It goes without saying that all parents struggle with getting kids to clean up after themselves. I thought I had it all worked out in the beginning; label boxes, show them where to put their toys, sing the clean up song, do it together, etc. etc. My patience was stretched to the limit with this one and I often asked myself, "What am I doing wrong?"
One day as I was once again showing the children how to clean up their toys by putting them in appropriate labeled boxes I became exasperated and said, "Look, I don't care what box you put them in, just get them
off the floor when you're done playing with them!" I then proceeded to scoop up what seemed like a thousand little plastic toy figurines, Lego's and other bits of craziness and dumped it all into a big bin. My 4 year old son looked up at me with big wide eyes and said, "But why do we have to do that Mommy? We like them on the floor because we can find them easier for the next time." His 3 year old sister was nodding her head in agreement.
Can you see me pulling my hair out?! Why can't they understand the value of being clean, tidy and organized? I'm not the most organized person myself, but I do admire those who are. I feel better in a clean house so why don't my children? I wracked my brain to answer these questions and find the way to appeal to their common sense. Unfortunately, a child's common sense is different from an adults, that's why they need our help to learn & grow.
Let me preface this next part by saying that some children are naturally by personality more prone to keeping things clean and tidy, and some are the opposite. Also, although the goal is to learn before 10, you will most likely need to keep reinforcing this lesson until they leave home. In the end I found that there are 6 methods that worked well for me:
- Simple explanations: "We pick up toys so people wont hurt their feet." (No discussion)
- Break it down into smaller tasks when they're young.
- Praise each attempt at keeping anything clean and tidy.
- Let them "help you" with daily chores when they are very young (2 to 4), and as they get older assign tasks that they have mastered as "their job", but also ask them to help with other tasks.
- Don't segregate tasks by gender!
- Model the behavior & attitude you want your kids to have.
#5 - Gender association happens even if you don't intend for it to. Naturally, little girls want to be like their mom, and little boys want to be like their dad; nothing wrong with that. If dad does dishes and vacuums then it's more likely your boys won't mind learning those tasks as well. If boys & girls grow up seeing that mom does all the housework and dad does all the yard work, they will most likely imitate this behavior unless you actively train & encourage them (or pay them) to learn the other tasks. A home will run more smoothly and easily if everyone can pitch in without much gender bias. If your son can learn to do his laundry, wash dishes and clean the bathroom he'll be better prepared for living on his own, and his future wife will thank you. Your daughter will also be inclined to find a better companion if she expects a man to be able to take care of himself, and she doesn't feel like she "needs" a man to take care of her. That doesn't mean we can't help each other, on the contrary, we can understand how to help others better the more self-sufficient we are.
#4 - It's often easier to do a job yourself than to teach or allow someone less capable to do it. However, as a parent it's our job to teach and allow our kids to keep trying. When children are very young they like to imitate their parents, so take advantage of this time period by helping them to develop good habits. Make it a natural part of your day, "It's floor sweeping time" and give them their own child sized tools. Let them sit on a stool and play with the bubbles in the sink while they learn to wash the dishes, even if it takes 2 hours and you have to redo a few dishes afterward. Enjoying cleaning tasks will help them develop a positive mindset toward cleaning in general.
#3 - It's too easy to be overwhelmed by the "big problem" and overlook the small efforts that were made toward solving the problem. Young children are small so their efforts will be small at first. Give them positive feedback like, "I love the way you've made your dresser top look so tidy & beautiful." Even if the rest of the room is a mess, the positive encouragement will spur them on to do more in the future. "You've done a great job dusting those shelves, now the whole living room looks better."
#2 - Because children are small and immature they will get overwhelmed by adult sized tasks. Teach a 4 year old how to clean the sink, not the whole bathroom. My 9 year old daughter once asked her father for help with cleaning her bedroom. He gave her some very good advise that she still uses today in her college dorm. He told her to divide the room into quarters and clean up one quarter each day. By doing that continuously she managed to start keeping her room clean most of the time.
#1 - With children of all ages simple and short explanations sink in and stick the best. Don't give them the opportunity to argue or philosophically discuss alternatives when there is a simple reason. "Washing hands helps stop the spread of germs", it's simple, matter of fact, unarguable. "Too much dust can cause allergies." "Bugs and rodents will move in if we don't keep the kitchen floor clean." It might help you as the parent to think up your unarguable reasons ahead of time so you can keep your cool and state them without any emotion. Appeal to their logical mind.
I hope some of these tidbits of experience have given you some helpful ideas. Please leave a comment letting other readers know how you've helped your children learn the value of cleanliness.