Getting Kids To Clean Up: How To Motivate & Direct Your Pint-Sized Help

motivating kids to pick up

Since we’re talking about delegation and division of household labor this week, I thought I’d republish one of my favorite posts about motivating kids to clean up! Enjoy. 

We all know kids make a lot of mess. But if yours are old enough to hold a broom or put a toy in a basket, they’re old enough to take some of the work off your plate. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get them to clean up after themselves or join in when you need a hand, but with some effort and patience, you really can get your children to pitch in and make your job easier. Here are some of my best tips for getting kids to clean up and help out around the house:

1. Start ’em early

The younger you get the kids on board with helping out, the better: they should grow up used to the idea that keeping the house clean is the entire family’s responsibility. Give little ones age-appropriate tasks. For example, whenever we do a cleaning spree of the main floor, Clara, 5, gets the job of putting shoes and boots in pairs and lining them up neatly at the door. Hey, with seven family members, we have a lot of footwear! Even little ones can pick up toys and put them away or “wash” dishes.

2. Break a large job down into specific tasks

It’s not enough to tell a child “clean up your room.” Most of them need help breaking down a big job into smaller chunks and putting them in order. When Will and Owen clean their rooms, I’ll usually have one of them pick up all the Lego while the other picks up all the action figures, and so on. When one job is finished they come to me for another assignment.

3. Invest training time

If you want something done right, you’re going to have to do a lot of supervising. It took me a good three months of daily training to get my oldest boys to the point where they could do the dishes and laundry correctly–and once in a while they will still occasionally try to get away with sticking a plate in the dishwasher with crusty melted cheese stuck to it.

Lesson learned: Don’t expect kids to do a job adequately without a lot of up-front help from Mom or Dad, and even then, expect backsliding and slacking off from time to time. If there are certain tasks you need to have done a certain way, don’t delegate those. For example, I clean the bathrooms myself because it’s worth it to me to have it done “right.”

4. Stick to a system

If your kids know that every single night one washes and the other puts away, it becomes a predictable routine and they really will stop complaining…eventually. Mix things up for a few days or give them a break and just watch them act amazed and confused next time you ask them to do something.

Kids do best when they know exactly what’s expected of them, and moms are happiest when they don’t have to repeat themselves over and over. Don’t make delegating hard on yourself: come up with a simple, predictable routine that’s easy for kids to remember and easy for you to oversee.

5. Model a no-nonsense, prompt approach to pick-up

Once upon a time my approach to mess was drama, followed by procrastination. If something spilled, I first over-reacted: “Gahhhhhh crayons on the floor? Arrrrrghhhh ughhhh meh life with kids so messy grumble grumble stupid crayons arg bleh grumble.” Then, I would avoid cleaning the mess for hours, feeling like I needed time and space to gather my energy before I could deal with it.

Guess what? It turns out walking past a mess half a dozen times doesn’t make you any more motivated to clean it up. The opposite, in fact. And I realized I was being a horrible model for my kids, initially in making every mess out to be a tragedy, and then by teaching them to avoid things instead of face them head-on.

I’ve done a complete 180 in that regard, and now try to deal with any mess the instant it’s made, cheerfully and matter-of-factly, instead of piling on the drama and procrastination. And you know? As it turns out, messes are….just not that big a deal.

I’m not saying I’m always perfect at this–the temptation to over-react and then run in the other direction is strong–but I’m always a lot happier when I just take care of the mess quickly and with as little fuss as possible.

Do you struggle with getting your kids to help out around the house? Or do you have some great tips to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

*image by George Cruikshank, LIFE magazine, 1938

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