Spotless Playroom Floor

Q Getting our small children to pick up their toys is a daily sore spot in our house. No matter what I say, they won't do it. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

A Anything that's a daily sore spot may not merit mountain status, but it's more than a molehill. Indeed, toy litter is a hot spot between parents and preschoolers.

Toys are among a child's first possessions. So they offer a natural means to teach responsibility. Unfortunately, responsibility is not something that comes naturally to humans. Like most admirable qualities, it has to be learned.

Children generally force themselves to learn about responsibility the hard way — through consequences — rather then the easy way — through words. In a way, that's good. Consequences teach them respect for their possessions, and ours, more quickly and durably than do all the words we can muster.

How might you rid your house of toy clutter — well, at least 75% of it?

The only way to ever reach 100% is to have no children living with you. But if that isn't possible, here are some ideas for a near litter-free environment:

1. Get the kids a toy box or something similar where toys not in use belong — a shelf, closet, dump truck. Then get yourself a similar receptacle. Every toy you have to pick up goes into your stash and is off-limits for a week.

This little rule will drastically reduce nagging (“Morris, how many times do I have to tell you ...”), begging (“Please, Morris, just once for my sake gather up your debris ...”), or threatening (“If I pick up one more toy, Morris, you won't have anything new to play with until your kids have toys.”). Let your stash do your talking.

2. For older kids or younger, stubborn ones, you can add meat to your rule by requiring payment of a small fee to purchase the toy back. For example, Mario not only lost his bike for a week because he raced it through the flowerbeds again, he also owes you a quarter to get back riding privileges.

With teens you can use this fine approach every time you pick up their clothes. After about four days, the average adolescent is either penniless or wearing a sackcloth.

3. Off-limits periods work better when kept short — a few days or a week. By giving Barbie her doll back before the turn of the century, you give her the opportunity to try and try again.

If you permanently trash every toy you've picked up more than 90 times, you may never face toy litter again, but you've also thrown away the chance to teach Barbie how to care for her possessions.

4. Once your rules go into effect, be prepared for the “I don't care” reaction, conveyed through words or through that familiar mouth wrinkle/shoulder shrug. Ignore it.

If Elvis didn't care about losing his ukulele for a week, why would he bother to play with it in the first place?

Persevere. Eventually he will care. Even Elvis will get tired of playing with rocks, sticks and mudballs.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist and author.

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The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy