In some ways, it’s easier to let your children be slobs and do all of the cleaning yourself. That way, you can fluff your pillows exactly the way you want them fluffed, avoid getting cut by a butter knife when you reach into the place where you keep your spoons, and you’ll never have to worry about Play-Doh in the washing machine. The only problem is, this would make you the woman of a very tidy house…but the mother of children who are slovenly. If you can deal with some unevenly made beds, it’s a much better plan to teach kids to get their hands dirty by cleaning up themselves.
Here are 10 tips for turning kids into mini neat-freaks…or at least mini non-slobs!
- Start early. In preschool, teachers belt out, “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere, clean up, clean up, everybody do your share!” when it’s time to move from the blocks to story time. There’s no reason why you can’t encourage even small toddlers to pick up their toys when they are done with one activity and ready for the next.
- Coach, don’t correct. Instill confidence in your child by encouraging his cleaning efforts and offering some cheerful guidance to perfect his methods. Do not be hypercritical, though. Try: “Great job cleaning up your toys! I see one red item that isn’t where it’s supposed to be…can you guess where it is?”
- Friendly reminder: don’t nag! Doing a task is one thing—remembering to do it without a reminder is another. If your kindergartner forgets to clear his place setting, don’t read him the riot act. A cheerful, “Oops, looks like you forgot something!” will go further than a nagging, “How many times do I have to tell you….” (And for what it’s worth, many otherwise conscientious adults also forget to clear the table!)
- Use cleaning products with kid-safe ingredients. You’ll be less inclined to worry about your kids getting too close to the mop bucket if it’s filled with Method Hard Floor Cleaner, which is completely non-toxic. My kids love anything that sprays or squirts, and I feel OK handing them The Clean Collection’s all-purpose cleaner and telling them to pretend it’s a water gun to attack the grime on the kitchen table; like Method, everything this brand sells is made from safe, plant-based ingredients.
- Choose age-appropriate tasks. Toddlers and preschoolers can tidy their own toys and do simple things like match socks. School-age children can make their beds, dust, help gather up dirty clothes for the laundry, set the table and help with meals and empty the dishwasher. Kids 10 and older can do nearly anything you can do (wash floors, vacuum, scrub the shower stall, etc.) if they are mature and responsible—as long as you’re not over-burdening them. Speaking of which…
- …don’t be unreasonable. A few minutes of cleaning is plenty to a child, and if you make tidying a regular part of her routine, she’ll get the point. Expecting her to spend an extensive amount of time scrubbing or straightening or whatever it is you want her to do likely will backfire. Keep it light, quick—and whenever possible, fun. If you’re expecting a significant time commitment from an older child, you’re going to need to make it worth her while, which is why I believe we need to….
- …reward chores. In my house, keeping your personal space relatively neat is a responsibility of everyone who lives in the house, but activities that are more difficult and benefit the family as a whole are “chores” that come with a monetary reward. Folding laundry, reorganizing the pantry and doing a sink full of dirty dishes have helped fund my fifth grader’s extensive Pokemon card collection. We keep track whenever he helps out and every time he’s done 7, he gets a payout of $5. If you’d rather keep money out of the equation, you can use a rewards chart and offer small gifts, stickers or candy instead.
- Make cleaning a group activity that must be accomplished before the fun starts. You probably don’t let your kids play or watch television until after they’ve finished their homework. Before a family outing, take 10 minutes and have every family member pitch in to tidy up. If everyone is doing their share at the same time, it’s hard for kids to grumble that they’d rather be doing something else.
- Focus on the positive. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve exclaimed, “This house is a mess!” plenty of times. But I find I garner much more cooperation when I say things like, “Oooh, let’s make the pantry really neat so we can find all of our yummy snacks faster.” (And then theatrically grab a can of vegetables and exclaim, “Look, this was blocking the brownie mix!”) What wouldn’t a child do for easier access to brownie mix?
- Forget about perfection. When your 2nd grader makes the bed, don’t be surprised if the fitted sheet is left out of the equation. Instead, be thrilled that you have a 2nd grader who makes the bed!
Jorie Mark is Vitacost.com’s Director of Marketing Communications and mom to three kids, ages 3 to 10.