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11 ways to teach young kids the value of cleaning up — and get them to do it willingly

Kids who start doing chores early are more likely to have relationship, academic and career success. Here's how to get them to pitch in without putting up a fight.
Doing the Dishes
Rather than sending your child off to the lonely world of cleaning up on their own, make it a family affair.Catherine Falls / Getty Images

Children love to make a mess, but cleaning? Usually not so much, and too often, the onus of tidying up falls on mom or dad, with a survey from ClosetMaid finding that the average parent has to pick up after their kid 28 times a week — while half of parents do their kids chores for them to ensure they’re done right.

Tidying up after your child — when they’re perfectly capable of doing it themselves — is problematic on a few levels. One, it’s creating more work for you. Two, it’s sending the message on an extremely literal level, that they can’t clean up their own mess and/or that they needn’t bother as someone else will do it for them.

Dr. Tamar Chansky, psychologist and author of several books including “Freeing Your Child from Anxiety” points to a study published by the University of Minnesota, which found that giving children household chores at an early age “helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance.” The study, which followed over 80 children throughout their life, found that kids who started doing chores early (at about age 3 or 4) were more likely to have good relationships with friends and family, as well as academic success and eventually success in their careers when compared with those who didn’t have chores as young kids.

Just as young children need to learn the value of money; they need to learn the value of cleaning. Here’s 12 ways to teach them why cleaning matters not just to get them to do it willingly on a regular basis (though, that’s a definite plus), but throughout their life.

Toddlers may not be able to clean, but they can still help

The aforementioned study notes that children who start to clean as young as age three were best positioned later in life. That sounds awfully young. What three year-old has the attention span and cognitive ability to really clean? Few, if any — but they can still help, and as Sonja Meehan, a professional organizer, owner of Simply Thriving Organization and the mother of two boys points out, toddlers usually really want to be involved in any activity, tidying up included.

“Take advantage of this and help them form good habits while they're still such enthusiastic workers,” Meehan says. “Find ways that they can participate in doing chores — sorting socks, dusting low surfaces, pushing the buttons on the washing machine, picking up toys, etc.”

Banish the concept of cleaning as punishment

How many times as a child was I sent to clean the yard or scrub the kitchen floor as a form of punishment? Too many times to count. My mother may have meant well (and it certainly got the job done at the time), but this method doesn’t bode well if you would like your child to actually want to clean.

The better message to send to kids is that cleaning “is not a punishment or a chore, it’s a ticket to other things being possible,” says Chansky. “If you are negative and talk about what kids ‘have to do’ in a grumpy manner, kids will be grumpy right back.”

Communicate why cleaning is important on a strictly hygienic level

Britta Gidican, a corporate communications professional in Seattle, found that helping her child connect the dots on how a messy home can lead to bigger problems got him interested in cleaning.

“I explain to [my six-year-old son] how germs travel, bugs lay webs/nests in messes, etc.” Gidican says, noting that she started doing this when he was around three years old. “That has seemed to do the trick in illustrating the ‘why’ behind our need to clean so he now understands and even goes further to explain it to others. [If] he sees someone leave dirty clothes on the floor or not clean up their dishes he will lecture them about how it's messy and needs to be tidy.”

Give them options

Part of what can make chores feel punishing is when you have no say in what they are or how you’ll deal with them. So give young kids some choice in the process.

“You can let your child choose their preferred chore within the parameters you set: you can do blocks or clothes — which would you like?” says Chansky. “Your child can also choose the thing they like to do: shredding mail, watering plants, setting the table — they will get a sense of ownership for their ‘domain’.”

Keep it small and realistic (this is helpful for adults, too!)

“Why do adults even want to run away screaming from household tasks?” asks Chansky. “It’s overwhelming. Counteract that ‘everything is a mess and everything needs to be cleaned up’ with realistic expectations: identify a few small tasks (or, when it comes to kids — even just one task) and get them done. Then you and your kids will have a sense of accomplishment rather than dread when it comes to cleaning.”

Make it a family affair

“Rather than sending your child off to the lonely world of cleaning up on their own, do it together,” says Chansky. “Establish ‘clean sweep’ times, where a family member sets 10 minutes on the clock and everyone does their magic and can all reap the benefits together.”

You might want to enhance this sense of community and purpose by letting your little ones know that if they help with cleaning, they’re creating “more time that [you as] parents are free to play with them,” Chansky adds.

Use a timer to “race” your kids in clean ups

Gidican has also found that setting a timer when her son cleans effectively taps into his competitive spirit.

“The idea to use a timer came to us when my son started racing his dad for every little thing, eating faster, coloring faster, getting dressed faster, etc.” says Gidican. “From there we started setting timers on other stuff like tidying up to get him to do it and have fun with it. He's a super competitive kid, so it worked out nicely. It's benefited our family by avoiding tantrums and meltdowns about cleaning.”

Sherri Curley, a home organizer, organizing motivator and speaker at The Practical Sort Eco-Organizing Solutions, recommends using the app Time Timer for a “clear visual of ticking time,” along with the app Habitica “for silly, gamifying task tackling.”

Have your child factor clean up time into play dates

Is your kid having company this weekend? Make sure she knows that the end of the play session will be devoted to tidying up toys and any other messes made. This may sound a bit punitive — but really it’s just teaching kids that a mess they make is theirs to clean up if they can, and that doing tidying with a friend can help get the job done faster and more enjoyably.

“Before playdates begin and end, create an expectation of cleanliness,” says Curley. “Ensure the standard is met before a friend is invited or arrives. About 20 minutes prior to the playdate ending, let the kids know to begin cleaning up. They could either choose to do it together, or your child can go it alone afterward. They will likely enjoy the assistance as it is faster and more fun to clean up with a friend.”

Implement ‘Grandma’s Rule’

You’ve probably heard of the old school discipline tactic “Grandma’s Rule,” more formally known as the Premack Principle. Here’s a refresher, courtesy of Chansky:

“Grandma says no dessert until after you finish your dinner.”

Grandma’s Rule is handy when teaching kids to make a habit of cleaning, and Chansky recommends having “clean sweeps” timed before play time or another activity that kids are looking forward to. Foe example: “We are going to the movies at 3; Let’s figure out our clean sweeps to do before,” she says.

Note: You can apply Grandma’s Rule to something as routine as time with electronics, Curley suggests, as in “You can use your iPad once we get this kitchen cleaned up.”

Make allowance dependent on housework — along with bonuses and fees

Money isn’t free in the adult world and there’s a strong argument that it shouldn’t be free in a child’s world, either. Once a child understands how to clean and why it matters, parents might want to start making their allowance dependent on whether they’ve completed their chores. It needn’t be quite so simple as “if you do your chores, you get your weekly $10,” or whatever the amount may be. Consider the method of Leta Seletzky, a writer and mother in Walnut Creek, California, who treats her two eldest sons’ (ages nine and 12) housework much like a boss would treat real work — replete with taxes, fees and bonuses.

“I began giving them a small allowance [in 2017], in exchange for their fulfillment of certain basic duties, including keeping their room reasonably clean and making sure their dirty clothes wound up in the hamper,” Seletzky says. “When it came to behaviors I wanted to discourage, like leaving empty food wrappers on the countertops, I imposed what I facetiously called ‘taxes, penalties, and fees’ — [and] deducted a small amount from their allowance for each infraction. I also gave bonuses for extra tasks like helping me hose off the deck.”

Seletzky has found that making housework a business affair has not only helped get the kids in line with cleaning up, it’s helped them better manage their money and time and “model good habits for [our] two-year-old; he sees the rest of the family cleaning, and he wants to help, too.”

Inspire your kids to declutter by letting them pick a charity

The ClosetMaid study we mentioned earlier found that kids have an average of 59 toys, and that to help downsize, about 75 percent of parents admit to secretly getting rid of toys. The intention here might be good, but it’s a bit like gaslighting your kids. A better way to declutter your kids’ room is to invite them in on the process and help them get passionate about it by enlisting them to pick a charity to donate to.

“Before my kids and I declutter toys and books, we choose a charity where our donations will go. It makes it real when you know who will receive your item,” says Ali Wenzke, author of “The Art of Happy Moving: How to Declutter, Pack, and Start Over While Maintaining Your Sanity and Finding Happiness”. “For example, a local charity was collecting party supplies for kids in foster care who had never had a birthday party before. When you know that donating your Elmo or Transformer banners will create an unforgettable birthday party for another child, it's easy to say goodbye.”


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