A ‘Dear Mary’ question

I got the following question from Homeschool Mama and thought I’d share it along with my answer in case others might have the same question:

She says:

I know you don’t have your own advice column, but I bet you could… I have a problem I’m having with my kids and I’m about to cry or go nuts. I thought I’d ask you, since I’m sure you’ve had the same problem before.

Here it is: While my 9 yr old and I are doing school, my son (who’s turning 4 this month) either watches too much t.v. or plays nicely while dumping tons of toys out in multiple rooms. He never cleans up. He’s been the baby so long and his big sisters always clean b/c they don’t like to be in trouble. When I do tell him he can’t leave his room until it’s clean he will stay in there and play ALL day.

Our house is much bigger than the house we came from, so maybe I should expect to clean much more than before? But it makes for a very frustrating day to spend all morning schooling the three of them, then yelling or cleaning the rest of the day until it’s finally dinnertime…

How do you keep from tripping constantly on toys and stil get school done? As I type this, he’s pushing cars down the stairs. Must. Stop. Him. Did I mention he is VERY subborn? *sigh*

Boy, can I relate! My house is always a mess by lunchtime. We do cleanup after lunch every day with everyone pitching in to do a part of the cleanup. If my 4 yr old decides she doesn’t want to clean, I ask her to go lie down and take a nap– no playing. Usually within a couple minutes she decides she’d rather clean than nap.

Sometimes if she is really resistant I will physically guide her hands in picking up a few things, then say, “Are you strong enough to do it on your own, or do you need more help?” Almost all self-respecting little kids will decide they’d much rather control their own hands than have mom guide them, even if it does mean obeying!

Too many toys out at once is an ongoing issue at my house too. It helps to make a rule that only one type of thing can be out at a time– and enforce it. You may need to install a hook and eye latch up high on a closet door so that he can’t get the toys out alone.

You may also want to try setting up some ‘play stations’ to more closely monitor what your 4 year old is doing. I did this a lot when I had twin preschoolers who got into everything.

Set out 3 or 4 activities at the start of the morning, near where you’ll be working with your older children. Good ‘stations’ include Legos, Fisher-Price houses, lacing cards, crayons and paper, and books on tape. Spread these activities around the room, and have your 4 year old play at each station for 10-20 minutes. Set the timer and explain to him that he needs to do that activity til the timer rings, and then he can move on to the next station.

He may fuss and resist at first, or say that the activity is boring after a couple minutes. When my kids do that, I tell them that they can either do the activity or lie down and take a rest on the couch. If you kindly but firmly enforce the rules, they usually decide playing is more fun than lying down.

Really, once kids figure out they need to obey, you will have much calmer days. And that is every bit as important a lesson as anything your older children are learning.

One final idea: you may find that your little ones are more tolerant of school time if you begin the morning by devoting 20 minutes to playing with just them. Bigger kids can use that time to do independent assignments such as free reading or multiplication drills while you are playing with your little one.


Anyone else have ideas to offer this mom? Comment here.

Or does anyone else have a question for me? If there is enough interest, I may do a parenting Q&A on a semi-regular basis. Email your questions to me at: owlhaven at aol dot com


  1. I think you would be great at monitoring a parenting Q&A!

    I don’t have the exact problem as this mother, but I do struggle more this year with homeschooling my two girls, ages seven and four.
    I am more “serious” with schooling my second grader…but I don’t want to sell my younger one short and not spend enough time with her, even though she is still only preschool age.
    So, am working on finding more fun learning activities for her to engage in after her 20 mintues or so of “workbook” time…

  2. I agree with Tammy. You’re so great in this. I’ve never thought about the things you mentioned. When I was a kid, I hated to take a nap, though I ddidn’t mind to clean my stuff. I think those tips will work with this mother who emailed you.

    I hope you don’t mind if I put this entry’s link in my blog post. It’s Dealing with Difficult Kids.

    Thanks a lot for sharing these, Mary dear.

  3. I love the Q&A idea! Get ready for my list of Qs…
    I also love the “stations” idea! Though I don’t homeschool, my first grader comes home with homework every evening, and I like to sit down and work with her (hmmm…maybe I *should* homeschool!). At that point, my four- and two-year-olds suddenly NEED me at every turn (my undivided attention, that is). I usually have an activity planned for them, but I think it would really help to give them some choices.
    Again, she says, “Maybe I *should* be homeschooling”…

  4. I wish I could say I am consistent in this, but when I am, it really works. Managers of their Homes came up with this plan; you can be as rigid or as loose as you like, but the key is to plan your day in 30 minute increments. Just like Mary said, use a timer. You sketch out a plan for each of the kids. An example might be 9:00 a.m. – John: silent reading, Mary: flash cards, Laura: play blocks with Tom (a 4 y/o). Then at 9:30 – John: work w/mom, Mary: math, Laura: silent reading, Tom: Lego set.

    This takes some planning, and when I get lax (which besets me often), I really notice the difference. I REALLY struggle with keeping my house clean in the best of times, but this makes the biggest difference by far.

  5. Oh you are really good at this Mary!

    What wonderful ideas and so practical.

    Makes me almost wish mine were little so I could try them out 🙂

    Note the “almost”

    Every stage has its blessings 🙂

  6. Love the play stations idea. My two year old sits at the school table with her brother and wants to do it too.. SOmetimes I talk her through the books that he has finished, and most often I just color pictures with her as I help him. The hardest part is that this often distracts him from his work.

  7. What great advice. I need it. I have so many, many questions of my own. Mostly about motivating the homeschooling teenager. The kind who will never take the initiative on her own to do her work without constant “guidance”. If I didn’t direct her every move, she would never do anything.

  8. Would Managers of Their Homes work with non-homeschooling families? In other words, families who are out and about at various times throughout the day because of school/activities? I’ve heard good things about the program, but only from homeschoolers.

  9. These are some great ideas! My wife is homeschooling three – 10, 7, and 6; with the 3yo not far behind – while running our farm. I will definitely point her toward your blog.

  10. What wonderful advice. I have a few questions myself that I would love to share with other homeschool moms, mostly frustration questions. 🙂 I get very frustrated and stumped with my recently 10 year old boy, and trying to get him to focus on actually doing his work. He can sit for hours just staring off into space instead of doing the work. He is capable of the work, but won’t do it. Yesterday he had calculator work and we had and appointment. At one point we had to leave, I don’t always check the work right at the second he says it is done, He told me it was done, I planned to get to it when we got back. Things took longer, I forgot about the work not being checked. This morning I opened up his math book and it was not done. He worked on this work, for over and hour. Most of that time I spent next to him. At some point though I have to feed us all and can’t sit there all day long. At ten I would think to show how to do the work but after that and always being open to doing questions I woudl think he could do the actual work with out me there guiding him constantly. Maybe I am wrong.

    As for the younger child, I have worked with this myself, My youngest is 5. I always try to have activities for him. He is also in Kindergarten this year so I do some work iwht him, but after that he is allowed to play with toys, watch a 30 minute show or something in another room. I am lucky in that he enjoys listening ot all our read-aloud things. And I think the idea of stations is a great idea. I had never thought of the guiding him to pick up toys or you can take a nap. 🙂 Naps are not a favorite thing around here. I think cleaning up would be much preferred! I am glad you brought all this up and answered it. Thanks!

  11. Chinamama4, I don’t see why the concepts wouldn’t work for a non-homeschooling family…for example, the crazy time after school with homework, supper, etc. might be a good time to use the priniciples, also Saturdays, and summer. I think the program developed as a way to juggle multiple kids of different ages with different school tasks and limited mommy time, which explains why it is so popular with homeschoolers. I don’t really use it in the summertime, although now that you brought it up, I should! It does keep everyone from being “bored” and the messes that accompany boredom. I’m not sure you would need to go to the expense of buying the book (sorry, Maxwells!), just rough out a schedule yourself. The book just motivates you and gives you a template to use, but now I just make my own, anyway.

  12. Awesome question . . . and answer! I love the play stations idea! I thought I would share something that we have done. (I’m not homeschooling at the moment, but this has helped tremendously with the toy factor in general!) My grandma once mentioned that she used to have a toy rotation when her kids were young. I ran with it. We have four tubs that we store in the basement. One night after the kids were in bed, hubby and I went through ALL of the kids toys and divided them into those bins. We only get one bin out at a time, and we rotate bins every two or three months. It has been awesome. The week that we get a new bin out, it is like Christmas; the kids play and play with their “new” toys AND there are a limited number of toys that can be dumped out in one day! We’ve been doing this for almost two years, and here are a few things we’ve learned: certain toys, like our train set and lincoln logs, never get put away; each time I put away a bin I go through and sort out the toys they’ve outgrown and put those in a baby toys box; and it really doesn’t take long to swap bins, if the kids are already in the habit of picking toys up and putting them in the toy box.

  13. No advice being a relatively new dad, but I will say I’ve used quite a few of your tips, so I’ll jump on the bandwagon encouraging you to do the parenting Q&A.

  14. I am a mean Mommy. No meal until the house is to my standards. My little ones are 4, 3 and 2 and my house is picked up before lunch and again before dinner/Daddy coming home. Now, THEY HAVE tested me and ended up not eating until 8:15 pm. But the house was cleaned before they ate. Just like I said. Always call your bluff. They won’t let themselves starve. You must teach them to obey (especially if you’re planning several more as we are.). The rule is that they can get out WHATEVER THEY WANT, but they must pick it up before the next meal. This offers them freedom to choose their activity but teaches them forthought, “Do I really want to pick all this up later? Maybe I’ll just get the Legos out for now.” Works for me.

  15. Hello to a fellow Mom of twins! My boys are only 9 1/2 months, but already learning how to dump all the toys out everywhere and I enjoyed reading your advice on how to deal with it – I will keep this in mind in the future! Keep up the good writing! (I like your “I Am From” post , too… do you mind if I link to it from my own blog?)