Getting 4-Year-old to Help Clean up Her Mess

Updated on November 15, 2007
C.S. asks from Hillsboro, OR
13 answers

I need some suggestions on getting my daughter to help pick up her bedroom. We will clean it together and she will help (a little bit) but within hours, she takes EVERYTHING and turns her bedroom upside down. She even takes all of her folded clothes, unfolds them and throws them around the room, throws her toys EVERYWHERE, and turns it into a huge disaster. In general, she just refuses to do anything that she doesn't want to and is very stubborn. I never had that much trouble getting my son to do what he was told so I am getting very frustrated with her. Sometimes she will be very helpful and wants to help me vacuum or do other specific things but never wants to pick up a mess that she has made.

I'm at the point where I just want to get rid of everything she has and keep a handful of things that she really loves until she learns to do it, but I think this is more of a defiance issue than a stuff problem. I've tried time out, losing TV, charts, positive reinforcement, rewards, organizational techniques to make it easier, etc etc.... ultimately, what it comes down to is that if she doesn't want to do something, she won't do it, and that's that.

I'm 14 weeks pregnant with my 3rd child and we plan on having the baby share a room with her, so I'd really like to find a solution to this problem now so that I'm not trying to add more chaos in there. My son has a decent amount of chores and gets them done and I feel like its only fair that she have a few small jobs she is responsible for, especially picking up her own toys.


*Edit: Just a note... she has been doing this for as long as I remember, not just since I've been pregnant so I don't think its acting out because of that. I've also noticed that she will help as long as she isn't "doing it alone" (then she just flat out refuses and sits in her room and will not put anything away) but part of the problem is getting her to not trash it in the first place since I cannot spend several hours in there each day with her to pick up the mess she has made (which can honestly take that long to clean up with how bad of a mess she makes). I think cutting out the majority of her toys and stuff in her room will help some, but it doesn't solve the issue with the clothes, etc.

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So What Happened?

Thanks for the suggestions. I came to realize that the problem with her is a combination of too many things within her reach and a bad system for picking things up. While I wish she could pick up her stuff on her own, I know that I can ease the struggle by going in there with her each day... helping her put stuff away each morning and again in the evenings. (Part of the problem is that I avoid the mess since it's so big... she gets her disorganization from me, unfortunately).

She agrees that we need to get rid of stuff so I have involved her in a plan. Since she will be sharing a room with the baby (which was by her request... she is very excited about having another sibling), I had her help me pick out a new bedroom theme for bedding and stuff. We went with the bee theme that she loved (luckily, I did too) and purchased a twin bed and crib set that match. She is anxious to get it on her bed but we made the deal that we were going to take everything out of her room, paint it, assemble the baby furniture and her new bed and furniture, and only put back the toys that she plays with the most so we can keep it clean for her and safe for her new sister or brother. She's pretty willing to donate stuff to charity, as she knows other kids will get to play with her things that way, so I think combining the toy toss with a whole new bedroom setup, something she is excited about, will help set a positive spin on things. Hopefully she will be so excited about her new space that she won't notice the majority of the junk toys being gone. We're also building a window seat into the room with lift-up panels for toy storage, one for her things and one for the baby's things, to help make putting things away easier. With the extra furniture that will be in her room now, the rule is that once the toy storage area gets full, we need to go through it and get rid of stuff so that it all fits. I think a lot of the mess she makes is when she is looking for a particular toy and has to sort through a lot of junk to get to it. We go through her toys and get rid of bags full every 6 months or so, but its amazing how fast these toys multiply (and I don't even buy her toys!) Grandmas and fast food toys and random things she gets here and there just seem to take over SO QUICKLY.

Anyway, sorry this was so long. Just wanted to share the plan and thank you all for your input. I think having way less for her to have to navigate will be a blessing for everyone. I've also got to think of a different system for the clothes since that's a big problem also, but I'm tossing around different ideas. I've got a large linen closet in the upstairs hallway that I'm thinking of turning into clothing storage for the kids (which would make it easier on me to put them away too) and then using their sweater hanger things in their closets to put the week's worth of clothes in, which would save time for them each day also and eliminate what they had access to.

We'll see... we also might build in two matching closets on either side of the window seat, one for her and one for baby, with some kind of more organized system for clothes so that she can easily grab one outfit or get her jammies without wanting to throw everything around the room. We'll see.

Thanks again.

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answers from Spokane on

I think it's the age! I have a 4yo daughter and she throws a huge fit when it's time to clean up. I too am pregnant (8 weeks) with my 3rd. Some days it just doesn't feel worth the fight. But, it's the only way they will learn. By the end of the night, I'm ready for all of us to be in bed!! Her Daddy gets them to clean up. He sits on her bed and tells them "Put all the kitchen stuff away, put all the dress up stuff away, put all the stuffed animals away" one task at a time so they don't feel overwhelmed. He has a magic Daddy touch. He knows I can be a little short tempered when it comes to them cleaning up so he tries to help when he's home. Sometimes we will let them have a sucker, etc for doing a good job (especially when they clean up on their own!). I know it's not easy, but I think eventually they will grow out of it, especially when they start school. They will see all the other kids picking up and they will help out! Good luck! I'm with you!!

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answers from Eugene on

since this is an ongoing problem for you maybe downsizing your daughters toys would be a great idea. about 2-3 times a year i go through my kids' toys and get rid of a bunch that we take to goodwill. if they asked me why i was doing it i said that some other kids would have fun playing with it and since you don't play with it you don't need it, it is time for the toy to have a new home.

with both of my girls when i have asked them to clean up when they were really little they got overwhelmed by the mess and don't have any idea where to start so they would just end up playing and making a bigger mess. when i ask them to clean their room now i say "go put all the books away", when that is done i say "go pick up all your dirty clothes and put them in the basket" and so forth. then they are only doing one job at a time. when they were 4 i usually would have to sit on their bed and direct them to the next job (this seemed to help relax them and they got it done faster with mama there). sometimes it is a pain to sit there while they clean, but since they made the mess they have to clean it up.

with the clothes going everywhere (this drives me nuts-my girls do it too) i got a storage thing that hangs in the closet that has like 8 little cubbies. i then put together however many outfits (panties, socks, shirt, pants, etc) for the week and my middle daughter (she is 6) is only allowed to choose clothes from this, she isn't allowed to get into her drawers or clothes that hang up without permission. the only drawer she can get into is her pj's drawer at night. this is such a timesaver for getting ready for school and she has probably 10-15 outfits to choose from so there aren't clothes everywhere. she also has to take her clothes to the basket at then end of the day.

then it just comes down to being consistent. even if it means you have to take everything away for awhile and start from scratch. all of these ladies have given great advice, good luck.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Seattle on

Hi C.,

It sounds like your child is reacting to the new baby coming. I know that you are very early into the pregnancy, but children know when things are changing. They are aware of so much more than we realize. My suggestion would be to try to do it with her. Start by helping her clean up, if you have not tried that. I have a two year old and she cleans up as long as we don't force it upon her. By that, she cleans up because she is not scared we will take away toys or put her in time out. In our house we reserve time out for things she does or tries to do that could cause her harm, like knocking something breakable on the floor. Even if it does not break, we talk to her about it. Hopefully you are talking to your child about the wonderful fun events that are happening and the joy it will bring. If not, I suggest talking to your child. Communication is so important! If we do not talk to them, they will not know how to talk to others. Blessings to you and congratulations on the new baby. :)


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answers from Seattle on

WOW you sound pretty busy! I hope I can be of some help. I have a four year old son and he is good about picking up his toys now. We started this when he was three that every night before bed time he has to run around the house and pick up all of his toys and clean his room. He has to do so because he knows what gets left out will be taken. When he was a little younger it was a struggle to get him to pick up after his self. I started by explaining to him that I would help him clean his room once in the morning and he had to do it at night and no matter how big a mess he made he would have to clean it on his own and I gave him a time limit so he wouldn't just play around in there all night. And what he didn’t pick up by the time limit I had to take away. And believe it or not it worked right away for him! That was the last thing in the world he wanted was for me to take his toys away. and we had a couple of struggles where he just did not pick up and I did come into his room with big black trash bags and bagged up ALL of his toys. I told him that I would take them for a day and if he could clean up his room when he got his toys back than he could keep them but if he chose not to clean up after his self again than I would take them again. He knows now that we mean business and it’s awesome every night he goes around and picks up all of his toys in the house and cleans his room. He gets it done really fast now so he can have time to play for five minutes before bed time or play a board game or something with us before he has to go to bed. I really hope this helps, let me know if it does! And good luck!!! LOL

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Portland on

Hi C.,

I have a 4yo daughter as well and she can still be challenging occasionally when it comes to picking up, but it used to be ALL the time. She did much of what you describe your daughter is doing. My solution was taking ALL of her toys away except for a couple educational or imaginative type toys like puzzles and balls. I kept the puzzles out of her reach, and she was only allowed to have one down at a time. If she had refused to pick one up, those would have been put away as well.

I should tell you how she lost her toys and how she could regain them back. I was fed up with her not picking up. One day the house had been nuked and there were toys *everywhere* and I was pretty tired of picking them all up myself. I asked her several times to pick them up, but she refused to do so. So I began picking up her toys and placing them in boxes and put them in the garage. I was about half way through before she realized what was going on and she was so upset with me. I stuck to my guns despite her pleading and saying she'd pick them up. I emptied out her entire playroom (except a couple educational and imaginary type toys). I explained to her why I did it firmly and lovingly, and told her how she could earn them back. If she picked up her couple of toys when she was finished playing with them then she could earn one toy of her choice a day. I must say, it was interesting to see what toy she would pick at the end of the day! She made me proud :)

We did this for two weeks, her earning one two back daily, and then one night while she was sleeping I moved everything back. She was thrilled when she woke up! I had another talk with her explaining that she is responsible to continue picking them up or I would get rid of them permanently. It was a threat I was prepared to follow through with.

This was probably 6-8 months ago and for the most part, she can pick up up without too much of a hassle. We have not even come close to reaching the point of getting rid of them again. I hope this helped to know there is some kind of solution out there other than the constant battle. Good luck!




answers from Portland on

I agree with K S that your daughter could be reacting to the new baby even tho this seems like the same behavior as before you were pregnant. And to your assessment that this could be a defiance issue. K C's suggestions could help your daughter become less defiant if defiance is part of the issue.

I also think that your daughter's personality is different than your son's and therefore she needs a different approach. Some kids are born more stubborn than others and it helps to make them think things are their idea. One way to do that is to give them choices. You can choose to help pick up your belongings and keep only a few things out at a time or you can choose to have me put up everything but a few things and we can trade toys when you want to change activities.

At four you might be able to have her help with the decision of what to do. Tell her that it is not acceptable to have everything out in the room at once and ask her how she would solve this problem. Give her suggestions from which to choose. This conversation is time consuming and ongoing and I'm not sure that it would work for a child that is so energetic in her actions. If you don't already include her in decision making it will take time to teach her how to be involved and to make good choices as well as show her that you trust her.

I also suggest that you find a way to prevent her from being able to get into her drawers. She could probably figure out how to circumvent the baby proof latches if she hasn't already. Perhaps you could have her help you install them and discuss how you know she can still get into the drawers but that they're a reminder that the drawers are to stay shut and full.

My grandchildren tend to get out all their toys at once. I think this is normal for an inquisitive impatient child. My daughter's solution has been to remove the toys that they don't seem to play with but that they still take out and clutter up the floor. Often they do this because they're looking for a particular toy. I added to this by putting small toys in smaller plastic bins and large toys into a large plastic bin. Stuffed animals go into a large box. My grandson plays with his play tools often and so they go into a bin by themselves. By doing this the kids don't have to go thru all their toys to find the one that they want.

It's my guess that if there's enough stuff in the room to take hours to clean up the mess then there is too much stuff in the room or you are trying to be too organized about cleaning up.

You could try stopping your daughter before she's got everything pulled out by changing her activity to include you. If she has never been able to pick up her toys by herself I suggest that you stay with her patiently helping her until she learns to do it herself. Make picking up toys a game. My grandkids liked singing the "time to pick up song." I showed them how they could hold their shirt up and put lots of small toys in the "pocket" to carry them to the toy box.

My grandson, who is now 4, wouldn't even help pick up his toys until a social worker showed his mother how to teach him. She sat him next to the toy box and handed him the toys. When he was able to do that consistently, she raced him to see who could pick up the most toys. She kept up a pleasant chatter during the whole time, praising him for everything that was helpful. She'd describe what he'd done and not just say good job. Then she just sat with him while he picked up the toys. Putting them away was simple. Dump them in the box, one for toys, and one for books, paper and markers etc.

He still doesn't always put away his toys. It's guarenteed he won't pick them up if someone just says pick up your toys. Instead we say, let's see how fast you can get those toys in the box. Or let me help you get started. When you're done I'll put on a video of your choice. All the time being present even tho we're doing something else. That sort of thing.

All of this takes more time than just telling a child to do or not do something but it does have the potential of teaching them a more successful way of acting as well as the ability to eventually when they're older to do it entirely on their own. A 4yo still has a short attention span.

When I read that you work at home doing medical transcription I wondered if you are also dealing with your 4 yo at the same time as you're working. If so it's possible that she needs more supervision than you're able to give her and/or she is trying to get your attention while you are understandably withdrawn and focused on your work. Perhaps changing your schedule would help. For instance talk with her about how you are going to work uninterrupted for an hour and then the two of you will do something of her choice for a specified period of time, perhaps for only 10 or 15 minutes. Talk with her about what she is going to play with. Be involved with her for a brief time at the beginning of the hour.

If you aren't able to supervise closely then I think that she should have only limited access to a few things at a time. Rotate the toys so that she remains more likely to be interested for a set period of time. Check in on her frequently, even tho it's difficult to interrupt your train of thought. If she's within hearing distance it might help to just call her name and make a comment so that she feels that you're paying attention to her.

Perhaps focusing on only her and her needs, patiently teaching her for some hours, while your son is in school, might help. Talk with her letting her know that you understand that it's difficult for her to keep her room picked up and ask her for ways in which you can help her. Let her know your difficulties and how she can help you. Focus on and spend time developing yourselves as part of a team. This will take a lot of time and patience. It's definately not easy and very time consuming at first. And it may not work if some other issue is causing the behavior.

If you don't already, perhaps you could work less during the day and your husband could help more in the evening so that you could work while he's with the kids.

I'm basing my suggestions on my experience with children when I'm distracted, because I want to do something else, while they take care of themselves. Preschoolers just aren't very good at being ignored. They will get your attention in any way they can. It's up to us to teach them positive ways to get your attention.

I've found it difficult to strike a balance between getting "my work" done and meeting their needs. I made the mistake with my daughter of requiring that certain things be done a certain way and thus lost her co-operation early on. She was one of the most stubborn children I've known. Now she has two children nearly as stubborn as she was. I'm learning new ways of doing things right along with my daughter.

I wish you success. Changing her behavior will be difficult and take time and patience.



answers from Corvallis on

Hi there C.,

My 3 1/2 year old daughter is the same way. No matter what she is doing she has to take every single thing out and then doesn't help put anything away. Finally in her toy room, I got clear rubbermaid bins for most of her toys. She can't open them. Then I let her have one thing out at a time. After the Barbies are all over everything and she wants to get the playdough out, she has to ask me to open the bin. Then I tell her that we have to pick up the Barbies first. I help her pick them up, of course. That seems to have worked for us pretty well. She's helping a lot more and has even got into the habit of picking things up before she even asks to get something else out. :)

Good luck to you!




answers from Anchorage on

My 4 year old does this too.... very typical for some kids. A lot of the ideas you said you've tried will work if you are very consistent. Stickers on the calendar for good behaviour and a prize after accumulating a pre-deternined amount of days for stickers - try putting a picture of what she wants by the calendar or someplace where it will help her remember - it could be an inexpensive toy or an activity (go out for ice cream) . Allowing her to only take one toy at a time before she plays with another one, etc. But you are the adult here and she will you need to be firm and consistent.

Some kids have what is called Sensory Processing Disorder, and for some of these kiddos it creates the problem of trying to find things (one item in the midst of a bunch of others - thus dragging out everything until they find what they are looking for. This is my son's problem, and we just work on him putting things back, making games out of it, or limiting what he plays with, reducing the amount of "stuff" he has helps too. He likes things simple, so his mind is not so overloaded with sensory stimuli.

With that in mind, you may want to look into SPD ( also called sensory integration disorder) some kids may have it somewhat mild or some more intense.. and most often it is part of a package - a common one is ADHD - but it can stand alone meaning that is all they have - SPD. It may just be a matter of providing her with certain types of toys that provide her with the stimuli she requires. A very good book to read on this is "The Out of Sycn Child" by Carol Stock-Kranowitz (I might have spelled that last part right) you might be able to find it in a used book store - locally or online. it is an easy read and you may see some of your child or yourself in it! We ALL actually have a little of this in us.. for some it affects us more so.

See if you can take more breaks to spend time with her too.. with her brother back in school she may be wanting some attention, read books to her, do a craft project together, take naps together etc. These things may help too.

best wishes.




answers from Portland on

I think you are right to get rid of all but a few things she loves. I hang up all my daughter's clothes, so she can not reach them. You might consider a system that prevents her from getting to any items you don't want her making a mess with. Another thing I got from another mom was buying a huge clear plastic container. This is the time out container. If she doesn't pick up her things when you tell her to they go inside until she earns them back. Make sure to put it in a place you will be and she will constantly see what she is missing because she won't obey. Hope this helps.



answers from Seattle on


I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone with the stubborn child issue. My daughter cleans up at school but will just drop things on the floor anywhere at home. I can get her to clean at times. It seemed to be a power issue at times. She has improved and is now five years old. I do think that simplifying may help. I reduce the number of toys in my children's rooms and that really helped with the clean-up. Do you have bins? That helps to make it easy to pick-up. For a while a I put a lock on my daughter's wardrobe door so that I wasn't forever folding laundry. Another thought is to see if there is a repeating pattern about when she messes up her room. Is she doing this to pull attention from you? If so, that may get worse with the new baby and if you can reserve some special one-on-one time with her, it may help. Lastly there is always the experiment of just leaving her room and after a couple of days see if she likes being in there or expresses some dissatisfaction with her room.

Good Luck



answers from Portland on

my child is only 2 but has that same stuborn attitude. My suggestion would be to cut her toys way down. Dont get rid of them, just store them away in a tub or something and rotate every month or so. That way she doesnt get bored with them and they are like new when brought back out. ALSO, with my son we put his dresser in the closet and even resorted to taping it shut (it was a folding door) to keep him from making the mess. After a while he forgot he was trying to get in to make a mess and we are able to not have to secure it closed. No one likes to clean up a mess by themselves and at this age its kind of expected that you help. With my son I found he will do it alone if its a small job "pick up the clothes and put them in this basket" and for a specific reason "before we go play at the park/watch movie etc". When she makes such a huge mess its way too overwhelming for her but dont let her get away with it. Good Luck, Jen



answers from Portland on

It is hard to give advice about a child I do not know but one thing sticks out to me, you say she has been this way for as long as you can remember.

I know you had no problems with your son but maybe there isn't a problem with your daughter.

As a mom I keep a cleaner house for my kids but my comfort level of clean is a lot more lax. Maybe your daughter is more comfortable with her things less tidy than you are but that does not change the fact that she has to learn to take care of what she has.

I like your idea of limiting the things in her room to the minimum. I think it would be a good way to teach her the importance of treating her things well.

How to go about it? Good question. I'm a "rip the bandage off quick" mom. I would take everything out of her room and put where she can get to it and let her put what she wants in her room but ONLY if she can find a home for it in her room and agrees, at cleanup time, that she puts everything back in it's place.

Help her clean her room, once, at the end of the day. Make it a going to bed routine.

I would imagine there is going to be some transition time. She may find new ways to act out. She might not like having to pick and choose what she can keep but this may be another way of teaching her to value what she does have.

My hope is that she will enjoy know what she has and where it is and how to take care of it.

I wish you and her the best of luck, please let me know how things go - for BOTH of you.




answers from Eugene on

One thing that we had to do with our daughter was to go in her room and take everything out. All she got to have was her bed and her blankets and dresser. She had to earn everything back. When she earned it back if we went in there and found it on the floor it was thrown in the garbage. She is 7 now and does much better about keeping her room clean. If its a mess and she refuses all we have to do is grab a black garbage bag and she gets right on it. My 4 year old son, loosing his stuff and earning it back did not work with him, however we just got the black bag and told him everything on the floor was going in the garbage. Now all I have to tell him is that mommys gonna throw away all your toys on the floor and he picks them up.

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