Saturday, April 23, 2011

Teaching Kids to Clean: BY AGE

When kids are really little:

*Whenever they want to help, LET THEM. NEVER SAY, "NO, you can't help me clean/cook/put this away, etc. ALWAYS SAY YES.
*When they're little, give them a wet rag and tell them to wipe the floor or the window and praise them for it! Be specific in your praise: You are such a good cleaner! Look at how clean that wall is! Great job!
*Example: Recently, Margaret has become obsessed with setting the table when I'm cooking. She gives everyone 3 forks and 2 knives. But she's 3 and they're in the right place. So, when she's not looking, or when she's "done" and has moved onto her next project (making some sort of mess) I quickly redo it. She doesn't see me do it, I don't correct her, because she's 3 and she's associating a positive feeling with helping, which is my goal.

When they're a little older, but still little kids:

*ONE THING AT A TIME. Start giving them specific, easy instructions.
Example, if I was asking Hugh (6) to set the table, I would tell him: "Put the fork on the left and the knife and spoon on the right side of the plate." And then I would praise him when he did it. If he didn't do it right, I would say "Oops, almost--try again!" No big deal. I would focus on one thing--the silverware, and not on anything else. One thing at one teaching time.

*Make sure it's a routine and make your expectations CLEAR. Again, my big cleaning day is Saturday morning, so it's really predictable for kids. Also, if they know that "their day" to clear the table is Sunday, or that they need to make their bed everyday, that predictability helps avoid surprise and any room for negotiation. I find myself saying, "Remember, you can't go to your friends until you do your Saturday jobs. . ." But it's A LOT easier when you have older kids doing their jobs because the little ones know that's just what we do and they want to be like the older kids anyway. That's when the teaching/following-up really pays off.

When they're older kids:

*I think by the time they're 10, they should be able to do everything you can do. (It isn't brain surgery) I think sometimes we think they're too young to scrub a toilet, but they're not. And if they have to clean it, then maybe they'll be a little more careful with their aim, if you know what I mean.

*Play up the "now that you're older. . . " thing. Kids like to feel older, and sometimes that manifests itself in horrible ways like sequin tattooed looking tank tops, so use this principle to your advantage. Give them these jobs along with a privilege like a later bedtime or more computer time. Something that doesn't put you out, but that means something to your kid. When you put these two things together, they start connecting responsibility with a positive reinforcement.

*Remember that it's never too late to start.
Example: I have missed two great teaching tools for my kids which I plan on rectifying this summer, by teaching my older three (8, 11, and 13): laundry and ironing. I'm waiting so I can teach them all at the same time and let them try it on their own when we have a full day to go through all the steps from cleaning-drying-to ironing. I'm hoping this will help them see that you can wear jeans more than one day, and not to wear 3 pairs of socks a day (what?)

Teenagers and beyond:

My oldest turns 13 on Monday, so I don't have a lot of expertise in this area. But here's what I plan on doing (which I totally admit might not work and will need adjustment):

*Stay consistent. I'm just not going to give up on everyone having 2 jobs to complete each week. I'm not unreasonable, but I'm not going to let up on it. For example, I'm not going to let them off the hook when Saturday mornings become busy. They can do their jobs Friday night, Saturday afternoon if something like a practice or rehearsal comes up, but it will be their responsibility to make it up.

*Bribery. I expect that as my kids get older, they'll just want more increasingly expensive things and I plan on bribing them, which I've noticed teenagers respond to.

*Practicing being an adult. If I've learned one thing from 80's John Hughes' teen movies is the idea that teens want to be taken seriously, like adults. I plan on keeping the idea that cleaning and taking care of their stuff is part of family life and what adults do. Whether it's preparing to live on their own, on a mission with a companion, or at school, whatever, I will explain and reexplain WHY I clean (it helps me relax and saves me time in the long run) and then I will show them episodes of Hoarders: Buried Alive and let that soak in.

Other things to keep in mind when teaching kids to clean:

*Don't be afraid to change your routine or what you're doing. A lot of people think, "Well, my kids aren't used to this and they're teenagers so there's no way they'll go along with it. . . " I definitely think it's harder to start any habit the older you get, but it's not impossible. Basically, as it is for most mothering things, it will be harder FOR YOU. The older the kid, the more rechecking and accountability they need. Or incentive. But if you stick with it (give it 3 months--I'm not kidding) and reward yourself (I'm currently obsessed with Yogurtland), you can do it!


  1. I thought of this today when Lucy and Lane were wiping down wooden tables with a wet paper towel and dusting the couch.

    Here's an idea. I will offer you room and board AND a personal tour of the best places to eat in NY if you come and personally implement these strategies in my home. AND $20 to buy whatever you want from a street food cart. (Good plan, eh?)

  2. Doing her own laundry quickly put an end to Maggie's numerous daily outfit changes. Having only 3 pairs of pants keeps Sam humble.

  3. Perfect! Thanks for this post, Lisa! This is just what I needed to know! :)

  4. where were you when i needed you?
    why couldn't my sisters be like you?

  5. I just love these posts. Thanks for the ideas!

  6. These ideas are really helpful. Thanks!

  7. I just wanted to say that I am LOVING all this advice. You are right, cleaning is a learned skill. Because I didn't grow up in a clean home I never really learned what it takes to maintain one. This is why I also love to hear about other people's routines and what works for them.
    My kids are five, three, and 10 months old so I basically am still pretty much the only one who ever cleans- but I am going to take your advice and start having a set 'chore time' and give them small jobs that they can do.
    Thanks so much!

  8. You are one smart mom. I've only got one little baby now- but these teaching tidbits have been printed and stored in my homemade parenting book. Bravo!

  9. Can I just tell you? This series on cleaning gave me hope in a dark time. School is out tomorrow and lessons. (Starting slowly.) My daughters shall scrub toilets, my son shall sweep floors. (The baby can continue to freeload.) We'll all work hard so we can all play. Thank you for sharing this!

  10. So glad you shared your blog, Lisa. My grown-up son taught me (as he helped his own children learn to work) that you can always praise the effort if their abilities don't quite measure up yet. For example, "You are such a hard worker." "You really know how to stay with a task." "You are good at trying and trying again." "You are so diligent."