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Are you teaching kids to clean? Keep these tips in mind

Teaching kids to clean seems daunting. Where do you start? The task takes twice as long when we have to teach and do at the same time. It’s so much easier to just do it ourselves! But, the long-term benefits of teaching kids to clean outweigh the short-term challenges. If we want our teaching to be effective, though, we need to keep the following tips in mind.

Make sure the chore is age-appropriate

Keep it simple for little kids

When the 2-year-old colors on the wall and the 5-year-old spills milk all over the floor, we want to scream! I know I wished I could speed up the process of teaching kids to clean. I thought, if only he knew how to rub the crayon off the paint, if only she could mop up the milk. Obviously, they can learn to help in small ways, but we can’t expect a great job. They simply aren’t physically strong enough nor coordinated enough to do certain household cleaning chores. But, a child aged 2 or 3 can fold washcloths, put away toys, and collect small bag of garbage from bathrooms and bedrooms.

Expect older children to clean the whole house

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This little book from Christine Fields goes into much more detail about what children can do at each age. And, while we sometimes expect too much from small children, we often don’t expect enough from older children. My four children are all over age 12 now and by that age, they know how to do nearly every chore in the house and they keep my house clean. (Hey, it gets dirty mostly because of their activities, so….) Some children may not be strong enough to do a good job mopping, scrubbing the tub, or pushing a vacuum around, but they need to prove to me that they physically cannot do it at all. I feel chores are a natural form of exercise, so they’ve never gotten out of doing chores for that reason. I acknowledge, though, that their best won’t equal my best and I accept a “best I could do” from them.

Be Specific

Did your mom tell you to “clean your room” and when you went upstairs, you stuffed all the toys on the floor into your closet or under your bed? I remember when my parents “taught” me to clean. My mom told me, “Clean the bathroom.” I guess she assumed I knew what that meant, and I wiped off the counter and the sink, declaring it clean. I didn’t understand why she grew angry and frustrated when she looked at my clean bathroom! She never told me about the toilet, the tub, the tile, the floor, and the mirror!

Break the chore into action steps

We need to be specific when we are teaching kids to clean. We can’t say, “Clean your room” unless we have already taught them what we mean by that. Define what a clean room is. Break down what needs to happen. Say things like,

  • Pick up all the garbage and put it in this can.
  • Collect all your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper.
  • Sort out your toys.
  • Put each type of toy in its bin. (All the blocks in one bin, all the dolls and doll clothes in another bin, etc.)
  • Pull the sheets off your bed and put them in the hamper.

After they understand the steps and memory takes over, then you can say, “Clean your room.”

pink and green broom

Use the 4-Step Learning-Teaching Cycle

To enjoy success teaching kids to clean, I advocate using the learning-teaching cycle. So, in addition to checking for age-appropriateness and using specific language, try this four step cycle. I talk extensively about using this model with unmotivated kids in my course.  I know that this can be time consuming, but trust me, the payoff is worth it. Invest the time now so you can reclaim it later and your child learns lessons he will take with him for life.

Step 1: Watch me do the chore.

When you determine that your child is capable of doing that chore, start teaching her by inviting her to watch you do it. For example, let’s say you are teaching your kid to clean the bathtub. Show your child where to find the appropriate supplies and then take her into the bathroom. (I like to use natural cleaners that are safe for children to breath and use. I especially like essential oils. My favorite all-time essential oil for cleaning is Purify.)  Then, explain the steps to her as you do it. You might say things like, “scrub up and down. Don’t forget the tile! Rinse like this.” Don’t just show her once and expect her to remember! Show her a few times. Then, move on to the next step.

Step 2: Now we do the chore together.

Using the same example, it’s now her turn to do the chore with you. Maybe she puts the scrubbing powder on the brush and starts scrubbing. Then, you take over for the next step. Continue talking about what you are doing and start asking her questions about what comes next. Generally, as confidence grows, she wants to do more and more herself.

Step 3: I watch you do the chore.

At this point, she does the entire job herself with you watching. When she hesitates about what to do next or skips a step, you ask questions and correct her. You assess whether she can do an acceptable job on her own without you watching her. When you feel confident in her ability to do the chore unsupervised, you move on to the final step.

Step 4: You do it alone.

The triumph of teaching kids to clean is a household of children who can all do chores well without supervision. Obviously, that is the goal. Unfortunately, the necessary investment of time sometimes makes us resort to just doing it ourselves. Don’t make that mistake! It is easier to do it yourself. It does take a while for your investment in teaching kids to clean to bear fruit. But, if you avoid doing it, you might end up with a bunch of entitled kids who don’t learn to help others!

Offer Choices

In this post, I discuss creative ways to allow some choice in getting chores done. Choices encourage motivation and ownership of the work. Children often prefer some chores over others and find them enjoyable to do. Imagine that, children thinking chores are fun! Having a system of rotating chores also ensures that everyone gets a chance to do every chore that they are old enough to do. This makes sure that mastery occurs. And, if two children like the same chore, each of them gets his first choice at least some of the time.

The Allowance Question

Some families tie children’s allowances to chores. Some families do not do this and others don’t give allowances at all. When teaching kids to clean, it can be a powerful motivator to do a good job. It also mimics our economy in that we get paid based on the quality of our work. Kids may be willing to do more chores and put in more effort if they are paid.

However, using an allowance in this way can also backfire. It depends on the values you are trying to teach. Do you see chores as a means to teach kids about work or as a necessary duty as part of a family? Maybe the answer is both. If you offer an allowance contingent on chores, will your child help you when you aren’t offering a monetary reward?

Maybe try not giving an allowance at all for awhile and see what happens.

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