When we had four kids under the age of 5, our biggest problem (other than sleep deprivation and somebody constantly crying) seemed to be that our house was always a mess. Wishing that our little ones would put their toys and clothes away was a little like wishing for spring in Utah this year. It seemed as though it would just never happen.
We had tried everything to get our messy little kids to clean up after themselves or at least to put something away once in a while. Getting mad didn't really work. Getting really mad didn't either. We soon realized that when we reacted with anger we were only teaching them how to get mad at their kids. We tried reasoning, cajoling and bribing. Nothing worked.
Once we thought we'd found the solution by putting their left-out toys and clothes on their beds, so they couldn't climb in until it was all put away, but they didn't even notice.
Without us there to supervise, all that stuff just made them feel warm and cozy while they slept. We had even tried keeping all their clothes and toys in our big utility room instead of in their bedrooms, so all the mess would be confined to one place.
That didn't work either.
Then one day a neighbor who knew how frustrated I (Richard) was with my messy kids gave me the best preschool method ever. He told me to get a big laundry bag and draw or sew a "face" on it, with the drawstring opening as the mouth. Introduce "Gunny Bag" to the kids, and tell them that he lives in the top of the hall closet and sometimes (you never know when) comes down and EATS any toys and clothes that are left out. Then he comes back on Saturday morning and "regurgitates" the stuff.
We liked the idea. The whole process was explained in a family meeting, and we all agreed that if their toys or clothes got "eaten" again the next week, their stuff would make someone's day at the Deseret Industries.
So I (Linda) got out the sewing machine and sewed some eyes and a nose on a laundry bag. When we introduced Gunny Bag, the kids formed an immediate love-hate relationship. They loved the fun of scrambling to put their things away, but they hated that he might eat their stuff.
The change was wonderful. We could come home and instead of the old pattern of getting angry and lecturing the kids about neatness and spending a half hour supervising their forced cleanup, we now had a fun, new pattern where one of us, standing amidst a sea of left-out toys and clothes, put a cupped hand behind one of our ears and proclaimed, "I think I hear some scratching in the closet. I think Gunny Bag is coming,"
The kids would run around with both fear and delight, putting all their toys and clothes in their places, so Gunny Bag could not eat them. That ol' Gunny Bag would go from room to room, looking for something to eat, and crying and crying when he couldn't find anything. The kids would laugh and laugh. And sometimes they would cry and cry when Gunny got to something and ate it before they could grab it out of harm's way. Nevertheless, it was a game that everyone enjoyed over and over, and the house became not perfect — but much better.
By the way, there was a side benefit to Gunny Bag: On Saturday when he came down to regurgitate, the kids quickly grabbed the stuff they loved and put it away. But there were always a few things left in the pile. "Quick" we would say, "put it away before he eats it again!"
"Oh, we don't want that stuff," they would answer, "we don't even know whose that is!"
We found that we had all kinds of stuff around that no one even claimed or cared about, and Gunny Bag became our "de-junker" — and a great benefactor to the DI!
So with your little children who deserve a delightful childhood, try relying on Gunny Bag and other fun-and-games methods that work so well with small children until they get a little older and enter the age where they are actually flattered by responsibility.
The Eyres are the founders of Joy Schools and of valuesparenting.com and the authors of numerous bestselling books on marriage, parenting and family. Their mission statement, developed while presiding over the England London South Mission, is "FORTIFY FAMILIES by celebrating commitment, popularizing parenting, bolstering balance and validating values."
Their newest book, now available in stores and online, is "5 Spiritual Solutions for Everyday Parenting Challenges," and their blog can be found at http://www.deseretnews.com/blog/81/A-World-of-Good.html. Visit the Eyres anytime at www.TheEyres.com or www.valuesparenting.com.