ten favorite toys and donate the rest to a shelter. She has too many choices. That way it takes about one minute to pick everything up. If you would only keep five big things and five small things, her life won't be so complicated. At 3, she needs to learn to pick up, but it should be fun and interesting for her, like pick up 2 big things and I will pick up 2 little things or vice versa. Children take a lot of time and attention. Its a learning process, that means it is continual. Once they know how to do something it doesn't mean that they are capable of doing it from then on out by themselves. You are constantly reminding and reteaching them. Parenting is a give and give relationship for the first several years. It's not until they are older that you will see the benefits of making sacrifices without complaining. Just love her and give her discipline, but don't set her up for failure and then get frustrated at her. Too high expectations lead to everyone being frustrated and that leads to broken relationships. Enjoy her and do the cleaning with her to lead by example.
Take Care

E.,
common sense, we tend to miss it with our rose colored glasses...they are too adorable BUT.....simply take each toy or clothing AWAY..if she doesnt do what you say then tell her "bye bye to mr potato head" or whatever and throw it away for put it in the donation/charity box. she will learn quickly but you'll have to follow through and not just trick her. if she wants her toys, she'll learn to listen to mommy or she won't have anything at all....boring, plain room with no toys! it works! try it!

This might sound a little harsh but it worked on both my 3 and 5 year olds. When you ask her to clean her room and she says no, tell her that if you have to do it you will throw everything away. pick anything on the floor up and put it into trash bags and make her think you are throwing it in the trash, put the bag in a place she cannot see until she can start helping clean up her messes. mine threw fits about it and I hated taking their stuff but it works!

Maybe she's too overwhelmed by the mess. It sounds like she might need fewer toys, so that when she is done playing, clean up will not be such an overwhelming and confusing task. Or, like you said, just get rid of all the toys.

That, of course, may not be the problem. I just think that if you are overwhelmed at the mess, that a three year old must be way more frustrated with it, and she doesn't yet have the reasoning and organizational skills to tackle the job.

Good luck!

Since your child is still very young, you may be expecting too much from her right now. While you should continue to try to teach her to keep her room clean, you should CONTINUE TO HELP her right now until she fully learns HOW to do what is expected of her. After a while, she will get more confidence in her ability. Also, while cleaning,etc. keep encouraging her by making comments about "how proud you are of the job that she is doing". After the room has been cleaned, "rant and rave" about how nice the room looks and let her know "how proud" you are that she is being so helpful, etc...

Hi E.
Well, sounds like she's a smart little girl to be cleaning up her room. What I would do is what Super Nanny does. She creates a chart and uses stars that glue on. And as you create the chart, you put the days of the week up top across from left to right. On the left column from top to bottom, you write the chores like:
Pick up room 1 star
Make bed 1 star
dirty clothes in basket 1 start
keep toys neat 1 star
AND WHEN SHE gets 1 star a day or more, at the end of the week, if she has 7 or more stars, she gets to choose from 2 prises: Go to park or Go out to eat, or get a $5.00 toy or go to the library for story time. But you must keep up and don't back down. if she only gets 6 stars, don't give in. the next week she'll get 7 stars believe me.
Good luck and let me know how it works.
T. PS where do you live?

Your thinking is absolutely correct. Go ahead and take her toys from her. I've done it myself and it's worked very effectively with my kids. I will take them away for a few days and then pull the box down and give them the option of putting them away or taking them away again. Good luck!

E.,

It's too late to have her pick up her room. She is now way too overwhelmed. Imagine if your house was so dirty that you had to kick a path to get through it!

Go with her and clean & organize in a manner that she can understand and then make it a morning 'chore' for her. Check what she has done each morning and if something isn't quite right, show her how/where to do it correctly. For each morning she gets it all OK (for a three year old) give her a star on the calender and a hug, maybe for each 5 or 10 stars a dollar to spend on something special.

I am on my second group/family to raise (three Grans) and cleaning the room is a fight no matter what, they are all school age and one is 13, the lists of 'chores' is in their closets and STILL I sometimes have to set the timer. Every so often the rooms HAVE to be cleaned by an adult to REALLY be clean!

Good Luck!

A.

3 1/2 yr olds are sweet, cute little monsters at times. You are so right to expect her to clean up herself. I have four 2 yr olds in my care and they clean the entire playroom by themselves. Many times I have to "keep them moving" but they know exactly where every piece goes. At 3 1/2, she can, but is most likely very overwhelmed with the mess. I would suggest you AND dad come to her one Saturday morning and calmly tell her that you see that her room is a BIG MESSY MESS ( be silly ) and that you know that it's a big job to clean all by your self. Ask her if she would like some help make her room pretty and clean again. She most likely will jump at the chance to have help, and even just to spend some time with you. Start by asking her to help you find all the clothes and get a basket to put them in. Make it a fun game. Put on some fun music and encourage her to get many of the items herself, say " I see a sock, hurry, it's apink one right by your bed, yeah, let's find some more. phewww, we're all done, we found all the clothes. After that move on to the next group, say books, or ponies, barbies, stuffed animals, etc. Teach her how to break the job down into groups that will make the job not seem so big. During this time, get rid of EVERYTHING she doesn't realyl play with. Even if you have to organize it in bins up in the closet or garage. Kids this age should never have games, puzzles, that have many pieces without them being in a organized bin that requires your assistance getting it out to play. My kids know that they must present clean rooms to play a board game, or get out little legos, etc. After her room is VERY organized and clean, have a little play party with her. Let her pick a toy to play with and then help her to remember to put it away so her room is so nice when she's done. I think she should also have a small topy box that is a catch all of miscellaneous toys that don't have a category home. Items will get put in there that don't belong in there and about once every 2 weeks, you and her together can go through the toy box and she can put each item in it's right place. Her messy room is just too overwhelming and she needs help. This is a great oppurtunity for her to find proper places for items, to learn how to tackle a big project, one step at a time and to feel the euphoria of a clean organized room. Keep it positive. When she refuses to clean her room in the future. You can tell her that her room is going to get cleaned today and if she doesn't choose to clean it herself, you will clean it for her. Tell her that her toys will be placed in a bag and you will keep them for a week and when her room is clean and she is ready to put them away properly, you will give her the toys back. That way, a week later, she will have to clean her room, and then get a big bag of stuff to sort through. You may end up with quite a few bags of stuff in your closet, but she will eventually want her stuff back. Make sure you show other family members and friends her super clean room and brag about how she did it herself. She will feel so proud of herself and will be thrilled that you are proud of her.

How about just starting over? Remove everything from her room but the bear essentials, bed, small amount of clothing, and a few toys. Minimal things in drawers and shelves.
Your little O. may be overwhelmed with the number of items in the room, give her a chance to get her footing with a few items and then add from there.
It is alot to expect for a 3 yo to clean their room on a regular basis, but taking care of their items is okay, so give her less to take care of.

Best advice I can give is find a preschool or a very responsible daycare that prides themselves on structured activities that will let you come and observe a day. This is what I did. I will not say what I learned because I actually enrolled my daughter in this school after seeing and it cost me over $180 a week but to have trained specialist to copy at home has worked wonders in our home!
I hope this helps from Altamonte Springs Florida

:)

I had this same problem with my 2 children (5 and 3). They constantly had excuses for why they "couldn't" clean their room. Finally one day I set the timer for 10 minutes and told my daughter she had that long to put all the stuffed animals on the top bunk and if she didn't I was going to throw all her toys away. She didn't think I was serious and when that timer went off, I went in there with a garbage bag and just started filling it up... she flipped out. I kept the garbage bag hidden in my room for a week. After her room stayed clean for a week I gave back her toys and told her next time I would take them and give them to little girls who don't have any toys. Your daughter sounds like mine though... smarty pants:) I hope this helps you!

I understand what you are going through. My kids are older, but still have problems cleaning all the stuff in their rooms. The problem... me. They have too much stuff and it is overwhelming! I can't bear to "get rid" of much of it. The things that I think are valuable and worth keeping.. they don't have a lot of interest in (a Hess collection "Santa" brings every Christmas, etc) and the stuff I consider "trash" (broken kids meal toys, trinkets from school that don't work/broken/missing corresponding parts) they would be heartbroken to get rid of.
I usually end up going through their rooms every other month or so, and doing a "deep" clean preferrably when they are not at home. At 3 1/2 yrs though, her problem is that she is overwhelmed and needs help. Don't tell her what to do, HELP her (lead by example)... make a game out of it... Singing the "Barney" clean up song used to motivate my son... Also, even now, I'll challenge them to "see how much stuff we can put away before the timer goes off... I'm setting it for 10 minutes... ready.. go!" and then everybody picks up dirty clothes, toys etc.
I found that the open plastic bins (like at Walmart in the pastel shades) didn't work very well, because most of my daughters stuff was too big. So I bought a few larger bins (Target has some nice woven looking plastic ones) and put them in a couple of different places in her room (one in the bottom of the closet).. then got a low bookshelf and put smaller bins on the shelves... She can scoop up the little items (pollys, polly clothes & accessories) and put them all in the baskets, stack the coloring books on the shelf, stack the books in a bin or on the shelf etc. The kids meal junk goes in one bin, the Leapster cartridges and charger go in another bin... etc... It is more organized to be less organized (dumped in a bin is neater than being unsuccessful at having everything neatly displayed on a shelf or perfectly hidden in a drawer/closet)...
Modify your expectations a bit, and help her organize... then practice, practice...
Perhaps, you could ask her to choose some things that she wants to "put up" for a while and put them in a big plastic storage bin somewhere else in the house.. then in a few weeks swap them out with some "new" stuff for the temporary storage bin...

Good luck... it's still a struggle at our house, b/c somehow we have 2 packrats!! lol

I had this exact problem when one of my girls was 3. I got so exhausted trying to figure out what to do. So, one day I told my daughter, she must clean her room or else the following day I would do it taking everything that was out of place with me. Of course the room wasn't cleaned. The next day I proceeded to clean her room. I put toys in one bag,clothes in another etc. I packed them in the garage and she had to earn them back, one by one. It took me a few hours to clean her room but 3 months for her to earn everything back. So now all I have to say is clean yoru room and it gets done. I believe if you set clear rules and follow through when the rules are broken then life is much more peaceful.

Hi E.,
I can completely understand your situation. My daughter is now six and I had the same problem with her when she was your daughters age. I am a working mother so I needed to nip this issue in the bud quickly. I did not have the time to invest in alot of different solutions so this is what I did.
I waited until her room got really messy then I asked her to pick it up when she refused I said ok and left the room. A few minutes later I came back with a huge garbage bag and started putting her toys in the bag. She asked what I was doing and I told her that I was throwing her toys away because she did not take care of them. Of course there was some crying and she got very upset. I did not really throw out the toys but she thought i did. I told her that what ever toys she did not want to pick up after she played with them would go out to trash. It took about three days and boy she has always kept her room picked up ever since. Sometimes you have to let them throw a tantrum and get upset to make your point. She now understood that she needed to take care of her toys if she wanted to keep them. I usually snuck the "toys I threw away" back when she was napping or buisy doing somthing else. She never even noticed. Give it a try, and let me know how it worked for you. Don't let her intimidated you with her tamtrum.

good luck,
W.

If her room is so messy that she has to have a pathway to the bed she probably needs some parental assistance cleaning it up. It's probably a bit overwhelming to her at 3 years old. Maybe if you make it a game and do it together it will be more fun and interesting for her.

When my 3 and 2 year old will not clean up their toys, I tell them they have 5 min. to pick things up and if they are not picked up I am going to put them all in a bag and they will not be allowed to play with anything in the bag for a week. Well, if they don't out the toys go. If they have been really rude to me about cleaning up I tell them I'll put the toys and anything else that is on the floor in a bag and give it to the homeless. They have watched me do this. Needless to say I only had to do that once. However, my daughter did earn back her favorite toy before I gave the bag away. She was helping me clean up the day after I had taken all the toys away from her. I had to stop cleaning to go put my youngest to bed. She continued to clean. She even picked up our shoes that were by the door and put them in the closet. Because she helped when I had stopped I told her she could have one toy back. The rest went.

I don't have much trouble with them regarding clean up any more.

Good luck and I hope this helps. And I know how easy it is for a room to get messy! I have a 3, 2 and 9 month old. I walk out of the room for 1 min. and when I come back it can look like a tornado hit!

I have a three year old son also. I am a 22 year old stay at home mom. Alot of people think children that age are too young to do things that we know they can do because they have done it before. When my son refuses to do something such as pick his toys up this is what I do. I take all of his things away that he enjoys, not just one but all. If you take only one thing away then they will just find something else to amuse theirselves with. I take all of his toys away, his favorite blanket, his bippie cup, no outside time, and no tv. Everything he likes he has it taken from him. I then sit him down and let him know that when he decides to act like a big boy and do as his mommy and daddy asks then he can have his things back. You can also try making her a chart of all her responsibilities, for each thing she does right she gets a sticker. For each amount of stickers she gets she gets a suprise. Such as if she gets 2 stickers she gets a treat like ice cream or candy at the end of the week. If she gets 5 she gets a couple of dollars to get something with at the end of the week and so on. It helps with my son, and he doesn't like cleaning his room at all. One thing that I do do though, while he is playin I only allow him to get one thing out at a time to play with, I show him that he is to put it away when he is done before he gets another toy, it teaches them responsibility and helps keep their room in order.

My question is-how did her room get so messy in the first place? Sometimes what we're trying to teach our child is only working on the symptom not the real problem. When a 3-1/2 yr old is playing, it is good for the parent to play w/ her overseeing everything. The word "Let's" is vital in raising a child and with that term you participate. They will pick up your actions and your demeanor, but yes it does take consistantly encouraging. These are children and must be guided at all times. When she plays w/ her dolls, play w/ her dolls and when she is no longer interested or after a few minutes you see that she wants something else, gently let her know it's time to put the dolls away. Then you work together. Of course she will only pick up a little but the important thing is that she is picking up w/ you before you play w/ something else. You need to stick w/ positive encouragement like- "after we clean up, mommy can read you a story," or "would you like to go for a walk outside w/ mommy?" All the while letting her know what a good job she is doing in picking up her dolls. I realize that this takes alot of energy and time, but teaching is a full time job and if you don't do it she will learn other tactics of getting her way. Now is the time because you have a great deal ahead of you. It is your choice of what you want it to be - a good deal or a bad deal. You hold the cards. I couldn't have done it without God! Ask Him for help.

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