Back when I was growing up, our home was always clean. I don’t mean tidy. I mean practically white-glove-test-clean. Some used to call my mother “The White Tornado.” She’d just shrug and laugh it off. The thing is, though, I don’t recall ever seeing her spend endless days cleaning. In fact, most days in the summertime we were all up (all five kids and 2 parents), dressed, the grill and a massive lunch spread packed, and out of the house heading for the ocean by 6 am–leaving behind a spotless home to come back to. So what was her trick? How did she do it? She didn’t. We all did. All seven of us. Kids and cleaning — old fashioned methods that work.
I remember it fondly, actually. There were times during every day and also every Saturday morning when the music would go on–nice and loud. Sometimes John Denver’s Country Roads. Or maybe Engelbert Humperdinck. Or Sonny & Cher. It was always something peppy and happy. Mom or Dad would put an album on and everyone would gather around to get their assignment. Then off we’d all rush to get our chores done. It was a family event. It was truly fun. We’d all be scrambling around doing our thing. Mom and Dad would be puttering from room to room supervising, helping and guiding where necessary. And it was finished quickly because we stayed on top of it all the time.
It wasn’t drudgery. And we didn’t feel like our parents were mean to make us clean. It was just something that everyone did back then. We knew it needed to be done, so we did it and then carried on with our day. Oh yes. I can remember that feeling when it was finished and the whole house smelled so fresh and then mom would tell us we could now go out to play. It was a race to the door!
Compare that to today. You can walk into almost any home with young children and find empty toilet paper tubes with piles of toilet paper on the floor beneath them, piles of stuffed animals, play forts at every turn, mountains of tiny-clothes laundry piles and Legos virtually everywhere. TV’s are blaring a constant stream of kid videos while little faces run–screeching– from iPad to one stack of toys to another. The children are typically over stimulated and cranky. And so is mom. She’s doing all she can, yet everything just seems to get worse as the day goes on.
What’s going on? And how do we get back to the way it used to be when good old-fashioned parenting prevailed?
Today we are going to talk about ways to get back there. We’ll learn to teach kids how to clean up after themselves and to contribute as a meaningful member of the household community–at any age.
When I talk about my cleaning story, the first thing that should really stand out is that our family cleaned as a team. When we were younger, this was key. A sense of community made all the difference, and to me the “community” aspect is probably the most important reason to teach these skills to our children. When you are focused on teaching children how to clean, you are actually teaching them how to live within society–how to contribute. How to fit in. How to feel like an important part of a working whole. Everyone needs to feel like they belong somewhere and that they are needed. Giving a child a legitimate role within the family helps fill that need. But what’s considered too young to begin?
You can begin to teach a child how to clean up after themselves starting as young as 12 months, but most people start getting serious about it at around age 3.
In a report by CBS they said that:
Marty Rossman, associate professor of family education at the University of Minnesota, finds that the best predictor of a child’s success — defined as not using drugs, quality relationships, finishing education and getting started in a career — is that they began helping with chores at age three or four.
And we agree.
If you’ve not started yet and your children are older, it’s never too late. Just begin today, and stay consistent, and you’ll have them busily sorting and stacking, folding and wiping, sweeping and bed-making in no time.
There are some basic rules to follow no matter what the age. We’ll go over the basics and then I’ll break it down and describe how each of those rules fits into the different age brackets along with some age-specific tips, because one size does not fit all here. Every age is different. Every kid is different. But the basic ways of teaching are always the same. Here they are:
- Start Small.
- Make it fun.
- Chunk it down.
- Give options.
- Work as a team.
- Make it non-negotiable.
- Never let them hear you complain.
- Be okay with “good enough.”
Ages 1-3 Toddlers
Start small and start young. That’s the best-case-scenario. But how do you do it? With toddlers it’s all about mixing fun and games with a regimented schedule of tidying up. I highly recommend for all young children that there be designated clean up times throughout the day. In our home our clean up times–complete with the singing of the Clean up! Clean up! Everybody everywhere! song were before nap time, before lunch, before daddy got home, and before bedtime.
I also highly recommend limiting the number of available toys. Oh don’t fret. Think back. We didn’t have very many toys at all when we were young. We didn’t need them. We played outside and we used our imaginations. We played games together where we got up and moved our bodies, not just our thumbs. We were happy. We were never overweight. We were never under or over stimulated. Life was great back then–without all the clutter and distraction.
Having too many toys scattered around creates over-stimulated and cranky toddlers. Limiting and rotating toys every few weeks keeps your toddler interested and calmer. Go into old-fashioned mode here. Sort down to 5-6 toys at a time at the most, and rotate them every week or two weeks. That’s more than enough.
Once you’ve gotten those two things in place, it’s time to start teaching the skills of cleaning. The toddler years are interesting because you will notice your child going through different developmental stages. There will be the “line everything up in rows” stage. There will be the “sort everything by color” stage. And there will be the “put everything in one giant pile” stage, amongst others.
The most logical thing to teach first is how to pick up toys and put them away. Some children learn this by watching you demonstrate. Some will need you to physically hold their hands while you scoop up a toy and place it into a box or bin. Try to make this fun. Cheer like the dickens after the toy drops in. Clap. Dance in circles. Make a huge deal out of it. Then teach that this super fun activity is going to happen at each of your designated “clean up times” throughout the day.
One mom I know sets an alarm and when the kids hear the alarm they all jump up, mom puts on some music, and everyone claps and sings and cleans up. It takes approximately 1-2 minutes. She makes a fun game out of it. Everyone participates. No exceptions. No grumbling. No crying.
If your toddler is at the sorting stage, you can also play into that and have clean up time include sorting the toys into bins by color. Or sort the toys into bins by type of toy. (Let him decide.) Work as a team and cheer loudly when he gets his sort choices right.
She likes lining things up? How about you make it her designated clean up time chore to line up all the toys on the shelves. Let her choose the order, just so long as they are all on the shelves or in the bins.
See a pattern here? Do small things, give them choices, make it fun, make it non-negotiable, and work as a team. And even if it’s not how you would have chosen to sort or stack or line up the toys, be okay with the job they do as long as the toys are off the floor and put in the general vicinity of where you would like them. Be flexible. You are not just cleaning. You are teaching life-long skills.
Other things you can work on after they’ve mastered picking up toys:
- dusting the lower portions of furniture
- throwing rubbish in the trashcan
- bring dirty clothes to the laundry area
- help mom mix when baking
- help mom wash the plastic dishes
- help with the sweeping
When my grandson was two, I used to give him a spray bottle filled only with water and a rag so that he could help me dust the furniture. He would spend an hour or more spraying and wiping the coffee table. This also gave me time to get some other items done while he was content and happy. If I needed to clean the bathroom, I had him spray and wipe the cabinet faces with his water while I worked on the rest. It’s a great (harmless) way to buy some time while teaching those valuable skills.
Experiment and try what works. One thing I would try to avoid is assigning cleaning as punishment. You never want to attach a negative feeling toward something they are going to have to do for the rest of their lives.
If your toddler has made a mess, they do need to clean it, but if your toddler colored the walls, for example, frame it in an “Ut oh! Let’s fix that mistake!” And work together to clean the mess. You can talk about why mommy and daddy and sister and brother don’t write on walls while you do it, so that they learn.
Ages 4-5 Pre-schoolers and Kindergarteners
Kids at this age are in a funny transitional stage. They still like to do things like “big boys and girls” but they are starting to really figure out that they may dislike cleaning because they have to stop playing to get it done. So it’s especially important that you be aware of number 7 all the time. Never let them hear you complain about having to clean. Ever. Hopefully you’ve learned to find some joy in the day-to-day routines of your tasks. If not, perhaps a refresher read of this prior post will help.
Always speak of cleaning as part of the responsibility of living within a family or community. “It’s time to set the dinner table so everyone can finally eat after this busy day!” or “Let’s get these dishes cleaned up so we can keep everyone healthy and have them ready for breakfast.” (Talk to them about germs and why dishes need to be washed.) “It’s time for everyone to make our beds so we can keep our home clean and sanitary!” (Explain what sanitary means.) Or maybe “Woah. Look at these toys scattered everywhere. Let’s do a quick clean up time so nobody gets hurt!” Use the opportunity to talk about all kinds of community service and volunteerism too, if you’d wish. The little ones soak this type of information up, and if they can see how what they are doing is part of a bigger picture, then they are more likely to do it willingly. Kids like to know “why” and not just be told what to do. Actually adults like to know the same thing. I suppose that makes sense, right?
If you introduced cleaning up after themselves starting at a young age, this is all habit already and you just need to introduce new chores as they get older. But if you’ve never been good at enforcing the duties of chores before , you will need to start right away and be prepared to be patient, consistent, and persistent.
I suggest you start small–by first having a conversation with them about how they are big enough now to begin to work as part of the family team. Tell them how proud you are of them for growing so big and strong and smart and how excited you are to include them in the team. Then tell them a few of the things that you think they are ready to help with. Here are some suggestions:
- Pick up toys
- make beds (keep bedding super. Maybe even just a single comforter.)
- feed pets
- set the table
- dust furniture
- empty the silverware tray from the dishwasher
Let them know that “we are going to start with picking up toys” and then ask which other item from the list they would like to try as well. (Give choices.) After they’ve chosen one, you will need to now be very specific as to when and how to do each chore. You will have to demonstrate and reinforce. In the beginning, children can become easily overwhelmed. You should be there to help chunk down the job. If there are a lot of toys out, help them sort into piles and then guide them on how to put them away. Then check the work, being prepared to accept “good enough”. Then Praise! Praise! Praise! Make a big deal out of telling Daddy how much of a great job they did today.
Practice makes perfect, so stick to your non-negotiable clean up times. Elizabeth Pantley, author of parenting books including Kid Cooperation: How to Stop Yelling, Nagging, and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate, (I’ve provided a link direct to our amazon affiliate site) says if your kids aren’t expected to regularly follow through, they might start putting chores off in the hope that someone else will do them for them. Don’t fall into that trap. Stay consistent.
It’s ideal if everyone in the home at clean up time helps clean so that the community aspect is reinforced. Put on some fun music. Make it a cheerful event. And then be sure to admire everyone’s work when you are done.
By now the routine of cleaning up is established and the designated clean up times are likely reduced to before school chores and after school chores. (If cleaning up is not yet established in your home, refer to introductory techniques in the age 4-5 section. ) You can begin now, to build on the solid foundation of group or team work clean up times by introducing very individualized chores. And even though these are typically before and after school, it is still very important to keep the community aspect to them. In other words, even though the child is doing his or her own chore in a less supervised atmosphere, you should still try, if possible, to have everyone doing chores at the same time and you should still be going room to room to check in and guide. You don’t want them to feel alone in their endeavor and you want to make sure that the chores are getting done in a timely manner.
This age range is also a good time to switch all basic bedroom tidy up entirely to your child. You will still need to chunk it down into one-step-at-a-time instructions for him so that he doesn’t get overwhelmed or discouraged, but this can be done with a picture guide tacked to the inside of a closet door. Take a picture of his made bed. Then a picture of sorted piles of toys, clean clothes, dirty clothes, books, and trash. Then a picture of a broom (or vacuum). He will know to first clear off and make his bed. Then sort and put the piles away where they belong. Then sweep or vacuum. I’ve always found picture charts far more effective than chore charts that get ignored after the first week.
You can also add in other small chores like these:
- folding clothes
- feeding and walking pets
- setting the table
- clearing the table
- gathering trash from around the house
- matching socks (we used to do a race with this to see who could match the most in 2 minutes)
- dusting furniture
Occasionally ask your child if there is a chore she’d like to try. Always try to give options wherever you can.
Ages 10 – 12
The busier they get, the more important those chores are going to be. In our home, if someone wanted to go do a sleep-over, chores had to be done first. Sometimes that meant doing them the night before so that they could leave right from school the next day. Whatever the case, they needed to get done first.
If your child participates in sports or other outside activities, be sure they are aware that those activities are privileges that they get BECAUSE they stay on top of their responsibilities at home and at school. Again, reinforce the community aspects of the chore list and be clear that privileges will go away should those responsibilities be neglected.
Kids in this age range can do all of the basics of picking up after themselves and their bedrooms plus things like this:
- rake leaves, weed, or shovel snow
- wash the car
- help with meal prep
- load/unload the dishwasher
- empty the dryer and fold clothes
- changing bed sheets
This is also the age where the subject of giving allowances begins to really show up. That will be an individual decision you will have to make. We never gave allowances in our home to kids in this age bracket because, as I’ve said all along, we presented cleaning up as part of an individual’s responsibility to the family unit. People don’t get paid for being responsible. That’s just good citizenship. You will need to make your own decisions for how to handle this topic.
By the time I was 13 I was babysitting for most of my neighborhood and almost never home. I started paying for my own clothing and other needs by the time I was 15. How you will negotiate the chores with your teens will depend entirely upon the activity and maturity level of each of your children individually. As they reach different levels of maturity, it’s your job to focus on the fact that you are no longer raising children. You are preparing young adults for real life. Therefore, it’s important to introduce a wide variety of adult chores such as:
- sewing and mending
- sorting and washing laundry
- planning and cooking meals
- washing walls and floors
- running small errands (I remember the first time my mother sent me to pay a bill. I was terrified and then thrilled and proud once I’d done it!)
- mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, spreading mulch
- washing and detailing the car
- changing the oil in the car (with supervision)
- changing a flat tire (with supervision)
- scrubbing the tub/shower and toilet
Again, allowances are up to you. We didn’t give allowances for regularly scheduled chores, but around age 16 we did start leaving lists of optional chores for pay. This gave the girls an opportunity to earn money for things they wanted to buy and do, and it helped me immeasurably since by then I was also a foster care provider to pregnant teens or teen mothers. We had a house full of girls and just one bathroom. Ohhhh…I remember it well. I don’t know how Mr. C survived it. <snicker>
I think the last thing to discuss would be chore charts. I tried them. They never really worked for us, but everyone had a very good idea of what was expected and we almost always cleaned as a team, so they weren’t really needed in our home. If they are something you want to try, we’ve posted some great chore chart pins on our “old-fashioned parenting” board. You can find us on Pinterest here.