Mom’s ‘Mystery Item’ Hack Can Make Kids Clean Up Scattered Toys Without Whining

Mom’s ‘Mystery Item’ Hack Can Make Kids Clean Up Scattered Toys Without Whining
(Courtesy of Molly Robinson)

Legos are sprinkled across the carpet, a puzzle sits half-constructed on the table, and there is a jumble of dolls and toy trucks claiming space all over the sofa. Could this be your living room?

For many parents who are in the throes of raising active, playful, and curious children, this is a common scene. But how to clean it all up, and fast?

Molly Robinson, a Utah mother of four children ranging in ages from 1 to 8 years, shares a fun tip that works for her, every time. She picks a “mystery item,” keeps it in mind, and then has her kids put away all of the toys that are scattered about without telling them which toy she has chosen. After everything is cleaned and in its proper place, the child who happens to have picked up the mystery toy and put it in the correct spot wins a prize.

The result: a whirlwind of little cleaning hands in an eager scramble to help everything find its place.

(Courtesy of <a href="">Molly Robinson</a>)
(Courtesy of Molly Robinson)

Robinson, who began using the method when her oldest son was 4 years old, says, “It’s always worked.” Not to diminish simple obedience, Robinson explains why she thinks the method works so well.

“It’s a game. It makes it fun,” she said. “I feel like kids and just people naturally are a little competitive, and so, of course, they want to be the one that wins.”

The only problem, she added, is that there is always the probability of some tears being shed. While Robinson gives only a small prize to the winner, something akin to a little piece of candy, it’s no surprise when there are a few tears from whoever did not snag the mystery toy. Robinson usually has to warn her kids ahead of time that only one person will win the prize.

The busy mom says with a chuckle that it’s “kind of a life lesson—you’re not always going to win.”

Molly Robinson with her husband and children. (Courtesy of <a href="">Molly Robinson</a>)
Molly Robinson with her husband and children. (Courtesy of Molly Robinson)

The idea for Robinson’s cleanup game was hatched during her time studying education. The mother of four went to college for elementary education, but as her own children began to arrive, she never actually worked teaching full time.

During an extended substitution-teaching gig, she tried the “mystery student” method with her students in the school hallway, picking one of the students and rewarding the child if they were quiet through the halls at the end of the game. Robinson says many teachers do something like this to make cleaning or other tasks fun for students.

As Robinson’s own children got older, she struggled at times with whining or distraction when she asked her kids to clean up. She began to employ the mystery toy method to salvage some of her own sanity.

With an online presence where Robinson sometimes shares various “mom tidbits” on Instagram, she recently posted a video of the cleaning “hack” and was surprised by the favorable reaction she received from it. Many mothers wrote back in response—some had positive and some had negative results. The game is not a perfect fit for all families, and as every child and family is different, there is no guarantee that the hack will work for everyone.

Although Robinson cannot guarantee the cleaning hack, she sings the praises of positive reinforcement. Whether in the classroom or in the home, she has seen the benefits of commending children for a job well done, and the contagion that comes along with it. If a child sees that positive attention is given for good work or effort, Robinson says it will usually inspire the child toward the same action.

“Instead of paying attention to the naughty behavior, you’re going to have a better reaction if you pay attention to the good behavior,” she said.

And, in the end, whether the living room is sparkling clean or still littered with toys, Robinson says that if your kids know that they are loved, you’re doing a good job as a mom.

“There are so many things that you can go wrong in a day. But as long as they know that you love ‘em, I think you can call that a win,” said the mom.

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E.S. Armstrong is a writer with degrees in social sciences and linguistics. She writes human interest and inspiring stories that highlight hope, faith, resilience, and true grit.
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