My friend Tracy and I are divided in our views on the new Mary Poppins film, due for release in December. She can’t wait, whereas I feel this particular classic should be left well alone. (Even the presence of the divine Colin Firth won’t sway me on that.)
One iconic scene from the original movie saw the formidable nanny persuade the Banks children’s nursery to pretty much tidy itself. A few well-chosen words, a jolly song, and everything scrambled into place of its own accord. How we parents wish this were real. How we long to inspire such enthusiasm for cleanliness in our own offspring.
So, just how do you get your child to clean their room? We may not have a Mary Poppins to help us, but there are specific strategies we can use to encourage our kids to tidy up. We can’t promise they’ll always be cheerful or enthusiastic, but at least you’ll be able to see the floor beneath the piles of clothes and toys now and again.
1Set the example
This is the first step to solving pretty much any parenting issue. If our children see that we take pride in our surroundings and make an effort to look after them, they’re more likely to do the same. (It might take a while, but it will happen.)
Be positive about the tasks you must do each day to keep your home pleasant. Set aside a little time to tidy up, and be clear that once it’s done, it’s time to relax.
2Ask, don’t tell
Nagging or shouting at your kids won’t get you anywhere. Ordering them around doesn’t help, either. Instead, ask politely – but make it clear there will be consequences.
“I’ve noticed your room is really messy. I’m asking you to tidy it up this week, please. If it’s still in the same state by Saturday, I’ll clear it all into a rubbish (trash) bag and take anything useful to a charity shop. It’s your choice.”
I tried this with my son. The first time, he didn’t take me seriously – until he came home from football practice and saw his near-empty bedroom. On that occasion, I’d stashed the bags in the garage, but he understood that next time, I wouldn’t be bluffing.
We might think the mechanics of cleaning and tidying are apparent; after all, we’ve been doing it for years. For a child, though, it’s not that easy.
If they’re young, they’ll need your help. You’ll have to teach them what they need to do. Show your child how to inspect clothes and decide if they need to go in the laundry hamper. If they don’t, demonstrate how to hang up a shirt or fold a jumper correctly. Kids don’t learn these things by magic.
Set out your expectations, too. Your definition of ‘clean and tidy’ might be different to theirs; they need to know what you want.
It’s ok to spend some time with your child in their room while they get started; giving them some moral support can spur them on. Just make sure you don’t end up doing it for them.
4Break it down
If your child’s room is really messy, the thought of clearing up will be overwhelming. They won’t be able to imagine finally finishing the task; it’s easier not to bother trying. This is when you’ll need to help them get started.
Break the job down into manageable chunks. You might decide to divide the room into sections for them to work through. Alternatively, they could tackle one task at a time – for example, tidying toys first and then sorting out clothes.
Don’t put pressure on them to finish it all in one go. A little bit at a time is fine – better that it’s done well in stages than abandoned because they get bored.
5It’s ok to let it go
If your child is older, don’t feel bad if sometimes you decide to shut the door on their mess and leave them to it. It’s true that ‘out of sight is out of mind’ – it’s less likely to bother you if you can’t see it.
And it can lead to improved personal habits. Once they run out of clean socks or get in trouble at school because they can’t find their books, they might decide to do something about it.
Make sure you see it through, or the lesson won’t be learned. Don’t do an emergency load of laundry for them; show them how to use the washing machine themselves. Give them a duster or tell them where the vacuum cleaner is. If you put yourself out to help, the only message you’re sending is that you’ll always come to the rescue.