I now see lots of families who have children under five years old.
They come to see me in a room full of exciting toys: a Lego farm, a garage with colourful cars, a real doll house with tiny furniture… We sit and chat and play until it is time for the family to leave. And then the problems start.
If I leave the parents to their own devices, I usually hear something like this:
Parent: We need to tidy up now. We must put all the toys back in the boxes.
Child continues to play, not even looking in the parent’s direction.
Parent repeats in a more assertive tone of voice: It’s tidy-up time, come, help me put this in the box.
Parent: We have to go, we need to tidy-up for the other children. They are going to be really upset if we leave the room in a mess. Come on! Help me!
The child, who couldn’t care less about these hypothetical children who dare play with HIS toys, now shouts: NO! NO!
And then: I want this car/brick/horse/goat!
Parent: No, you can’t have it, it belongs to MIRIAM.
Now I am the bad guy.
The child grabs the car/brick/horse/goat and wouldn’t let go. The parent looks at me in desperation. You see? He doesn’t listen.
If you look at all this from the child’s point of view, why on earth would he want to leave the room? He put a lot of effort into his game or construction, and we were all happy with it, giving him lots of praise. Suddenly he must destroy it all! And why would he not want to take with him whatever he fancies? He had so much fun with it.
So what is the alternative?
In a similar situation, you can…
Say: You are welcome to play with this but we will need to back home go in a while, and we’ll put everything back in the box before we go.
Before the child starts playing, ask: Will you help me tidy up before we leave?
It is important to not let children start before they agree.
If your child is too young for this conversation, just say a few times in a pleasant voice: We play, and then we go. And everything stays here.
Then, from time to time say: You are playing beautifully. And in 20 minutes/10 minutes/2 minutes we will take a picture of what you made and we’ll put everything back in the box.
We all have mobile phones with cameras these days. It only takes a few seconds to take a picture of what your child made, and it costs nothing. It shows your child that you appreciate his effort. It also makes it easier for him to let go.
If you do enough of this talking and after your child sees the picture, getting him to tidy up becomes really easy. Of course, you will be wise to use descriptive praise as you go along:
You put the red brick in the box, and now the blue one. You are so quick, this is so helpful, I’m really proud…
And if your child wants to take stuff home with him, instead of just saying no you can say: Oh, the goat is so lovely, I wish I could give it to you. Of course you want it. I wish it was mine to give. What a shame that we must leave it here…
Try this. It works for me day after day.