Monday, July 5, 2010

Children Who Help Keep Things Clean?

The Question:

Okay, Jane. 

You have dazzled me with your wisdom and parenting expertise so far, so I come to you with a conundrum of epic proportions.  Are you ready?  Here it is....
How do I get my children (9, 7, 6, 4) to pick up after themselves so that I don't continue living my life as the resident maid for the next 20 years?  It's not that I don't try to get them involved in cleaning--they do have chores to do, and normally do them well (when rewards are attached). BUT the fact that they can step over the same pile of junk 150 TIMES without batting an eye at it is starting to spin this relatively sane mother into a frustrated, overwhelmed ranter who loses it just a bit more often than she'd like to admit.


The Answer:
Dear Jonesy,
Oh for a simple answer to this question.  I think it's a battle that never ends while children are in the house.  I discovered that I had a level--beneath which I could no longer function.  In other words, I had a level of chaos that I could accept.  But when we dipped below that level, things ground to a halt.  So I feel your pain and I'll share just a couple of ideas.
I established a morning routine with the goal that by 10:00 or so, our house was clean.  Like your family, everyone had jobs to do.  During the school year, those jobs were done before school.  The key to making this happen is you.  You have to be up and moving through the house keeping everyone on task.  Beds should be made, laundry sorted, rooms cleaned and other jobs done.  This daily "putting the house in order" shows children how to do it and what the finished product should look like.  If they get used to disarray--days of seeing everything in disorder--they will accept that environment. 
Maintaining a clean house is another matter.  It is a never-ending process to teach children to pick up after themselves.  You have to be very engaged while they are young teaching them to put away one activity before they begin another one--teaching them to clean up after themselves as they go.  It isn't natural for them.  I've noticed that some very fastidious mothers tend to have children with that same characteristic.  I don't think it's genetic.  I think it's learned.  The children simply learn that nothing can be left out ever.  As for me, I'm not great at it myself so I don't really expect it from m kids.  As I mentioned, I can live with a certain level of chaos for a few hours.  I can spread a school project all over the living room, cook in the kitchen and let the toddlers have a free for all for a while.  But I can't let things go like that all day or for days on end.  When the project is finished, I rally the troops and we all clean up the whole house.  We might do it a couple of times a day.  "OK, everybody stop.  We're going to clean the  house before lunch...before Dad gets home...just before bed."  By clean, I don't mean Saturday deep clean--just put everything in its place.  When my children were young, we'd often move from room to room cleaning together--me barking orders while the kids ran to put things away.  I used a timer or some other little gimmick.  Now we can each take a room or two and have the house picked up in about 10 minutes.
What doesn't work is this.  Mom watches tv or blogs or reads and keeps saying, "You kids get that room cleaned up...Isn't that room clean yet?...What's going on in there?"  Mom has to be engaged in the process to ensure quality control and to teach organization.  Mom establishes the level of order and continually enforces it.  She provides a place for everything.  She doesn't fill her children's lives with mountains of things to take care of.  She keeps it simple.  She limits the number of shirts and shoes and toys her children have to deal with so that their lives are manageable and then she helps them manage.

When my son Peter was about four, I set up a little table for him near the computer.  I put a small desk organizer on it with just the right number of art supplies and put a shoe box on it for his finished works of art.  He loved that simple little place and I was amazed how orderly he kept it.  I think it was because I thought it through and made it manageable for him.  We can take the time as moms to think through the trouble areas in our kids lives and pare them down to simple and manageable.  Then model the tidy behavior we're after.  They really will accept our level.
I hope these ideas have been helpful.  I know you've heard this a hundred times, but the day will come--sooner than you think--when the house will stay clean all day.  Everything will stay right in it's place.  It will be way too quiet.  And you'll enjoy that for about a week before you start missing the flurry of activity and life that is a family.  Enjoy it now.
All my love,


  1. I like the idea of paring things down to ensure manageability and simplicity.

  2. We recently cut our childrens toys in half. Then we halved them again. Most of what they had was cheap junk from well-meaning grandparents. Now we set a number on the number of toys they can own. It's fantastic! The kids rooms stay relatively clean (5 & 2 yr old). I cannot agree enough to limit toys and have a specified place for them.

  3. You somehow manage to inspire me with every post. Thanks so much for the bit about there being a point of messiness that you can tolerate. I like that. It makes it seem that if I don't reach a perfectly clean house (I hate cleaning by the way) Its not going to be the end of my world.

  4. We grew up with a 'monster bag'. Every time our toys would get out of control, my mom would give us 10 minutes to clean them up. After 10 minutes, we had to come in the living room and the monster bag would eat any toys that were left, and then he wouldn't 'expell' them for a week. LOL

    When my kids' toys get out of hand, I take a different approach. I tell the kids we are going to clean them out, and I have them help me so that they can feel like they're still in control. Over the years, we have gone from an entire bedroom of mess that I didn't really care about down to 1 big bucket.

    The rule was that if the lid couldn't fit on the bucket, we had to get rid of more toys until it did. They were totally fine with this concept. That bucket now sits in the utility closet, and the kids would rather play board games than try to dig the bucket out. It's fantastic.

  5. My policy is you have a set amount of space for any item. I have X number of hangers and if I have too many shirts for them, it's time to get rid of some shirts. We have 2 bookcases and any more books is too many. Same with my daughter's toys and clothes. If they don't fit neatly in the dresser/toy box, then it's time to clean them out.

    I'm not at all good at cleaning up as I go. It's something I do every couple days. But when I do, I try to do like Jane says. My daughter comes with me and helps out. She's 2, so she can't do much. But she can put things in the garbage, and take the dishes out of the dishwasher. (I appreciate not having to bend over, since I feel like I'm about to pop with number 2.) She knows where books and toys go. And I use "please" and "thank you" a LOT. Please put this in the garbage, thank you for the fork, etc. She's a lot more willing to help this way. Growing up, it was always, "Go clean the bathroom." I hated being bossed around and it made me rebellious.


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