Why Won’t My Child Put Things Away?

Image by Dadion Gomez from Pixabay

Odds are, if you have children, you’ve had moments like these…

  • You tell your children to put their toys away, but they ignore you.
  • You buy your child a nice new object and then he/she leaves it lying around where it can get broken.
  • Your child throws a tantrum when you announce, “clean-up time.”
  • Your child refuses to hang up his/her clothing.
  • You child is constantly losing things and expects you to know where everything is.
  • You feel like the designated “house nag.”
  • You are discouraged.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you are in good company. Parenting isn’t easy. Parenting during COVID-19 is harder. Fighting with children about physical belongings is common.

So, what is a parent to do? I work with many families, and one of the most common questions I get is, “Why won’t my children put things away? They tidy up at school, but at home they fight me.”

There could be a couple of things going on.

First, you may have too many objects in the room. For a variety of reasons, many children have too many toys, most of which they did bring into their space. Objects seem to practically “walk in” every day. Typical sources include:

  • Gifts from relatives
  • Gifts from birthday parties
  • Party favors
  • Items purchased by parents
  • School papers, projects, and supplies
  • Sporting goods
  • Artwork
  • Activity “take-homes”

The rate at which homes accumulate items is alarmingly high, and most households are better at bringing items in than they are at moving them out. An overabundance of belongings is overwhelming to everyone, but especially to children. I know children seem like they always want more, and they may be very adept at making this point clear to their parents. However, the reality is that children thrive in spaces with space for movement and limited choices.

Action item -> Ask yourself if your child(ren) might have too much

Thought to bear in mind -> Organizing won’t solve a volume problem.

**

A second reason children may not be meeting your expectations for putting things away is that you are expecting them to do more than they are developmentally able to do. For instance, a four-year-old can put books away. Their attention span can probably handle gathering and putting away five or six books. Their motor skills are sufficient for picking up books and dropping them into a basket. Expecting a four-year-old to pick up 30 books and then shelve them with the spines out in a color-coordinated manner is likely unrealistic. Similarly, children may not be able to open tight lids or safely reach high shelves. If they try and get frustrated, they are likely to fuss or quit.

Action item -> Ask you child to put things away in a fashion that is age-appropriate and be present while he/she is working. (Few children stay focused on restoring order without adult supervision.) If you don’t know what your child is capable of, start small and watch to see when he/she “hits a wall,” and then adjust your routine accordingly.

Thought to bear in mind -> When a task seems too hard, it is human nature to resist it.

**

A third common scenario is that parents often expect too high a level of perfection. We want it done “right.” For instance, we want the cars lined up on the shelf in a particular way. Or, we want Legos™ sorted by type/color. Maybe we want clothes to be hung on hangers (crazy, right?). We are impatient if the bedspread is lumpy or crooked. We want the dishes put into the dishwasher in a particular way.

When we complain or criticize a child’s efforts to put things away, we are unintentionally making them feel inept, fostering negative associations with what should be a perfunctory and positive process. It is okay to have standards, but they should be focused on function, safety, and respect for belongings, not on appearance. If you feel your child’s method needs a bit of “tweaking,” come alongside with words of affirmation and then a suggestion, such as, “Wow, great job putting your toys away! I love what you did. Now that I look a bit closer, I’m thinking next time let’s try and put the stuffed animals in the basket and the trucks on the shelf. What do you think?”

Action item -> Establish storage that is simple and “good enough.” Add doors to storage spaces if you are bothered by visual clutter.

Thought to bear in mind -> DONE is better than PERFECT.

**

Another reason your child may resist putting objects away is that they are asked to clean up at a less-than-ideal moment. While it seems reasonable to ask a child to reset a playroom or pick up his/her clothes before bed, this may also be the time when your child is physically and emotionally “spent.” Not only this, but often we as parents are worn out by the end of the day. If we don’t feel like doing chores at night, we shouldn’t expect our children to either. Children may also push back if they are deep in play and the instruction to restore order is unexpected. Nobody likes having to “stop in the middle of something.”

Action item -> Institute regular windows for restoring order during the day (e.g. before nap time and before bedtime). Try to perform this task at the same time so children can anticipate the task. Give them a “five more minutes” notice.  

Thought to bear in mind -> “Timing is everything.”

**

Finally, children may not put things away because they simply don’t care about them. This may sound like an excuse, but there is a connection between how we treat our belongings and the value we associate with them. For instance, a child is more likely to care for a toy that he/she has longed for, waited for, and maybe even saved to buy than for a toy that simply appeared and was never wanted. Also, children – like adults – are often quite protective of structures or creations that they have made.

Alternatively, a child’s space may be loaded with toys that he/she does not particularly treasure. Although these toys may get touched, because they aren’t “favorites,” they are more likely to be carelessly dropped, shoved under a couch, or stuffed into a drawer to make Mom happy. Objects like these are good candidates for removal (see point #1).

Children also own things like shoes, clothing, cups, and underwear, which – while necessary – are not particularly exciting. Children are too young to understand the importance of these pieces, and therefore more likely to lose, drop, or otherwise treat them carelessly. For this reason, it is critical for parents to teach children that they need to care for all items, including those that are more functional than fun.

Action item -> Reward children for being cooperative and for caring for their belongings. Model this behavior so they can see that you believe this is truly important.

Thought to bear in mind -> If we are going to own it, we are going to care for it.

**

Teaching children organizing skills is a marathon more than a sprint, and like all parenting, requires patience. Still, it is a worthy endeavor that will benefit not only the family during the growing years, but also the child when he/she reaches adulthood.

What tips have you found work well with children?

20 thoughts on “Why Won’t My Child Put Things Away?”

  1. Thank you for this article as literally just dealt with this with my girls today. I asked them to put stuff away in their bedroom and also vacuum their room, as well. They are getting older and want them to be a bit more responsible. Well, let’s just say that I ended up feeling like I was nagging. And I even found myself vacuuming after they supposedly vacuumed as it literally appeared as though they just let the vacuum run without actually using it. So, your advice gave me a new perspective and some much-needed food for thought, as well. Thanks for that 🙂

    1. I give you credit for trying to step up their game. Few kids enjoy the process of becoming more adept at household chores. Just a few ideas to keep in mind – you hang in there!

  2. I love all these reminders of how to create order and routines in our homes. With covid, we are at home more and untidyness is a bigger issue. We see it more and we are already more on edge. I always remind parents that once is not enough to help your kids. Rewards, make it a game and routine are what make organizing routines happen!

    1. Excellent point about “once is not enough.” If we think about it, preschool teachers tell children the exact same instructions for a whole year. It takes patience and presence, both of which can be hard to summon as a busy parent!

  3. Oh, it is certainly a marathon. Whoa! And sometimes it is just that – they have way too much already! It’s amazing to me that things can really excite them and then stay out on the counter for two weeks without them even remembering they got said thing.

    1. Our children are blessed by abundance, but it can be too much. There is always more joy in the early moments of a new arrival than over the long haul. That’s why I tell parents to feel free to let the “half dead kits” go. If a child worked on a project or craft and then the materials in a messy pile for months, he/she probably isn’t coming back to it.

  4. You offer great tips here, Seana. Keeping a child’s age in mind is so important and also thinking about the timing of your request. I love that you mention making picking up part of a regular time of day – before nap time, before getting ready for bed. I also appreciate your comment about how a child has done a task. If we continually correct or criticize the way a job is done the child won’t want to even try because they’ll get the message that their efforts aren’t good enough. Keeping tasks age appropriate is important and praising a child for effort is more important than having the job done perfectly. As you said, teaching children to do routine tasks is a marathon not a sprint.

    1. I think I was probably too hard on my girls when it came to “how” they put things away. I’m a work in process as well, but I can see that consistency really is the key. I reflected on the fact that teachers of young children literally spend an entire year telling children to do the same things, over and over, in the same way. I actually believe this builds a sense of familiarity and security!

  5. I love the way that you have broken this topic down. Understanding what is motivating a behavior goes a long way toward correcting it. We had great success implementing many of these suggestions with our kids when they were little and found that consistency of expectations on our part played an important part in earning their cooperation.

    1. It is so hard to “hold the line” as a parent when you yourself are tired, but it really does make the difference. When children understand expectations, and have the proper tools to succeed, they are more likely to rise to the challenge. Some need more help and supervision than others, but most can be taught these critical life skills with the right approach.

    1. I agree that coming alongside of children and helping them until they really know exactly what to do is very wise. Singing songs and playing games can make the whole process more fun. I used to sing as well:)

  6. I have a “clean up song” playlist, hahaha. Remembering the developmental aspect of kid’s capability is so important. Great reminders here that I’ll keep in my back pocket as my babies get older and more involved in this process.

    1. Good to have options for clean-up songs as you spend so much time doing it! That said, I tell Moms that they can put on any music they like… it doesn’t have to be a child’s song. If you are consistent, they will know exactly what to do when they hear those familiar songs!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Sarah! I know you are in the thick of this right now. Each child is different. Thinking of you and your 8 year-old as you continue through this strange year. I imagine having to manage “classroom” cleanup and toy cleanup is just more work for everyone!

  7. When my kids were young our clean up time was the few minutes it took for the tub to fill with water for their bath. We made a a race. Pick up your room before the tub is full. There kept things tidy enough.

  8. This reminds me of a funny story. At one time we had a “hobby room” which was set up with tables so people could work on models or other projects and not have to put them away at the end of the session. One time I asked our youngest boy to take something upstairs to the hobby room – I think it was a postage stamp (someone must have been collecting them at the time). When I went upstairs later, there was the stamp, tossed on the floor in the hobby room. He did exactly what he was told, and no more.

    Lesson learned: Be specific when giving instructions!
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Create a portfolio page that shows the impact of your workMy Profile

    1. Ha, isn’t that just the truth? Most of us do what has been required without going above and beyond. Children especially need things pretty clearly spelled out. Thanks for sharing this story!

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