A chicken may have just solved 95 % of the Toddler Problems in our house.
Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either.
You see, once we finally got past that stage where the kids were throwing hour-long tantrums about things like not wanting a glass of water then being enraged about not having one, most of our hassles involved three main issues:
Not Focusing on Any Activity for More than 30 Seconds
“Momma, I want to play with the crayons and coloring books!”
“Okay, but if I get them down, you need to play with them for a while.”
“Okay, I will!”
I heave the art boxes and crayons down from high shelves, open all the boxes, lay out coloring books, paper, and start separating crayons into piles for Brontë and Bridget.
And thirty seconds later, they both scream: “DONE!”
Now, just picture that scenario happening again and again with Legos, scooters, blocks, tea sets or what-have-you, and you’ll get a rough picture of how I spend my day. Since the children won’t entertain themselves for any length of time, it’s hard to do anything else without kids tripping over my feet throughout the process.
It’s draining, I worry about their lack of focus, and sometimes consider pushing them outside then locking the back door for an hour.
For their own good.
Leaving Toys All Over the House
To a non-parent, this probably doesn’t sound like a huge deal because toddlers are little. How many toys could they have? How big of a mess could they possibly make?
Well, it’s staggering, folks.
People love to spoil kids on holiday and whenever the mood strikes them, so my kids are constantly getting toys from us and every grandparent, relative, friend and Happy Meal. They build up.
And, like miniature bag ladies, my girls are driven to carry as many toys as they can pack into their tiny fists every time they leave a room, or really, move in any direction for any reason, before dropping them to chase the next shiny object. Since they don’t sustain activities for more than a couple of minutes, toy bits quickly seep into nook and crevice of our house and yard.
I don’t know if it’s some secret toddler scheme to conquer every last inch of adult territory, but you’ll find yourself stepping on Legos everywhere you walk and crunching Barbie limbs anytime you sit. Doll shoes and plastic animals fly out of my bedspread whenever I straighten it. As much as I try to weed them out, the toys just keep regenerating, like I’m using a sieve to dump water out of my capsizing rowboat.
But beyond the overwhelming mess, it’s also a waste of money. Toys keep getting lost, stepped on or eaten by the dog.
Not Cleaning Up After Themselves
Teaching kids to pick up after themselves would seem like the obvious solution, right?
Yeah, to me too. So, I’ve been working on that for the past two years and man, has it been a haul…
At first, they’d whine and shriek about needing me to help them, but would just goof off whenever I did.
So I stopped, making them do it themselves. This turned ten-minute jobs into two-hour grinds of them putting one Lego block in their mouth then slowly rolling across the floor to spit it into the box, whenever they weren’t angrily throwing it.
I would grit my teeth and sit through it, not wanting to reward them by relieving the pressure and hoping they’d eventually get bored of taking forever to pick things up because doing anything else would obviously be more fun.
After many months of this, we reached a point where they would actually pick things up, however slowly and begrudgingly. It took about 600 time-outs to get there, because rational explanations had no effect.
Then, when I was finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, our routine suddenly devolved into the Passive-Agressive Olympics. Neither kid wanted to be the patsy who ended up doing most the work, so they’d both fold their arms and spout off long rants about refusing to pick up toys until the other one put in more effort.
At some point during the second year of this, I’d tried every angle I could think up that didn’t involve spanking the crap out of my kids (though I was beginning to understand why some parents do). I even tried the “I have cookie for the best cleaner!” method, which wasn’t nearly as effective (for me) as you would think.
Enter the Chicken
So last week, when I was complaining about all this to my daycare-running neighbor, she casually mentioned that she sometimes sets a timer during activities.
Hmm. Worth a try, right? I figured it probably wouldn’t work, since nothing else had, but it couldn’t hurt.
So later that afternoon, when the kids started bugging me for crayons, I decided to give it a shot. We have a kitchen timer, shaped like a chicken, that the kids are really fond of.
I got the art supplies, slapped down the chicken, and told them:
“Okay, here are the rules:
- I’m setting this chicken timer for 30 minutes. You have to color for the entire time.
- You have to color at the art table, because that’s where we color. So, no getting up and leaving the table.
- When the chicken timer is up, you clean up the art supplies.”
And then I backed away to watch.
SAT AT THE ART TABLE COLORING FOR THIRTY MINUTES.
They did NOT leave the table
When the timer went off, they started shouting, “CLEAN UP TIME!” and scrambled to pick up all their toys, without stopping once, then slapped the lids back on the boxes.
Was it a fluke? I tried again with Legos, this time for forty minutes, during which they couldn’t leave the Lego area (which happens to be the living room).
And it WORKED!
They played with Legos for a full FORTY minutes before scrambling to pick them all up without whining about it once.
I went on to use this method a few times a day for an entire week, and it worked every time.
I got so much done. I even had space to knock out lower-priority projects, like reorganizing cabinets (which doesn’t sound that exciting but nevertheless marks the moment when adult order returned to our house).
I’m still not sure why this particular combination was effective, since I’d tried every element of it before (apart from the chicken timer), but it was miraculous. Something about timer + play-area limits + cleaning up when the timer goes off = MAGIC.
And I had to share it, in case it helps other struggling parents.