Written and provided by our Family Advocate Jenna Harvey-Reed
I am a neat freak by nature. As a child I would clean up for fun, making my bed without being asked, organizing my clothes each season, and doing whatever work around the house I thought should be done. Even though my husband is also a tidy guy, none of our four girls seem to have inherited this interest in cleanliness or excitement over organization. Not. Even.One. These days our best efforts can be undone in mere moments when the kids get into a room. Over the years we’ve tried many ways to get kids to pick up after themselves. Below are our most tried and true approaches.
1) Make personal responsibility non-negotiable: As a former single working mom of two, I adopted the notion early on that my kids should do as much for themselves as they could manage. After all, I was pulling all the grown up responsibility and there are only so many hours in the day. That meant toddlers cleaned up toys and put their dishes in the sink. Grade schoolers were expected to keep their school supplies in place, make their own lunches, and handle their own washer/dryer on weekly laundromat trips. They don’t always want to do these things, but I’m glad to offer them the chance to tell me who else should take it on for them. I serve my children in many ways, but cleaning up their messes while they move on to make new ones is not one of them.
2) Take regular cleanup breaks: During the summer and on weekends, the kids have more time to laze about, open up board games, or generally live around the house without a lot of concern for where they leave things behind. When my husband or I walk into a room to find it looking like a bomb went off, we’ll yell out “Take 5!” That means everyone in the house spends five minutes cleaning up: bringing dishes to the sink, putting away toys, folding blankets, and turning off unnecessary lights. If it’s near you, handle it. We used to post a sign at every light switch, but they were quickly ignored. With a family of 6, five combined minutes of tidying up equals a half an hour of one person’s efforts.
3) Use charts or posted instructions: Our girls do dinner chores every night. From setting the table to sweeping, there are 6 tasks total, to be split evenly. The chores are always the same, the instructions are posted up, and the rule is “first come, first serve”. They are responsible only for their portion, and the quality is checked at random by a parent. Having a chart posted removes nagging or explanations, and giving them a space to mark what they did allows us to see the right person if it isn’t done right. We’ve also been able to end all discussions about these chores by referring them back to the chart.
4) Seize excitement: For whatever reason, my kids couldn’t wait to be able to clean toilets when they were younger. Given how disgusting I find the chore to be, I held off on assigning it to them. When I finally let a third grader learn the “skill” she was beaming with big girl pride over potty-duty. Now that they’re middle schoolers, their excitement over poop has worn down, but now we’re on to bigger and better like mowing lawns and cooking dinner.
5) Have catch-all bins: We keep a plastic tote on the main floor so that if something is left out of place with no child around to claim it, we stash it there. If a child comes looking for the thing, they can have it- as long as they put everything else of theirs in that bin away first. Imagine my excitement when the bin is full and a DS is left in the living room! This establishes to them that all of their belongings should be well maintained, not just the flashy or favorite things.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found a thing to say “who’s is this?”. And have a child say “oh, I don’t want that anymore.” As if they’ve relinquished their responsibility for it, and set it free. Because of this, we also keep “Yard sale” totes on each floor. If you don’t want it, place it here. Our summer kick off tradition is a Memorial Day weekend yard sale, and totes make the work of finding goods to sell easy while hiding our junk.
6) Bring less in: The best way to beat clutter is to keep it out in the first place. Our three tweens now have less interest in cheap plastic toys (finally!), and as parents we’ve changed the types of gifts we give on holidays and birthdays. We try to focus on experiences (like dates alone with parents) and spaces (this Christmas the big girls we renovated the basement as a “tween dream-land”). This approach means less eventual junk, and less to tidy. They also tend to value the spaces and experiences more on the whole.
7) Pay with praise and thanks: We don’t pay our kids for chores. We tried it once and a child said “No thanks, I don’t need any money.” That was the end of that. While they don’t make bank for chores, we try to praise them well for times when they work without complaining, do an especially thorough job, or on the rare occasion that they start tidying without being asked. Statements like “Wow, this room looks great!” or “Oh, thanks for clearing this counter, it really saved me time.” works wonders on a kid’s motivation. Even though we mostly only assign jobs we see as their responsibility, we also value that they contribute at all. They certainly have friends who do no chores or those who do get paid for them, and yet they still do the work around here with minimal resistance. I believe part of that comes from the pride they take in a job well done, and I see it when they they let their sisters know how much we liked their work.
8) Lower your standards: My kids are by and large incapable of meeting my standards of cleanliness. We’ve established that they don’t have an internal drive to make things neat, and beyond that they just aren’t as skilled. Their role as children is to learn, so I expect that they’ll miss a spot here or there. If it seems like a rush job or a willful attempt to not do the work, they’ll get called back. Otherwise, I tend to quietly correct the issue and appreciate that these kids step up everyday to make our home the kind I’m comfortable living in (even though they’d be glad to live in squalor).