Parenting Tips: How and When to Teach a Toddler to Clean Up

By Greg Baer M.D.

February 14, 2024

A young mother writes: 

“For a while now, my daughter, Sarah, has been cleaning up after herself—food, toys, clothes.

"But yesterday she resisted cleaning up a mess she’d made, so I put her in her room and closed the door.

"She cried, and after a couple of minutes, I went to her. She was sobbing and reaching for me.

"I picked her up and took her back to the mess, and she cleaned it up. I can’t believe how quickly she learns.”

When to Teach Toddlers to Clean Up

Sarah is 15 months old, and she’s been consistently cleaning up after herself from the age of 11 months. Really, but I’ve seen many other parents make excuses for their children’s lack of responsibility into adulthood. WE parents are the problem, not the kids.

Naturally, children would rather play than work, but we can teach them to be responsible. And we can do that very early. As a rough guide, if a child can stack two or three blocks—which happens at about 15 months—then that child can put toys away. The first time you tell such a child to put stuff away, the child will probably ACT baffled or resistant, but they DO understand, and now the teaching begins.

First, what are YOUR responsibilities here?

  1. One common reason that children have difficulty cleaning up toys, for example, is that we give them access to FAR too many toys. Solution? Put the toys in several containers and put them all away—far out of his reach and awareness. Pull out one container at a time, and he can’t do anything else until those toys are put away. What if your child wants a toy that’s not in the container you gave him for that day? He might cry, and you might be tempted to think you’re being cruel. Nah. Tell him that when he puts away all the toys he has, you’ll get the other container.
  2. SHOW him how to pick up his toys. Once. After he’s demonstrated that ability one time, do NOT help him again.
  3. Tell him that he has to clean up until YOU say the job is done. If he claims he’s finished when the job isn’t done, you tell him to look around for more toys, and you leave the room. Come back later to check on his work.
  4. What if he refuses? Then you lead him by his little fingers to his room, sit him on his bed or in a car seat, and tell him he can come out when he’s ready to clean up. And if he whines about any of this, I’ve talked about how to handle that in Chapter Zero of the Parenting Training.

Those are YOUR four responsibilities. Your CHILD’S responsibility is simply to trust you and follow instructions, which naturally happens as he feels loved by you. 

Learn how to make that possible throughout your study of the entire Parenting Training.

Want to learn more?

Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

Subscribe to our newsletter now!