Toy Jail

My four year old has a terrible time “remembering” to pick up after herself. Our rule is, when you’re done playing with or using something, it needs to be put away. Her practice, however, is when she’s done playing with or using something, drop it and find something else to drop, etc. Being as though I’m very pregnant and can only bend over so far to pick things up these days–and want to have teachable moments over enabling bad habits–I decided we should try a new approach.

The first attempt I made was to instill a dreaded consequence. “From now on, when I see a toy on the floor that isn’t picked up, I’m going to throw away.” Her response was immediate and matter-of-fact, “Well if you do something bad like that, you will go to jail.” I could see I wasn’t going to get very far in the way of threats.

My second attempt was to (speaking of jail) try to create a toy jail. If I saw something not picked up, it would go to toy jail and she would have to do a “responsible chore” to bail the toy out. The responsible chores consisted of making her bed (as best as a four year old can), not complaining at nap time, eating all of lunch, etc. It worked! For one day. One day. The next time I saw something that needed to go to toy jail I said, “Oh no! It looks like your toy is going to go to toy jail!” her response was, “Well, what will I have to do to get it out?” I reminded her of the responsible chores. She stood, contemplated, then came back with, “Well it’s okay if it goes to toy jail. I don’t like it that much, anyway.” I thought that wasn’t such a bad deal, because we could thin out our abundant inventory of toys. However, that has become her signature response to toys being taken to toy jail. I lost what I was after: instilling responsibility and accountability. I instead discovered a bargainer who would rather part with a toy she had just played with than do something to earn it back.

I now have a stockpile of toy prisoners who apparently will be better off in another home. Additionally, however, I also have a toddler who would rather relinquish responsibility than exercise it. This is a struggle for me as her mother, trying to train her up with a heart to serve God, rather than mimic learned behaviors.

I know we have too much “stuff” and I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to get friends and family on board with giving gifts more meaningful than just another toy that will be forgotten or not cared for. On one hand, I can see this toy jail as an efficient de-cluttering mechanism. However, the clutter is second priority. The real priority is teaching my daughter gracious obedience, and responsibility. Toys aren’t the prize of life. Jesus is.

Maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on the method for teaching and not enough on the lesson itself. If she’s okay not being surrounded by toys, then maybe I should just get on board with that and help her downsize her inventory. I can try to focus energy on other tactics to teach being responsible and honoring Mommy and Daddy (all of which honor God). I want to train her heart in the way of the Lord, not just teach her a behavior she can mimic without understanding any purposeful application.

What are some of the techniques you’ve adopted to encourage listening skills and willing cooperation from your littles?

Copyright © Val Kleppen, Moms of Faith®, All Rights Reserved

Toy Jail

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