If you make a mess, clean it up!
Simple, straightforward, and applicable to all stages of life. Here is how we implemented the above rule for our sanity and our kids’ independence!
1. Start Early: Children as young as one year have the ability to put their toys away. (Make sure your home is setup to allow this to happen. Toys should be stored on low shelves and in open bins). Starting at two, children can sweep up crumbs from placemats and floors and sop up spilled milk. Make it a habit and you won’t get many complaints.
2. Help as Little as Possible: As parents we have to back off from helping physically and verbally. It is easy for me to not rush in with the towel when water is spilled, but it is hard for me to not verbally help. I have a tendency to jump in to offer a suggestion on how to clean up a particular spill or mess so it is important for me to remember that the kids can figure it out if we give them enough time and space. To help mitigate this problem, I try to offer a question instead of an answer when they are stumped. Such as, “What do you think you could use to get all of the water off the ground?” Physically we only help when asked and even then it is best to limit the help to either demonstrate how to do something or to put your hand over the child’s to guide them in the proper procedure. I often have to put my hand on my 3 year old’s to help corral the last few crumbs into the dust pan.
3. Invest in the Right Tools: We bought our hand sweeper and children’s broom from Montessori Services, but I know the Dollar Store sells similar tools. Make sure that paper towels, cleaning spray (non-toxic), and other cleaning materials are accessible to children.
4. Suppress the Type A: When children clean they often don’t do it as you or I would. They miss spots. They use four times as many paper towels as necessary. Even with all of that, take a deep breath, it will be okay. Resist the urge to go back over there work too much and to intervene. I find it best to walk away so as not to nag or jump in. I have to remind myself that they are learning and every time they clean up they are improving.
5. Cleaning can also be Restitution: Most of our cleaning is daily restoration of toys and belongings or cleaning up small spills and after meals, but occasionally it is to right a wrong. Before we implemented our new art station, crayon markings would stray onto tabletops often intentionally. Instead of getting mad, which is how I felt on the inside, I just gave my son a Magic Eraser and had him restore his table to its rightful state with a reiteration that we color only on paper.
Cleaning up after oneself is a skill that must be taught and fostered like any other and all of the work you do on the front end will help your children and yourself in the long run.