Getting my kids to clean up after themselves is one of my least favorite responsibilities. Especially after months of being at home more than usual, I found myself resorting to just bribing my three and five year old to stay in another room and play quietly while I would listen to a podcast and clean their disaster zone room for them. Isn’t it a total delight to find several day old cups of milk and used pull-ups under the bed?
While that method worked, in theory, I want my kids to be responsible little people and tidy up one mess before moving on to another. I want to say, “Alright! Time to clean up!” And with a snap of my fingers, Mary Poppins style, every tiny lego, half dressed baby doll, and leftover snack container finds its way to its spot in the house.
Alas, my snapping has no magic powers and the pattern was more of me beginning with a cheerful attitude, giving directions, maybe even turning on music to make things “more fun” for clean up and then devolving into semi-threats of unspecific consequences or half-hearted bribes to get them to pick up just one or two more toys. By the time our task was completed, everyone was complaining and grumpy, including me.
Then I started reading a couple different books that incorporate the idea of playful parenting. When I first started reading, I was skeptical and found myself thinking that I didn’t want to have to engage in mental gymnastics and creative solutions to get my children to do what I wanted. But the more I tried out little ideas here and there, I found that there was a joy and a freedom that came when I made things more fun for my little girls from the get go.
This is where “the cleaning fairies” arrived in my life and changed everything for the better. When I saw a mess in the playroom and my girls were getting ready to abandon it for another activity, I picked up my 5 month old baby and exclaimed to her, “Look at these toys on the ground! Let’s go change your diaper and then when we come back, I’ll clean all this up.” I didn’t even make eye contact with my older two, but just left the room. When I came back, they had picked up the toys! “Oh my goodness,” I said, “How on earth did these toys get picked up? There must be cleaning fairies in this house!” The girls were completely overjoyed, giggling conspiratorially and shouting: “Do it again Mom!” I kid you not, this went on for thirty minutes, until there was nothing else to be cleaned up. It was truly magic. The three year old lost a little bit of steam towards the end, understandably. But our five year old was one hundred percent in it. We have done this multiple times over the past few weeks and it has truly improved our cleaning up experience. It’s amazing to me that just some creative thinking on my part made something that all of us absolutely dreaded into something that feels fun and enjoyable. Of course, we have times when the cleaning fairies are mysteriously unavailable, but I’d say so far, it’s been successful.
I’ve tried this playful method in other aspects of our day, like singing a song about being cold when they’re getting dressed after a bath to ward off whining, or pretending to be at a beauty salon when I’m washing their hair to again, ward of whining. Yes, sometimes it feels like a little more work on my part rather than just issuing commands, but it has helped turn some of our day to day tasks from drudgery into fun. It turns out that Mary Poppins DID have a point when she said, or rather, sang: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun, you find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”