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Pick Up Your Toys!

core 4 foundational skills mom life parenting trust
toys, blocks, small toys, messy toys, toy basket

Toddlers dump buckets. It’s in their DNA. Well, if not their DNA it is in their healthy development milestone checklist.

Buckets of toys.

Buckets of sand.

Buckets of dad’s nuts and bolt’s stash that he mistakenly left out the night before when fixing … a toy.

It’s a natural kid impulse - emptying and filling things. 

But here’s my thing. It’s a choice they made. Not a bad one. Not a good one. Just a choice. **oohh, what would it look like if the blocks in that bucket were all over the kitchen floor** - choice.

And, choices come with consequences. Not necessarily bad ones. Not necessarily good ones. Just actionable results of choices.

You know, like when you choose to have that latte at 3:30 pm because you’re running on empty and there’s SO much day left to live, then lie thinking about that choice, and the current consequence of being WIDE awake - at 3:30am.

Like that, except that for toddlers the natural consequence of their choices is far more immediate and should be attended to by us - in short order.

Ever tried to follow through on a punishment for your 4 year old tossing the shelves at the grocery store the next day? Don’t bother. They’ll just look at you like they have no idea what you’re talking about. Like it was ancient history or something. Because for their 4 year old brain, it was.

Navigating the art of choice and natural consequence is a time-sensitive proposition with littles. And here’s why. You are teaching them more than if they climb onto the counter to help themselves to the cookies they get no cookies that night. 

Much. Much. More.

  • You’re teaching them about the social contract that lives within your relationship. 

  • You’re teaching them that if you say something you mean it and you’ll follow through on it.

  • You’re teaching them that you will stop your busy parent life to have a conversation about their choices and what comes next.

  • You’re teaching them that they can trust you to attend and engage in their earliest choices and hold them accountable for the outcomes.

  • You’re teaching them that well made choices with celebration worthy outcomes will stop you your tracks and you’ll do your best happy dance!

You are fostering the Core4Connectors: mutual respect, implied honesty, trust and open communication, over a bucket of duplos dumped squarely in the middle of the kitchen floor.  

The result is a toddler who grows into a big kid, then, don’t blink - teenagers.

I have two of them, who, trust our relationship without question even as they make bigger, scarier, riskier adulting choices. 

What follows isn’t big or scary. Those stories aren’t for mass consumption. My girls trust that their evolutiontionary journey into their adult selves will be honored by keeping it private and personal.

What follows is a teenager who, for all intents and purposes, dumped a bucket of toys squarely in my kitchen. 


I have a child who loves to bake. 

I love that she bakes. 

I love what she makes. 

I like to eat when she bakes. 

I do not like the mess that gets left behind.

Since our earliest baking days in the kitchen I’ve kept up an upbeat refrain: What's the most important part of cooking? Cleaning up! 

Think the gorilla camp scene from Tarzan, except with whisks, spatulas and muffin tins. What's the most important part of cooking? Cleaning up!

I've taught them that cleaning during the cooking or baking process helps speed up the most important part of cooking, the cleaning up. And yet, the messes still seemed to pile up from those wonderful breakfasts, delicious dinners and delectable desserts. 

The oldest is now 18 and taking some significant responsibility, which is fantastic. Two days ago. She made muffins.

Sugar free banana muffins, actually.

For her Grandmother’s birthday.

They were so good. 

“Don't worry, mom. I'll do my own dishes when we get back from Grandma's house” she said.

"Okay” I smiled. 

The next day, the dishes were still there. 

When we passed by each other in the kitchen she caught my glance and said, “Hey, my dishes aren't done yet, I'm gonna get to them, I promise.”

“Thank you. I’d appreciate it.” I replied, sans smile.

Now here's the thing. I could just do them. I don't like looking at them. They're getting kind of nasty. I really want to do them. 

But I can't. Because if I do, I will be violating the foundational relationship that we worked so hard to set up in the first place. 

On day one when she said, “I will get to these dishes when we get back.” we landed squarely inside our unspoken but understood space: I believe you and I trust you’ll get it done.

Yes, we’re talking dishes here, but when the going gets tough, as it often does for teens, we fall back on this parent/child relationship contract:

  • I will trust you until you give me reason not to. 

  • I will believe the words that come out of your mouth until they prove not to be true.

  • I will respect your choices and your ability to navigate the consequences until you ask for help.

  • I will be here to openly communicate with you about anything. 

And so, “I will get to these dishes when we get back from Grandma's” was a believable statement for me. I have to believe her until she shows me it's not true. It’s in our contract.

On day two she acknowledged that it wasn't done yet, saying “I will definitely get to it.” I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Sure, she was pushing the boundaries of our contract yet taking proactive ownership.

But, when I got home from work on day three (a Friday, thank you very much) and saw that it was still not done?

Well, three strikes and you’re out, right?  

You’re probably expecting that I lost my $hit, yelled her name up the stairs and then yelled more things like: You said you’d do these! Why can’t you just clean your dishes when you make them! I’m so tired of this. Don’t bake if you can’t clean up after yourself! And the like.

And, honestly, I might have lost it on her after a long day and the site of those now molding dishes. Who knows? I’m human. But, as I stood at the bottom of the stairs taking three, loooonnng deep breaths, getting ready to make my reactionary choice, I remembered.

She wasn’t here. She’d left for the weekend to visit her boyfriend. She’d be gone for two more days: day four and five, if you’re counting with me.

And so I walked back into the kitchen and glared at it instead.

I would really like a clean kitchen. So what do I do? Just do the damn dishes? Or not. 

Nope. Not doing those muffininy remnant bowls. I was in it to win it now and man did I hate myself when I’d done 80% of the hard work to teach her something and then…. Just gave in to meet my own needs.

And so, I decided to split the difference. I could have my clean kitchen, but she's doing those dang dishes.

I packed them up and put them in the mudroom.

They are no longer in my kitchen.

I don’t have to look at them anymore!

And then, in the spirit of our parent/child social contract and going 100% towards the expected result,  I snapped a picture of them and sent it to her with this text:

Contracts are made for a reason: expectational contracts, social contracts, and emotional contracts. If we do not stick to them, own them, abide by them and honor them then there's no reason to have them in the first place. This is as basic as it gets. 

The three year old who dumped the bucket of toys and then the natural consequences they have to pick it up by themselves, even if it's not on the timeline that I would like, even if it doesn't get done until the next day. Even if it takes a lot of negotiating and talking and them understanding, this is their responsibility. 

These muffin dishes are her bucket of toys. She will clean them up.


**Update - And she did, happily upon her return. There was no yelling, no blaming, no backpedaling into should do’s and why don’t you ever’s.

Phew- social contract still intact.

And kitchen clean.

Learn more about raising kids who use judgment in Episode 109 of the Transforming the Toddler Years Podcast. 

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