parenting, Responsibility and Self-Reliance, Toys and Play

7 Ways to Get Your Child to Clean His Room: What Supernanny forgot to tell the Phelps

Wondering how to get your child to clean his room? Here are a few tips Supernanny forgot, at least in this one episode.

On ABC’s Supernanny episode with the Phelps family (Season 6: Episode 3) plenty made me cringe. However, one scene stuck in my head for days.

In that scene, the mom repeatedly asked her child to clean up his toys. In a video shot of the floor, it looked as if every toy he owned covered it. Most moms can identify with that: Lego® blocks, mixed with action figures, mixed with who-knows-what. Aaack!

When the boy didn’t comply, Mom became enraged. Yelling and spanking didn’t work. Supernanny Jo’s suggestions, including the infamous Time Out (until the boy agreed to pick up his toys), plus anger management for Mom, helped some. Indeed, Mom had to handle her anger differently. (See Kathy Collard Miller for inspiration for Christian moms with anger issues.)  And I’m all for time-outs, although effectiveness varies according to personalities.

Yet critically missing from Supernanny’s advice were tips on how to prevent the problem in the first place.

How do you motivate a child to clean his room himself? Following are seven tips for that, but first consider this;

What motivates YOU?

I’m the queen of Messies. (Do you know there is a Messies Anonymous?) Sometimes my home office papers look like they exploded. This horrifies my tidy husband. It looks worse when I sort papers to file or I’m in the middle of a project. But even when there’s method in my madness, to an outsider I admit it looks disastrous. And I too can feel overwhelmed. I can only cope with paper piles in small doses, in between which I simply need to shut the door and walk away.

Did the child in Supernanny feel overwhelmed by his piles? Did he wonder where he should start in actually getting his room clean? And to him, what was the point of doing so . . . other than relieving Mom’s anger?

I’ve thought about how I’d feel like if my husband stood over me, yelling: “Put away all these papers RIGHT NOW, and don’t come out of your room until it’s done, young lady!”

I’d probably dig in my heels, especially if in the middle of a project I wanted to finish first (when I felt like it)! My husband would never do this, of course, nor threaten to spank me or make me sit on a step until I complied.

Considering what DOES motivate me, however, helped me motivate my own kids.

Here are a few ways to help your child clean his room, and keep him from feeling overwhelmed:

1) Limit accessibility to toys with small parts by storing them up high. Rotate toys for more fun. When my son was small, we kept Lego ™ blocks in a bin on the upper shelf of my son’s closet, as we did other toys with small parts. One bin had to be put away before the other taken down. Sometimes we’d have Lego™ day, or Puzzle day which made those toys seem more special.

This kept my son from becoming overwhelmed by the mixing of many toys with small parts. (As for me, I’ve found that storing piles of unfiled papers by category in pretty paper boxes helps reduce my clutter. I can tackle one pretty box at a time!)

2) Model and engage your child in creative ways to play with toys. Sometimes kids dump a bucket of toys on the floor, play with them a few minutes, and then become bored. They aren’t sure what to try next, so they shrug and get out more toys. Then it frustrates them when it takes more time to put toys away than it did to play with them. They balk at that.

Get on the floor with your child. Be his cheerleader and teacher for a few minutes. When my son was two, at first he would dump his blocks, then quickly move on to something else. So I showed him how to create a strong base to hold up a tall Lego™ block tower. I remember how he proudly and excitedly said, “Yay! I’m makin’ a base!” He then played alone while I slipped away to do chores. He was so thrilled he wanted to take his tall tower to bed with him. The point is, he stuck with one play activity for much longer and wasn’t tempted to get out other toys.

Bonus: You get parent-child playtime in; he learns independent play!

3) Ask your child about what HE sees as a long-term project that he’d want to keep out for a few days. Think ahead together about how to make it accessible, yet tidier. Some kids feel compelled to finish what they start. They hate to put a half-finished puzzle away.

Plan ahead! A puzzle in progress can be done on a flat corkboard, which can be moved to a table or desktop with a tablecloth spread over it. Have your child put his architectural wonder in progress on a TV tray on his dresser, when not building. Blocks of various sizes can be stored in Ziploc bags.

4) Associate cleanup time with play, right from the start. When you pull down toys stored on a shelf, let the child know about how much time it will take to put the parts away and how much time there is available for your child to clean his room. “We leave in 10 minutes for Grandma’s, and it will take about the same amount of time to put away those blocks. Want to choose something easier right now?”

Also familiarize your child with the words “personal chores” and “family chores”. Everyone has personal chores: dressing, bathing, cleaning your own rooms, putting your own laundry away. Family chores help the whole family: setting the table, clearing the dishwasher, etc. Every day, every family member has both personal and family chores, and it helps us make time for fun activities!

5) Offer “carrots” (rewards) to get a child to clean his room. “Hey! As soon as we both get our personal chores done, we can go to the park or go get an ice cream!” If the child does not get his room done, show sympathy. “I’m sorry you couldn’t get it done in time for us to go to the park. Maybe we can do that tomorrow.” I tend to wait to ask for room cleanings when I already have a carrot in place that I can truly afford to offer and know a child wants.

6) Make cleanup more fun. My daughter listens to music while she cleans her room. I like to watch Netflix movies on my computer in the kitchen while making dinner. It makes the time go by faster.

Small kids can, with your help:

• Listen to music or sing songs. (“Cleanup, cleanup, everybody everywhere! Cleanup cleanup, everybody do your share…” )

• Clean by color. (“Quick, find everything red! Go! Now blue!”)

• Race against a timer. (“How many toys can you put away in one minute? Count them! Go!”)

• Play “basketball” by tossing blocks in a bucket.

7) Praise end results, and show child the benefits. “Wow, what a great job you did!” Take a photograph of his clean room. Tell him you are proud of his hard work. Show it off to the rest of the family.

When do you stop trying to control how clean your child’s room is? Teens should be able to care for their own territory. Two of mine grew up to be tidy, and one (for now) seems to be cursed with my Messy gene. But we all appreciate extra motivation to make our living spaces more habitable. We come up with our own carrots, and we all enjoy pats on the back for success.

Now to go tackle those paper piles. Ugh. I think I’d rather have a Time Out. Unless my “carrot” is cheesecake.


8 thoughts on “7 Ways to Get Your Child to Clean His Room: What Supernanny forgot to tell the Phelps”

  1. I really need this tips. I used to sing that song but now it doesn’t work anymore.

    So now, I will ask them to clean up their toys and I told them that If I still see some toys on the floor, I will asume that they don’t want those toys anymore. In that case, I will keep those toys and they cannot play those toys anymore. It works and no more toys on the floor 😀

    Thank you for the tips there 🙂

    Please visit my blog and I would be more than happy if you are willing to share your thought there 🙂



  2. I write this under the position that kids’ rooms can and DO get messy, but it’s nothing to get freaked out about. I’ve never been about forcing kids to keep their rooms picture-perfect all the time. However, it does help to notice when rooms are getting out of control, and step in before the mess overwhelms the child. A recap of the 7: Store toys w small parts, engage kids in play, consider long-term projects, mentally associate cleanup with play, offer rewards meaningful to your child, make cleanup more fun, and praise end results. No matter what, messy rooms should NEVER lead to parents screaming, threatening to spank, or even use of time-outs. Because, after all, wouldn’t we all prefer time-outs to cleaning?


  3. BTW, here’s a fun game to play with a little one when there’s a big mess. Declare “flood rule”. Pretend a big flood is coming and anything left on the floor will get wet (or eaten up by alligators). Add urgency to your pretend game. Quick, quick! See that alligator in the corner? Don’t let him eat up your puzzle pieces! It’s amazing how energized a child can become when you add an element of fun. (Of course don’t play this game if your child has actually been affected by a real flood, or alter the game–monsters in a moat?) I also turn my vacuum into the “vacuum monster” and pretend to eat the child with it as I vacuum. This produces massive giggles. A child will bare his floor just to get the vacuum monster to come and play.


  4. Different kids respond differently. Your techniques worked wonders with my older daughter who is now 25. They did not work with my younger daughter. She would rather have her room a disaster and forgo dangled “carrots” than clean it. She however did create some of her most creative and interesting art work during her supposed cleaning time. After 16 years, which has now turned into 20, I learned that a closed door is the only way I can deal with the disordered room. She is a loving creative intelligent artistic responsible young college junior who happens to be extremely disorganized. All those years of buying fun organizers, changing the “carrot”, and removing things one by one from her room until there was almost nothing left but the bed and the dresser didn’t change her inability to have a place for everything and everything in its place. My older daughter however is also intelligent, artistic, loving, creative, and responsible and only needed one instance of “everything not put away by the end of the day goes into a box in the attic for a month” and now she is one of the most neat and organized person I know. Two girls, same set of parents, same rules – same and different techniques tried and organization worked for one and not for another. I thought something was wrong with my parenting, and yet somehow they both turned out to be amazing young women. Try these techniques. Do your best but know that they may not work for every child and you may still be as lucky a mom as I am.


    1. Fabulous comment. I’m so glad you mentioned personality differences! We have that in our home too. And, um . . . your youngest sounds a lot like me, and a lot like my youngest! My tips worked with her when she was a preschooler only when the reward was something she desperately wanted and when my preschool games made it more fun. Now I just let her let it all hang out and make her own choices, in between her busy sports and school schedules. She no longer giggles hysterically at my alligator and vacuum monster games. You can’t really turn a naturally messy child into a naturally tidy one–just help them get the floor uncovered often enough to find what they need to help them feel less stressed! Now the biggest challenge in our home is for my youngest daughter to keep her tidy college sis happy when she comes home on weekends, as they must share the same bathroom! I stay out of that battle…


      1. Oh yeah. The girls’ shared bathroom is where I drew the line at visible mess. Inside the drawers and cabinets were a disaster, but the countertops and floor had to be clean. If not, Mom added the disorder to the bedroom in a neat pile on the carpet then closed the bedroom door. (If the items were liquid or makeup, the items were put in a plastic grocery bag first.) That seemed to help at least to get the items off the counter and put in the drawers or cabinet although cleaning those out after the younger one left for college took quite a while! Thank goodness the girls are older now…


  5. From: Susan Noland: Submitted on 2011/09/13 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Laurie, I can so relate to the messies. My sewing room sounds very similar to your office. My husband makes comments on a semi-regular basis. When it is really bad, I too just close the door. I tell him creative people tend to be unorganized. I do clean it up between projects, however some projects overlap. It doens’t work to clean up in the middle of projects. When I become overwhelmed it is time to stop and regroup. I am a piler, takes will power to not be. Although there is a feeling of accomplishment when I can get rid of some, a very cleansing process. The funny thing is I have very good organizing skills, go figure Wonderful blog susan noland


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