Getting kids to clean up after themselves can be quite a battle. They’re really good at making messes, but when we ask them to clean up, they look at us like we’ve just spoken Swahili. Trust me, they’re not trying to be annoying. They really are confused about how to go about it and they definitely don’t like to be told what to do or forced to do something that’s no fun.
So how can you help your child learn to pick up her toys or put his clothes in the hamper? I’ve got 7 secrets to getting kids to clean up that will completely change the dynamics and turn clean up into a fun time to be had by all.
But there is a catch. Secret #1 was one of the most challenging transformations I’ve ever experienced. You’re ahead of the game if this one is easy for you…
1) Clean up joyfully yourself
Enjoying cleaning tasks has not been easy for me, but when I realized that I was grumbling every time I had to vacuum, hated to sweep, and despised dusting, I knew that something needed to change.
First of all, I was making myself miserable over tasks that would need to be done and revisited every week for the rest of my life. And secondly, how could I expect my child to clean up joyfully if I couldn’t do that myself?
So, I read, “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh and I decided to see cleaning tasks as a sort of daily meditation. I was determined to enjoy myself. And now I do genuinely enjoy cleaning. Some days are easier than others, but if you struggle with this, take it from me, you CAN change your mindset about cleaning. And once you do, getting your kids to join you will be much easier.
2) Invite, don’t force
Nobody likes to be forced to do anything. And the sooner we recognize that children are exactly the same as adults in this regard, the sooner we’ll come up with more effective strategies to help kids want to clean up.
Imagine you’re over at a friends house and she hands you a towel and says, “You used the dishes, so now you have to dry the dishes.” Not very compelling is it?
But what if your friend said, “Would you please help me dry these dishes? I really like to get them put away right after the meal whenever possible. Do you mind?” Now you’re jumping up and pitching in, right? It pretty much always feels better to be asked and invited than to be told and forced. Want them to put their dirty clothes in the hamper? Try asking nicely! You’ll be shocked at how cooperative your kids can be when they’re invited to step up.
3) A place for everything and everything in it’s place
I know, I know, it’s a total cliché. But the thing is, this really works well for kids. When a child knows exactly where to put the puzzle, it’s far more likely to make it back to the shelf.
In fact, for kids, I find that shelves work really well. Arranging their toys and activities so that they can be easily seen, accessed, and then put away can drastically increase the harmony in your home. Here’s a photo of our “work shelves” and bookshelf where Julia can find a wide variety of books and activities and put them away independently. And since we’ve been working on this skill since she could walk, it’s just second nature to her now to put things back when she’s finished with them.
4) Create a consistent routine with clearly defined steps
So how did we make it second nature? We were consistent. We have a rule that we only get out one or two things at a time and we clean those up before we choose new work. At two and a half, my daughter still needs some reminders, but it’s not a power struggle, I simply remind her that she has work out and tell her that I’ll hold on to the new activity while she cleans up the old one.
And since she knows exactly where her work belongs, she’s empowered to clean up quickly and get to the next item she’d like to explore.
But what if you haven’t established such a strict rule about how many items can be out at a time? Then you need to create a clear step by step guide for your child about exactly how to clean up a big mess.
For example, if you tell a child to “clean your room,” you get that blank stare. But if you say, “Here’s a basket, first pick up everything off the floor and either put it away or put it into this basket. Next find a place for each item in the basket. After that, make the bed. Don’t know how to make the bed? I’ll show you and we can do it together. Next, use this duster to clean the dust off of your dresser and nightstand. Last, use the carpet sweeper or vacuum to clean the floor. And then you’re done!”
After a few times of going through this routine with your child, he’ll remember the steps and won’t need as much help or supervision.
5) Make it a game
Whenever I encounter my own resistance to cleaning, I try to make it more fun by putting on some music I enjoy. This works with kids too, you can have a cleaning dance party. But sometimes even a simple game like counting the items as you put them into a basket can be enough to encourage a young child to pitch in.
If simple counting isn’t working anymore, try a more complex game like, I Spy or wind up your little cleaning robot. The more creative you can be with this the better. Because children love to play, so when cleaning up is clearly the most fun to be had, they’ll definitely want to join you.
Another great strategt is to simply hand them an item and “forget” where it goes. Kids love to remind you of things you’ve forgotten and once the item is in their hands, it’s much easier for them to realize what to do next.
6) Be a leader
If your child just doesn’t seem to want to help out, then it’s your job to model joyful cleaning, enjoy yourself immensely and continue to invite them to play with you in creative ways. This only works if you actually enjoy cleaning, but if you can get there, then you can get the ball rolling, sit back and watch the magic happen.
Afterward, be sure to admire your work with your kids. “Wow, the living room looks so tidy! Thank you so much for all your hard work.”
And if they missed a spot when they were dusting, don’t get overly critical, that will just diminish their enthusiasm the next time. You can point out ways to improve if you’re feeling happy and enjoying yourself, but if you’re feeling even slightly annoyed by your child’s inability to be precise during cleaning tasks, keep your mouth shut and fix the problem yourself when they’re out of the room.
Remember, the most important part is that they enjoy themselves and that they’re willing to help out.
7) Provide them with tools that fit their bodies
Kids love to be just like adults and when we offer them cleaning tools that fit their small bodies, they rejoice in their ability to contribute to the household. A small broom, dustpan, mop, and duster are a good place to start. Access to rags, towels, a trashcan they can use, and a demonstration of how to do each task (as well as clear boundaries for how we don’t use these items) can invite even the most hesitant beginner cleaner to jump in and give it a try.
Good luck and I can’t wait to hear how it goes!
Please leave me a comment below.
And have a wonderful day, Shelly