Parenting has many different facets that all work together to, one day, create a competent and functioning adult. One job that parents must teach their children is how to clean up after themselves—their toys, their books, their clothes, their space. Yet this seemingly easy part of parenting turns into a near-daily battle in many households. As much as we want our kids to learn to clean up after themselves, getting them to actually do it is another story. The younger your kids are as you start teaching them, the better, as creating habits is key to creating behaviors that will serve your children well throughout their lives.
Model the Behavior You Want
Do you clean up after yourself and take care of your things? Do you clear dishes to the sink or dishwasher, hang clothes or place them in the hamper, do you sort mail immediately? Do you put things where they belong and wipe up messes right away? Do you complain while doing it, or do you do these chores quickly and right away? If you do not do these things, your kids will see that this is OK—and they will resent any double standard in the home. If you do not do these things, it’s time to start creating new habits for yourself.
A Place for Everything
It is a lot easier to put things away when there is a place for those things to go. Does your child have a place for his or her books? A laundry hamper and small wastebasket in the bedroom? Are there dedicated spaces for shoes, library books, and legos? Anyone (adults included) is much more likely to put things away when it is easy to do and the items will be easy to find.
Break Down Big Jobs
Whether your kids are toddlers or tweens, the dreaded “Clean your room!” can be overwhelming. A toddler cannot quite fathom what that means, and a tween or even a teen can easily become overwhelmed. If you break down the job for them—verbally or on paper for older kids—they can accomplish the task in parts. “Clear your desk”, “Pick up the legos”, “put your clothes where they belong”, “put the books away” can all be steps in getting their room or playspace clean.
Make it Fun!
When kids are young, anything can be fun. Teach them how to clean up by working along side them—when putting away clothes, making the bed, sorting legos or books. You might play some fun music and make a dance party or funny walk show out of cleanup time. If your child likes racing, race to finish a mini-job—your child can race you, or race a timer.
Stick to a Schedule
Creating and sticking to a schedule can make habits, which can make cleaning easier for everyone. You might require everyone to bring all dirty dishes, glasses, cups, etc, to the dishwasher or sink before dinner. Beds may need to be stripped every Saturday morning for laundry, or library books collected every Monday for return. If kids learn what to expect when they are young, the schedule will become second nature. Depending on the ages of your kids, you might include them in discussing scheduled items—sports practices, school schedules, and in-home music lessons all might affect what days do or do not work for laundry, vacuuming, library runs, and other chores.
As kids get older—and especially as tweens turn into teens—you will get more pushback. They know how to clean up their room, but they want to assert their independence over their own space and over your rules. This is a normal part of growing up. You will have to be more flexible, but there should be basic health and safety rules. Food, dishes, and cups need to be cleaned daily, as they can attract ants and rodents and be dangerous for cats, dogs, and other pets. The floor must be vacuumed regularly for the same reasons. Sheets and clothes need to be washed regularly. Any doors and windows must be accessible: doors should not be blocked by piles of laundry, windows must be accessible in case of emergency. If you allow them space within these basic safety rules, they will eventually outgrow this stage.