tidying up, with kids.

January 23, 2019
tidying up with kids | reading my tea leaves

I worry that when I write about kids and tidying I’ll come across like a draconian weirdo. Or, more precisely, that I’ll have come to my own defense.

No, I’m not constantly haranguing my children. No, my kids are not scarred by being asked to put their toys away. No, I don’t imagine they might revolt and start hanging their underwear from the ceiling fan when they’re 16, but hey, who knows?

In general, I have an expectation that my kids will more or less take care of their stuff and help to make sure the house stays neat. Yes, they’re two and four. Yes, they seem to be more than up for the task.

Since writing about sharing tidying responsibility with James last week, a bunch of folks have asked for me to share a bit more about how I extend the invitation to tidy to the much younger members of the household. In general, I’d say that getting kids to clean up after themselves and to keep the apartment neat, isn’t so very different from encouraging adults to do the same. It’s a practice that requires laying out some expectations, offering easy-to-use solutions, and then following through with them until they become second nature. Kids get a bad rap for making messes of things, but I’ve found that given the right tools, they’re really expert organizers.

Here, a few of the guiding principles that we use to encourage our kids to help keep our place tidy.

tidying up with kids | reading my tea leaves


For me, access is critical to kids being able to help with tidying. If kids can easily access the spot where something is supposed to be put away, they’ll have both the agency and the ability to clean up after themselves. Over and again, I’ve found that creating better access in our apartment has made it more tidy, not less. I understand the compulsion to limit child access as a way of controlling messes (or because of a need to keep them safe) but I’ve found that overtime, the more access kids have to their belongings, the more accustomed they become to the process and ritual of returning their things from whence they came.

To me, access doesn’t mean needing to have a full-blown Montessori-style classroom set up in our tiny apartment. For a long time, I would look at the wide, low, open shelves standard in Montessori spaces and bemoan our lack of space. But I’ve found that the actual specifics haven’t mattered so much. It doesn’t matter, for instance, how books are stored, or where, but that they’re in a consistent spot that kids can easily reach. Sure, it means they can pull them all down from the shelf, but it also means they can put them back again just as easily. Throughout the apartment we use wooden wine crates to create central but discreet storage locations for everything from school gear to books to winter hats and gloves.

In our kitchen, we reorganized things this fall so that our lowest cabinet can be a spot to keep our selection of small cups and bowls for kids. Likewise, in the fridge, we cleared a spot for a small glass water pitcher on a low door shelf. When the kids are thirsty, or helping to set the table, they have the materials they need within easy reach.

In their shared bedroom dresser, Faye and Silas can’t reach the tallest shelves themselves, but the height of the dresser helps us take advantage of space that would otherwise be wasted. We’re still able to keep things accessible by using soft-sided bins to organize the kids’ clothes on the shelves. The lowest bins house pajamas and undies and socks, which both kids are tall enough to reach. Higher bins are easy enough for me or James to pull down in the morning so the kids can get themselves dressed.

When easy access isn’t possible, we set up way stations for things that kids can’t manage to put all the way away themselves. On the wall by our front door, we use two hooks for temporary storage of winter coats. This gets them off the ground immediately upon entry and gives me or James a minute to breathe and take off our own coats before hanging everything up in the closet. In the morning before school, James or I set coats back out on the hooks so our kids can put them on themselves before we head out the door.

tidying up with kids | reading my tea leaves


I’m really not interested in constantly policing my kids and so I try hard to embrace a mentality of mostly tidy with my kids. If they get their scarves and gloves into the box under the couch, excellent. Who cares if they’re perfectly folded? (They never are.) If their backpacks make it into the crate by the front door, superb. I can straighten them out if I want to. If they ask for help to pick up a pile of dumped blocks, I don’t deny the aid. For me, when it comes to teaching kids to tidy up, the effort and the intention behind the process matters more than the finished product. I think introducing the idea to kids that they’re able to help themselves is really what’s most important. In my experience, kids love having a job to do and love knowing that an adult trusts them enough to complete a task. I can’t work up extreme cheer about cleaning one hundred percent of the time, but I do find that my kids respond extremely well to a small job presented with great enthusiasm.

tidying up with kids | reading my tea leaves


As always, my deep and abiding tidying principle is to start with a manageable collection of items. Even the most organized adult can have trouble keeping track of their things. Add kids and the general daily chaos of a young family and I feel like so many parents set themselves up for failure or frustration. Whether it’s shoes, or winter accessories, or art supplies, or dishes, or toys, I try to make sure we only have what we need and what we can manage.

Is a perfectly tidy home possible with young kids? For me, the answer lies in encouraging them to take ownership of their belongings by providing them with easy access to a manageable number of materials.

What’s the answer for you guys? What kind of guidelines do you keep in your families? Do you feel overrun by kids’ stuff or do you find that it’s mostly been manageable?

For the curious:

We’ve gotten all of our wooden wine crates for free, by way of local wine shops that put them out on the curb (or else, I’ve noticed a crate getting unloaded and asked for it outright).

Our rag rugs are all from Willaby.

This post includes affiliate links. Reading My Tea Leaves might earn a small commission on the goods purchased through those links. 

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  • Reply MissEm January 23, 2019 at 12:29 pm

    We used to do really well with that and then my kids entered “little things” stage. They make incredible worlds and cross-contaminate toys 😉 to make them, and the play can stretch over days, but as a result they have become pretty inconsistent about putting things away. I feel like I need a new plan and I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet, but it probably involves under bed crates and small Montessori style work rugs to contain worlds and projects.

    • Reply Guro January 23, 2019 at 3:59 pm

      This happend in our home too! Maybe when the girls were three and five? But it is a delightful phase, it will pass and they will still remember how to tidy when they turn six and nine if they knew it at age two….

      • Reply MissEm January 24, 2019 at 2:28 pm

        It is SUCH a delightful phase. I think it’s my favorite play stage yet (mine are 8 and 5). My 8 year old is currently making a multi-layer model of a secret hideout for herself and her sister and it’s incredible and so thoughtfully made and…means we can tend to have Lego allllll over. But oh, ultimately it’s worth it.

  • Reply Jennifer January 23, 2019 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks for this! I’ve found that what’s helped us the most is Kondo’s thought that everyone should have their OWN space for their things. Kids included! I’ve been rearranging so the four of us (two kids 1.5 and 3) each have our own little corner. The kids are so proud of their own drawer or shelf and take the time to make sure it looks nice.

  • Reply Kate S January 23, 2019 at 12:49 pm

    I agree with a lot of what you describe in your post. One thing that works well for us (also in a small space) is to have the toys in our living room. We don’t have a playroom, and our kids would rather be with us than in their room away from us, so we set up the organization in the living room. We have bins under the main console table, one bottom shelf of the bookcases for truck parking, a small shelf system mounted in a corner for small items, and a kid desk and craft cart next to our desk. Then, as long as we’re keeping our stuff picked up, the boys see that and anticipate that they’ll be asked to keep their own things tidy. We also hold pretty strictly to the rule of not getting something else out until the first thing is put away. We definitely agree with trading some game boxes for drawstring bags.

    Recently we’ve gotten some large Playmobil buildings, so we’re working on where those will fit best to be accessible and also “put away.” I love a good organizing challenge, so this hurdle doesn’t bother me. 🙂

    • Reply Helen January 23, 2019 at 1:27 pm

      Same! I’m actually glad we don’t have a “playroom” as it keeps everyone honest.

  • Reply Mags January 23, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    I have such an issue with this and appreciate the suggestions. My 2 year old is quite good about keeping things clean with minimal reminders — she’s also the age where she doesn’t play with super intricate toys and she loves to do things herself. But my five year old, is so different and I’ve been finding it so frustrating. He’s actually less independent than his sister — he will rarely pick out his own clothes (access is not an issue), get dressed on his own, or pick up his own things. Little things like reminding him to put away his shoes when he comes home or clear his plate from the table, or go to the bathroom before bed (!!!) take so much nagging. There has got to be a better way — any ideas? Also, his play is complicated (20+ little lego figurines which he scatters around the room because they are all going different places) and I don’t want to reign him in, but I feel like I am so often cleaning up after him (and we don’t have a big apartment or so many toys — it’s just they go everywhere).

    • Reply mado January 23, 2019 at 7:36 pm

      Thanks for sharing, I was feeling bad about my 3.5 year old boy who similarly has no interest in dressing himself, much to my chagrin. He would happily never change his clothes. But I can’t complain about him moving from activity to activity throughout the apartment, leaving a trail of projects and toys in his wake, cuz I’m pretty much the same. We’re both working on it.

      • Reply Demi January 23, 2019 at 10:10 pm

        I hate to tell you but I’m still dealing with the same things you are describing with my 9yo boy. Toys in a trail, backpack dropped in front of the door, dirty clothes next to the hamper, lights on everywhere. Things I’m trying now:
        1. Pickup toys before dinner
        2. Making him stop what he’s doing to immediately fix the problem (pick up backpack, turn out lights, pick up clothes). No doing it for him ever
        3. Another pickup after shower (hang towel, put away toothbrush, clothes in hamper)

        Anyone have any ideas to help? I’m nagging every night still, and it’s making me a little crazy.

        • Reply marie January 24, 2019 at 5:57 am

          Although I think we do have designated boxes and baskets enough for toys and things my 5y old stopped tidying up at some point. So after a few days of struggle I asked her ‘why’ ?! We discussed it and she came up with a solution: she wanted one of our cupboard for her toys. (Well, at first she wanted a playroom, then some new furniture and then came the cupboard.) So we moved things around and gave her that space. It worked. Maybe she really needed a cupboard. Maybe she just wanted something new. Maybe we just all need some changes now and again. My point is – sometimes it’s worth to ask the kid for a solution (or at least keep them in the loop of searching for one).

    • Reply Sarah January 24, 2019 at 1:50 pm

      This may be just the age of my daughter (4) or maybe the personality, but I was having the same issues having to constantly nag her to do simple things like brush her teeth or go potty before bed until her teacher suggested making a chart of all the “things” she needed to do in the morning and at night. I’m not typically a “Pinterest activity” mom, but the chart changed our mornings and nights. I stopped telling her what to do and just said “let’s go see what your chart says.” She was so enthusiastic to check things off and really, who wants to be told what to do all day long. Much more fun to complete tasks on your own. We used it for 2 weeks then took it away because those tasks had become habit. Just a thought! Love this blog and the encouraging community Erin has built in her comment section!

  • Reply Rita January 23, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    Don’t you feel bad for constantly policing your kids?! Just kidding ! Loved this post. ❤️ My house is full of baskets which I can see is your version of crates. I grew up in house where most things didn’t had a designated spot and it was horrible. I haven’t seen the Marie Kondo show but after seeing the word tidying a lot lately and being January I feel in the mood! I wish you wrote more books, like mini manuals for things like this 🙂

  • Reply Jenny January 23, 2019 at 1:17 pm

    We screwed little wheels onto the bottom of our wine boxes, you might find it easier if you are using them to store books.

  • Reply Helen January 23, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly! I am proud of the moments when I didn’t underestimate my kids, who were prepared (earlier than I imagined) to take on tasks around the house. I remember when my daughter was two, and I was folding laundry, and she wanted to join in. It took about 30 minutes to get it down, but she figured out how to fold shirts and pants (and even came up with her own system for underwear) and still delights in helping with this a year later. I feel most aggrieved by the new clutter/junk that seems to constantly enter our home from birthday parties and dentist visits and god knows what else. Sometimes I toss it (and occasionally incur the wrath of the children) and sometimes I let it linger, but the bigger point is: why do we inflict this upon ourselves and neighbors?? It’s all wasteful, unnecessary, and in a lot of cases presents choking hazards (I’m looking at you, bouncy balls).

    • Reply Jenny January 23, 2019 at 3:59 pm

      This! My child must be part magpie with all the little bits and pieces of crap she brings into our house. It drives me crazy. I stopped caring about the child’s wrath eventually and started getting rid of stuff. I started throwing extensive rock, stick and shell collections into the yard. But getting rid of the little plastic toys befuddle me- thrift store? landfill? It all feels wrong. I have started a re-education effort to convince her NOT to bring things home, but it is slow going.

    • Reply nado January 23, 2019 at 7:30 pm

      Same here on the little plastic toys! My kid looves them. And it doesn’t help that my husband is always bringing them home as “presents”! I feel like I need a full blown reeducation campaign: little pieces of plastic garbage are not presents, they’re garbage!

  • Reply Kelly Libby January 23, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    heck no, Erin! You do not and should not defend your life, beliefs and family. Period.

  • Reply Jill January 23, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    I would love a post on your kids crafting supplies and storage.

  • Reply Sam January 23, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    I feel like this must be somewhat dependent on the kid in question because I do all of these things as well and my 2.5 year old is still a small hurricane with absolutely no interest in cleaning anything up. Your mostly tidy state requires constant policing and results in constant tantrums in my house. I’m neutral on the policing but the tantrums are not tenable for either of us so I’m hoping that modeling neatness and maintaining the systems will eventually sink in. Fingers crossed…..

    • Reply Abby January 23, 2019 at 10:28 pm

      Totally! I also have a 2.5 year old and most of the time she has zero interest in tidying/cleaning when I want her to. But when she sees me putting things away or dusting or whatever, she immediately wants to help. The modeling has really helped–“let’s put our jackets away and then we can read a book”–instead of just asking her to put things away. Of course, a lot of the time she just doesn’t do it. But she’s more likely to help out when it’s presented as a project we can do together.

  • Reply Sally January 23, 2019 at 2:07 pm

    NPR did a great piece on this topic! Fascinating read if you’re interested: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/06/09/616928895/how-to-get-your-kids-to-do-chores-without-resenting-it

  • Reply Zara January 23, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    My friend started doing end-of-day clean-up with her kiddo when he was a baby. He couldn’t actually do anything, but she would hold him and walk around the living area saying, “okay! Time to clean up! Time to put our things back where they belong!” so that he would grow accustomed to the routine. Slowly, as he grew, he would take on more responsibility for clean-up. Now, at three, he does his whole evening clean-up solo with minimal fuss (minus nights when he’s being a gaslighting sociopath, but that’s another post altogether…).

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 23, 2019 at 3:39 pm

      Haha! Oh dear! Those gaslighting three year olds!

  • Reply Andrea January 23, 2019 at 7:41 pm

    Even tho my four children are grown I just love this blog and the comments. I tried absolutely everything under the sun but slowly learned to pick & choose my battles. It just takes patience AND consistency. One of my sons lived at home during college and he kept his room and bathroom quite clean but one day he asked me to show him how I cleaned the bathroom. I said you know how to clean and he said well, there’s clean and then there’s MOM clean! Made me quite proud!

  • Reply Liz January 24, 2019 at 6:39 am

    My nearly three-year old is a bit hit and miss about putting toys away, but what does help is that it’s a regular part of her day at preschool as well as at home. Every day the children are expected to help with clearing up before lunch and clearing tables after lunch, and they sing a little song, along the lines of ‘everybody tidy up’ (to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down). We sing the song at home as well, when it’s time to clear up, and it seems to help reinforce the idea that it’s just a normal part of the day, rather than a big onerous chore. Still working on the getting yourself dressed thing, but it’s baby steps 🙂

  • Reply Sid January 24, 2019 at 10:41 am

    These are all great tips Erin. One other thing that I’ve found very useful with my kids was to take a “sequencing” approach. For example: when we’re finished playing with something it gets tidied up before we start on the next activity; when we get ready for bed we set out our clothes for the next morning; when we finish eating dinner we ask to be excused and clear our plates from the table; etc. Kids seem to appreciate the predictability and it didn’t take long before they often do that stuff without (much) reminding.
    As a bonus, according to an early childhood educator I know, it actually helps with literacy development. Which made me feel better about being a quasi OCD-nag sometimes 🙂

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 24, 2019 at 10:51 am

      Oh, for sure! We do this too!

  • Reply Becky January 24, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    As a nanny, I have observed that the children who have a ton of toys
    A) having a more challenging time cleaning up
    B) much more prone to boredom
    I have noticed that children who receive a ton of new toys at holidays and birthdays are often bored with their toys in a few days. Too many options and become less interested in them quickly and dont care to take care of them. Most likely because they know they will receive more new toys soon.
    In these situations old toys are not taken out of the picture, not donated or not given to younger cousins or friends who might be interested in them. I truly believe that the less you have the more you care for these possessions.
    Children wont understand the concept of sparking joy so parents really need to step and decide what they see as neglected toys and cherished. Take them out of rotation and switch them up every few weeks or months. If they don’t ask for it, donate it. My opinion best to do so when they are out of the house. When they receive a ton of toys at one time put some aside still wrapped for a rainy day or when trapped inside because of weather for a few days.
    I’m not a parent but I am professional caregiver who has worked for several families. The lack of passion I see for possessions is chronic.

  • Reply Gill F. January 24, 2019 at 1:12 pm

    I don’t have kids, but I love the word ownership. When I was small, my mom instilled ownership in my brothers and I out of both a desire to have us be independent little beings, but also a need to help keep the house straight because as a single mom she couldn’t do it all. So as soon as we could stand we helped sort laundry, throw out trash, pick up our toys. As we got slightly older (and only slightly!!) we were given chores, washing the dishes, cleaning the floors, helping to wash clothes. She made it known the house was a shared place, and so we were all responsible for keeping it neat and tidy. And she also didn’t care how it was done. The dishes got washed and I got soaked? Awesome! The floors got cleaned with two kids sliding across them in bathing suits? Fantastic! The bed was made, but still looks like a mess? Hey you did it! It was about owning your space and being part of a community, not about the place looking magazine worthy.

  • Reply laura January 24, 2019 at 2:40 pm

    Children love routine, they love doing adult tasks and they love order. It makes so much sense to make it a part of their day. I find that a lot of the frustrations with kids that don’t help cleaning up is that there’s often too much stuff for them to make the task simple. On days my living room is ransacked, my son is less inclined to help tidy. In fact, I think the chaos overwhelms him and he can’t see a structured way of putting things back. So instead, I keep less stuff out and that makes cleaning up easier. Sounds a bit simplistic perhaps but it certainly helps keep our home tidier (and calmer).

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 24, 2019 at 5:16 pm

      Sounds exactly right to me!

  • Reply Chelsez January 24, 2019 at 8:02 pm

    My son is two and I’ve employed a similar strategy of keeping extra stuff to a minimum and keeping things in easy access. Recently I rearranged our living room and put some of his toys on a different shelf and he said “no mama, this goes over here” and put it on the shelf where I had been keeping it. He seems to like to help keep things orderly as much as he likes to dump his blocks all over the floor

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