Cleaning up messes: from ‘No!’ to ‘Whoa!’

Knock on my door any random afternoon and you might think five children live at my house instead of one. (Did I tell you we moved from our condo to a house? It’s awesome because G can jump, run, and dance to her heart’s content. On the flip side: more room for messes to accumulate.)

In the living room, books are strewn about the couch. Tiny fairies and play silks lay in heaps, their treehouse in mid-construction or deconstruction. The watercolors, paintings, and dish of brownish purplish water are still on the dining table. The kitchen floor looks like someone took her sock puppets and cut every yarn hair off their head–because someone did. (Her experiment on her own hair, thankfully, got cut short.) The art drawer is open and the crayons are scattered on the floor. A kid-size mop is lying there, too, mockingly.

The messes are getting out of hand. It’s either when I’m trying to leave the house or when bedtime rolls around that I think, “Hey! This place is a wreck!” Right when I don’t want to spend an hour cajoling my preschooler to clean up.

So, new rule: Clean up one project before starting the other. (Obvious, I know, but I’ve never been the best housekeeper.)

Thus, yesterday, when my daughter left many itty bitty bits of cut-up construction paper and some clothes on the kitchen floor, then went off to build a Lego tower, I said, “First we need to clean up this mess.” And her response was:


I wanted to say “Yes” in that mildly threatening, eyebrow-raised manner. You know the one? Then the thought flashed through my mind of taking the blocks away, a la “logical consequences”: “Then you can’t play with your Legos. You let me know when you’re ready.” Play out either scenario in your mind, and you know you’re headed for a power struggle or a tearful outburst, bad feelings on both sides, and a need to repair the relationship.

Instead I got right down next to her (here’s why).

“You don’t want to clean up your mess,” I said matter-of-factly. “You want to play and play and play.” (Learn more about this communication style.)

G stared at her blocks and kept stacking them.

I put one hand on her chest and one hand on her back. “Little one,” I said, “when you’re done with a project, you must clean it up before starting another.” I paused, realizing that may be useful information in general, but not specific enough right now. “Please clean up your mess.”

I held her body like that, waiting in silence for what seemed like way too long, as she slowly stacked two more blocks.

Then she said, “I just needed to stack two more blocks. Now I’m ready to clean.”


I’ve been so amazed at what happens when I

  • hit pause on my gut reaction
  • acknowledge and connect, and
  • wait in silence for about three times longer than seems reasonable.

Can I share a little “aha moment” I just had? When my daughter kept stacking the blocks, it felt like defiance. I wanted immediate obedience. That’s why the waiting seemed unreasonable to me. Now that I think about other situations, this slow action is not defiance. It’s her way of deciding, finishing, and transitioning. Which is what she was literally telling me when she said, “I just needed to stack two more blocks.” Through my “defiance” lens, I thought she was making that up to justify her action. Sorry, little one.

Your child’s process is probably not the same as my child’s process. But try this method enough times and you’ll figure out what it is.

So my daughter jumped up from the Legos. She looked at the epic mess on the kitchen floor. And she had the same reaction out loud that I’d had in my head. “Aaaaaaagggh,” she moaned dramatically. “It’s sooooo messy! I don’t know what to do! Will you help me?”

“Yep!” I said. “Let’s break this into smaller pieces. Clothes first. Do you see any clothes on the floor?” She pointed. I cheered, “You found a shirt!” And it became a fun game. Time for the bits of paper. “How are we going to pick all of these up?!” she said. “Hmm, what’s a way we could pick up lots at once?” I said. I can’t remember who suggested a broom, but she ran to get her broom.

And she insisted that she do all of the sweeping.

Well, if you insist.

Now, could I have headed off that first “No!” by discussing my new rule far ahead of time, then giving her a couple minutes of notice in the moment? Maybe. (Maybe not.) Do I wish she’d clean up her own messes without my help? Sure. (It happens.)

I am also aware that this doesn’t mean my daughter will immediately and happily comply with any cleaning request from now on. Or that I’ll never have to ask again.

It just means we got a clean kitchen floor without an ugly fight. Which is huge.

For more small tips that yield big results, check out my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.

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Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

2 thoughts on “Cleaning up messes: from ‘No!’ to ‘Whoa!’

  1. Tracy, I love how you caught yourself, backed up and used SAY WHAT YOU SEE and a clear boundary instead of escalating the initial power struggle (No!) with consequences! And your aha that “defiance” was your reaction to her slow action, when what was actually happening was a move toward compliance…in her own way – deciding and finishing. As you said, you met her need for connection, and those steps of deciding and finishing that she automatically knew to do for herself, met her need for power so she could make the transition without resistance. Very clear and helpful post. Thanks for sharing and for the acknowledgment 🙂

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