Ultimately, I want my boys to grow up and know what it takes to keep a home tidy. I want them to know how to do the day-to-day tasks, like dishes, laundry and vacuuming, that we all do to keep our homes in order. I also want them to realize how easy it is for clutter to accumulate and realize that they have to periodically declutter so it doesn't take over their living space.
So, how do we teach our kids to clean? Here's what I think:
1. Children need to be encouraged to clean and pick up toys. Daily routines are great. Some families always pick up before dinner or before bedtime. The kids should be a part of the routine from a young age. Even toddlers can toss toys into a basket.
2. The number of toys should be at a manageable level. If a child has 50 million toys, he'll likely find a way to dump all 50 million on the floor throughout the day. That same child will not be able to pick them up. It's one thing to dump a multitude of toys out, it's quite another to look at the mess and make sense of it. I feel overwhelmed when I look at a big mess. A six-year-old child feels defeated.
3. Be a role model. Let your children see you cleaning and tidying. If you wait until they're asleep for the night before doing your chores, they're likely to think the house elves are taking care of things. If only that were true! This may be somewhat controversial, but I think that boys need to see their fathers pitching in at clean-up time, too. Boys identify with their dads. They want to do what dad does. If dad helps clean up at the end of the day, then a little boy will likely help, as well.
4. Don't be a critic. If your child wants to vacuum, let her. And, don't criticize her efforts. Don't re-do it in front of her. Don't minimize what she did. Maybe that means you have to learn to live with a less-than-perfectly vacuumed house until she learns how to perfect her technique. She'll learn. But, if you criticize, all she'll learn is that her efforts are never good enough, so why bother?
5. Don't demand perfection and enforce a strict cleaning schedule. Sure, kids need to pitch in and help clean the house, but don't be a Nazi about it. Nobody succeeds under that kind of pressure. You may get results while the kids are living under your roof, but are you really teaching life-time habits? I don't think so.
6. Require chores before fun. In our house, we have a rule that chores must be done before the video games get turned on. Depending on the age of the child, this means anywhere from one to three housekeeping chores are done each day. At least one of those chores involves picking up the toys in the living room on most days.
7. Break big cleaning tasks down into smaller tasks. How many kids are overwhelmed by the phrase "Go clean your room."? Is this a recurring fight in your house? It may be time to step back and look at what is being asked. Have you been clear about your expectations? If you need to, create a room cleaning check list for each of your kids. See my sample check lists for ideas.
8. Praise and reward. I'm not a huge fan of shouting "good job" every time my boys do things that are expected of them, but I don't have a problem with remembering to thank them for their efforts. I'll also offer a reward if the effort was a big one. For instance, if my oldest son were to give his bedroom a thorough spring cleaning, I'd likely take him out for ice cream. Showing appreciation is likely to teach them that your efforts are worth appreciation, as well. Saying thank you to your kids is nice, but when they thank you, it's priceless.
9. Have cleaning expectations. Some parents don't believe in giving their kids chores. The philosophy is that they are only kids once and they should enjoy it. While I do think that kids should enjoy their childhood, I also believe that we do a disservice to them when we don't expect them to help around the house. Children get a lot of pride from being helpful and learning they are capable. Give them a chance to be both.
I'm not suggesting that these techniques are going to make your children keep their bedrooms in tip top order. Nor will they stop trying to get out of doing chores. It's not about teaching them to be perfect. It's about teaching them to be responsible and how to take care of their living space. I think that's best done bit by bit.
But, what do I know. My oldest isn't quite 12. If I remember, I'll revisit this article when my kids are grown and report if any of this made a difference. The true test is whether or not they keep their homes clean as adults, right?