3 Year Old Will Not Help Clean

Updated on October 06, 2009
N.S. asks from Tucson, AZ
21 answers

Hi moms. I'm getting very frustrated with our nearly 4 year old. Ever since she was old enough, I'd have her help clean up her toys. I suppose I wasn't consistent enough. Now, with a 2 year old and 5 month old, I really need her help around the house. Nothing major-I'm not having her clean the windows or scrubbing the floor. Just picking up toys after herself. Today, I thought it would be fun to let the kids eat peanuts from a shell. We usually do this on vacation, so it was an extra special treat. We went outside and I told them to just throw the shells into the dirt. VERY simple request. After they were done eating, I asked the kids to pick up. I asked my daughter, specifically, about 5 times. I finally got frustrated and said that if she didn't pick up her shells, that she'd have to go to timeout till daddy gets home (an hour timeout). I also mentioned that I might need to take a toy away. She said "I don't care if you take toys away. I'm too tired to clean and it's hot."
Tired is ALWAYS her excuse. A few days ago, I threw out about 4 toys and had her help me put them in the trash bag and take them outside to the trash so that she knew I was serious. She didn't care at all. She never mentioned those toys since.
Not sure what to do. I really need her help. I've explained to her that, as part of the family, she needs to help. I explained that daddy helps me when he is home with folding laundry, etc. We are Christians and have read several devotions about being part of a family and helping out. NOTHING is sticking with her.
HELP PLEASE! Oh, and I make a game of it and put on fun music and I help.

What can I do next?

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answers from Las Cruces on

Kara H.'s response is the only one that makes sense to me. She's three years old and not responsible for helping you because you have younger children. And the peanut shells... you told her to throw them on the ground and then pick up hers? How did you or she know which ones were hers? Seems it would have been easier to eat them inside, throw them on the floor and sweep them. Peanut shells in the dirt should stay in the dirt.

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1 mom found this helpful


answers from Phoenix on

Find something she DOES care about and use that. Also, good old fashioned firmness is the key. You are in charge and she does not have a choice in the matter.

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answers from Phoenix on


When dealing with three/four year olds, learn to keep your words/requests few and be ready to lead the charge! My 3 1/2 year old only really likes to pick up if I'm helping. We have contests to see who can toss the most toys in the box etc. Try not using the words CLEAN UP - instead, "Let's put your dollies to bed...whatever"

This is very normal developmental behavior for a three year old. They can be SUPER resistant to something outside their plan.

Here are a few options you could have chosen with the peanuts. 1. Leave them there- they'll break down in the dirt. 2. Say, "You're right - it IS hot. Let's come back later and get them, ok?" Taking a break and coming back later gives you BOTH a chance to cool off.

If you really want her daughter to help around the house,
how about giving her something fun to do too? Always being the garbage girl (cleanup girl) might be discouraging. Try letting her do something fun - help cook/bake etc and let her know she's helping you.

Be patient, be kind. Remember that your daughter is going to learn more from what you DO than what you SAY. How well do you keep your "toys" organized?

Finally, if you do feel the need to punish your daughter, an hour time out is EXCESSIVE. A good rule of thumb for time outs is 1 minute for each year of your child's age.

Gently,kindly and patiently parenting a three year old takes hard work and a lot more discipline than it does to just hit her ("loving" spanking notwithstanding). It's exhausting but will pay off in the end with a child who has an internal sense of right and wrong that's grown from watching you - rather than someone who's just afraid of getting in trouble.

I wish you the best in your parenting journey.


1 mom found this helpful


answers from Phoenix on

You need to find something that is important to her and use that as your leverage. For instance, for one of my kids it was their toys in general. So I started a time out box for toys. Everytime they didn't clean up their toys, I would clean them up by putting every toy left out into the time out box. She had to earn her toys back from the time out box. Another of my kids was motivated by money so we started a chore chart (www.mytimecalendars.com) and rewarded him with an allowance when he completed his chart (money was deducted from his weekly allowance for uncompleted chores). As the special treat, we occassionally plan a trip yo the store where they can spend their earnings.

Each child is different and their motivations seem to change with each age so we've had to keep adjusting our techniques as well. Sometimes it's friend playdates that motivate or time playing video or computer games. Try to find what's truly important to your daughter and then turn that into the reward for doing her chores. It might also put things into perspective for her if you have a day where "mommy is too tired to do her chores" so maybe your daughter doesn't get that snack she wanted or doesn't make it to her friends or another appointment because "mommys just too tired"! Use her own excuse to illustrate the point. This has worked with my kids to help them understand that we all have responsibilities that we must do to help our family run smoothly!

Good luck!



answers from Phoenix on

Well, if you figure this out you got most of us beat. Difficult age...but I know my daughter is great at cleaning up she's very helpful at school and then at home periodically when it is my stuff - unloading dishwasher, cooking, cleaning the table. But when it comes to the mess she's made - oh my gosh is she bullheaded.

I had grand success once last week. I sat on the floor and treated it like a treasure hunt, asking her to find all the blocks, stuff animals, etc. and I praised her abilities. She loved it and did the best job. Just wish I didn't have to direct it.

Could you find a way that fits her personality to make a game out of it or reward it? Punishment hasn't worked for us either. We don't throw out her toys, we just put them in time out for a week when she wouldn't pick them up.

She has told me she wants to have chores and make money to buy her Barbie's some shoes. But that only works when she's in the mood.

Looking forward to reading even more on how others resolve.

Good luck



answers from Dallas on

Try making a game out of it an when she does help make a chart with some stickers an when she gets some many stickers for helping than at the end of the week reward her with something.



answers from Phoenix on

Just thought in case this is a way to look for attention, any attention? How much unstructured 1:1 time do you get with her where there are no chores, no instruction, just her and you doing something together? With 2 more siblings, this is not likely to happen every day, but maybe every other or third? 15 later bed time to just be with you while the little ones are already sleeping? The devotions may be too abstract for her, when all she wants is you for herself for a little bit.




answers from Phoenix on

For toy take away....What is her most favorite Toy? Take that away for a certain amount of time. Every child has their favorite. My son ,10 yrs old, has a favorite a weird thing he has properly named, "TOY". He has played with for over 5 yrs. He freaks when he can't find and usually has it wherever he is, at home. He goes nuts when we take it from him. It is the best punishment for anything. Taking away toys doesn't always help of course, cause you know kids they can play with anything. My son has resorted to playing with pencils, but as soon as I have seen him enjoying that, I take that away too!
Once you know what is her absolute favorite thing, threated to take that away!

Hope this helps



answers from Sacramento on

One thing that I do with my youngest daughter (she will be 3 next month) is to let her know in advance that she can play with her playdough IF she helps pick it up afterwards. She will then agree and I don't have any problems getting her to help clean up. I also assist in the clean up so that she doesn't get overwhelmed and quit. Later, when she is older, she'll be expected to clean up by herself.

I also provide lots of praise. "Good job, honey! You're doing great!" This puts a huge smile on her face as she is going about cleaning and creates a cooperative spirit.

If she refuses to help clean (which does happen every now and then) I issue one warning (and only one warning!) that if she doesn't help then I will be forced to put her in time out. Usually, the threat alone (and the fact that she knows that I WILL back it up - you have to be consistent) will cause her to start helping clean up again. If she is still refusing I immediately take her and put her into time out. It is one minute per age, so for her I leave her there for 3 minutes since she is almost 3. Then I go into her room and take her by the hand and lead her back to the mess and explain that she needs to clean it up or she will be going back into time out. You HAVE to keep doing this until it gets cleaned up. You may have to do this with your daughter a few times until she gets the message. Otherwie, they think oh, I can refuse to clean up and then go into my room for a couple of minutes while mom cleans and then come back out and play.

I also wanted to add that I don't agree with throwing the child's toys away. I really feel that is too harsh. Maybe you could have taken her toys and put them out of reach somewhere (like in the garage for instance) and allowed her an opportunity to earn them back.

I also think that she may need some one-on-one time with you. She may be acting out because she isn't receiving any. Would it be possible for someone (a family member for instance) to watch the little ones so that you and her can get out of the house for a little bit. Maybe take her out to lunch (McDonald's for instance) for some one-one-one time.



answers from Phoenix on

I would suggest some quality alone time with her. Like girls day out. Take her out for lunch and maybe go shopping for new hair accessories or something. During the time comment on how much you enjoy her company and that you are thrilled that she is getting older and you two can have fun days like this...etc. Then....around the house you can ask her to help out with the new baby or "grown up" tasks.



answers from Phoenix on

With children that age you might have to think more proactively...instead of making the "clean up" a game, in your specific example, I would have made the eating of peanuts a game by putting a bucket in the yard and challenging her to throw her shells in the bucket. Then the mess is contained and she had some fun doing it.

When a child gets more than one toy out at a time, think proactively and use humor..."Uh oh, this toy is lonely now over here all by itself while you play with that one, why don't we quickly run it back to the toy box to visit its other toy friends while you play with that one." Then there isn't a huge mess to clean up at the end of toy time.

I found with my little girl (this generally works better with girls than boys) that pretending that toys, dishes, food she doesn't like have "feelings" then she responds to them. "Oh No! (pretend to listen to her plate) your broccoli is soooo sad because you won't take even one bite of it, it is crying, shhhhh don't you hear it? Lets make the broccoli happy and eat just one bite."

My best advice would be to try to be humorous and proactive in the moment rather than punitive in the aftermath. Keep up the good work with the devotions! The message will sink it if it is repeated throughout her childhood.



answers from Phoenix on

It is not a 3 year-old's job to clean. It was your choice to have 3 children and so either the house stays messier than you had planned or you will eventually find ways to multitask and get things done. It is O.K. to have your 3/4 year old help pick up after herself, but she should not be responsible for helping pick up everything she does or clean your house. Visual and verbal rewards work great - I used a chart when my kids were that age and had 4 jobs: make bed, brush teeth, pick up and get dressed. I helped them do part of these jobs until they were 5. I would put a smiley face or whatever sticker they liked on their chart and we would do the chart together everyday and give lots of hugs and kisses for accomplishments. Kids want attention and will seek negative attention if that is what they get or positive attention if that is what they get. Peanut shells with be good for the soil too!


answers from Albuquerque on

Your situation DOES sound frustrating... You've gotten some great advice. I tend to be a very strict parent with a clear head and clear consequences. We are also Christians and when we tell our kids to do something, they don't have a choice in the matter. If the statement doesn't end with a question mark, it's non-negotiable. If I were in your shoes, I'd be really careful not to let on that she's pushing your buttons! I would set the timer for an appropriate amount of time that she has to get her toys picked up. Whatever is NOT picked up once the timer goes off, I would calmly walk in and put the rest in a garbage bag. I would then put the bag out of reach in the garage until the next time when she DOES clean up everything before the timer goes off. Maybe once she does get everything cleaned up, she can earn some toys back. Eventually, when you aren't reacting in anger, but she's CERTAIN what will happen when the timer goes off, she'll start picking them up. Either that or there wont' be anything left to make a mess!!! Good luck... :)


answers from Phoenix on

I use positive reinforcement... at least I do first... my 3 YO (and my other kids) gets star stickers when they pick up their toys. At the end of the week, if they have all 7 stars (well, I do 5 out of 7 stars), they get to choose a little toy from the treasure chest (a cardboard box that I drew on to look like a treasure chest... then I just went to the dollar store and bought a bunch of toys to fill it.) If, at the end of the day, I have to remind them a couple of times to pick up their toys, they don't get the star. And if I have to pop my 3 YO on the bottom once (ah, the negative reinforcement), then she definitely loses the star for the day. It's worked well for my kids... especially after the first week when they got to get something from the treasure chest! They are so excited to go the the treasure chest each week! (And the toys are really inexpensive... like 10 little rings for a dollar and such.)



answers from Phoenix on

All these moms had great advice. The only thing that I can add is that maybe you could try being proactive by means of how the toys are organized. To children this age, clean up can be overwhelming, especially if there are a lot of toys that have no rhyme or reason to how they are placed when put away. What some preschools do is have a "home" for everything, on a shelf or in a basket. Everything is labeled with a picture and the word. It is a lot of work for you to begin with but a lot easier in the long run. This also helps with pre-reading skills. Put big toys on shelves and take pictures of them. Tape the picture and the name of the toy to the shelf where it goes. Small toys can be organized by category into baskets (you can get cheap ones at the dollar store). This will be a good time for you to go through the toys and get rid of some that are broken, have a missing piece, or maybe your kids don't play with anymore. A lot of times, we have way too many toys for our kids. If there are a lot of toys and you don't want to get rid of them, put some in a big tub in the garage and change them out every once in a while. Then the toys will be like new again to your kids and they will have fewer to get out when playing. You can have your daughter help with this process too. It will give her some ownership of the newly organized toy area and she will be more likely to help keep it clean. When it is time to play, have your kids pick one thing to play with at a time and they need to put it back where it goes before they get out something new. You have to teach this, it will take time. This will also make it easier for your daughter to clean up. I hope this helps. Good luck!


answers from Phoenix on

You have recieved a lot of great advise! I just wanted to add, be consistent! When you said you were going to give her an hour time out, did you? Though an hour is too long for a 3 year old. You have to follow throuh and she needs to know the consequences and that you are firm. Wih my boys all their toys they left out ended up in a long time out locked (weeks)in my closet. Sooner or later they lost something they really cared about. It can be frustrating, but you will find what works for you.



answers from Phoenix on

What about organizing the toys into smaller bins and then only allowing out one bin at a time. Then she can't get out another bin until the one is put away. This will help her keep the mess within her range of attention. My 4 year old gets overwhelmed when there is a lot to do - or if it even looks like there's a lot to do. We divide up into smaller groups: i.e., now put away the blue legos, now the red, etc. and he does work better if I'm "helping".

Your children are awfully close together and I know that can be overwhelming, but while I think it's important to help out in a family, I also think that there's going to be a limit to how much a 3 or even 4 year old can understand about his/her contribution. It does sound like she's as tired of the battle as you are if she's not even bothered asking about the toys you threw away.

BTW, perhaps rather than tossing the toys you could tell her you were going to give them to someone who'd be happy to have them and take care of them. That way, if she doesn't take it seriously, someone can benefit.



answers from Tucson on

I just briefly read over your other responses. You have lots of advice and I hope you're not feeling too overwhelmed. Some months ago, someone posted a similar request. One of the responses gave reference to a book called "Raising our children, raising ourselves". I have since read most of the book, and have to say it's my "2nd bible" on child rearing. It's an amazing book and talks about these exact situations and so much more. I checked it out from the library and then finally got my own copy from Amazon.com. If you're interested, you can read some of the reviews online about it. Good luck with everything!



answers from Kansas City on

My son use to do this when he was around the same age. At first he was intimidated with the "throwing away toys" if he didn't help, but then he got to a point when he didn't care. So I threw the toys away and I also put him in timeout. When we were out shopping or something and he would ask for a toy, I would simply say "No, because you won't clean up after yourself and until you can learn to pick up after yourself, you can't buy anything at all." That worked wonders because his toy supply started to deplete without being replenished. In addition to throwing away the toys he wasn't cleaning up after and the timeouts I also took away a privilege. Be glad to know that they do grow out of it, provided you're consistent with the discipline and consequences.



answers from Phoenix on

Wow! Your daughter sounds pretty serious about making a point of resisting your efforts to use "leverage" to shape her behavior.
There are 2 paths here, that I see. Increase leverage (punishment/reward) until she submits. (In other words...parent wins with force.) Or find a way to get her cooperation. Telling a child they are part of a family and need to help sounds all very well, but it may just be a bit too abstract.
I'd take any instances where she was proud to help with anything and build on those, to re-establish a positive feel for helping.
I might add that sometimes kids attach negative connotations to certain words, especially after we use them close to "consequences". The words "help" or "pick up" may now be negative to her. Can you work around this by using some other expression until the bad taste wears off? (I have seen some of my students ABSOLUTELY hate the word "teach"...they prefer the expression "show"...as in "show me how to do this". I can accommodate that.)
Suggestions to provide some special time for her might also be in order. Sharing parents with other sibs is hard work for one so young.
Good luck!



answers from Phoenix on

My daughter would respond to the threat of getting something taken away - timeouts didn't work for her.

My son (age 4) was like your daughter - taking away a toy meant nothing to him! What has worked for him is having a big plastic jar with a slot in the lid - a bank - and each day he gets a coin (a poker chip) for being cooperative, good listener, etc. When he gets 10 coins, or 15, or 20 he gets to trade them in for a toy (we set a limit of $10 or less) or trade for a family activity like Peter Piper pizza, movie, bowling, etc.

Just the threat of "you are going to lose a coin" or "will you be getting a coin for the day?" really works for him. We also try to work on only one or two specific things at a time rather than a vague "being good" goal. Such as, not fighting about being dropped off at school, or being a good listener, or (in your case) being a good helper and following directions.

Also - you cannot ever back down. Ever. Your expectations must be non-negotiable. She is expected to help pick up, she will not move on to another activity until that happens. Period.

Similar thing my friend does - has 12 popsicle sticks in one cup and moves them into another cup for reward, or moves them back when the child is not following directions. When all 12 are in the green cup, he gets to go to the Dollar store.

Maybe the reward will work better for her than the idea of taking something away or a punishment of time-out. Good Luck!

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