Why I stopped asking my kids to clean up

Why I stopped asking my kids to clean up | Happiness is here

I recently found myself in a battle situation. Over cleaning, of all things. Not the most important thing, but here we were fighting about it nevertheless. I felt like I was always nagging the kids to clean up, with very little success. Their room was a complete disaster zone. I would eventually clean it up, only to have it looking much the same not long after, leading me to feeling angry and frustrated. Didn’t they appreciate what I’d done? Couldn’t they just put their stuff away? The struggle to get them to clean up the play room was much the same. I would spend time making the room nice for them, setting up things for them to use, and at the end of the day we would end up fighting over cleaning it up. I would be telling them a million times to do things, they would be moving slower than I thought possible and getting distracted by the smallest things. Basically doing anything they could to avoid cleaning. We had entered a world of power struggles, threatening, and bribing. Wow, how did that creep up on us? That is not what we’re about! Something had to be done.

As we do, my husband and I talked things over. We wondered whether we were expecting too much of them. We questioned where we had gone wrong! We didn’t really know what to do, and so we decided on an experiment. We decided instead of telling, there would be more doing. Yes, we decided to actually stop asking them to clean up. Ever. We decided to do it all ourselves.

We hoped that by leading by example we might effect more change than by trying to force them to do it. That was the idea anyway, but we didn’t have great expectations. We thought it was quite possible that they would think that this was a pretty sweet deal. That they might relax even more, thinking someone else would always clean up after them. But what else was there to do? We didn’t like how things were going, something had to change. An experiment seemed worth a shot, and we had nothing to lose. So we did it.

And it has been AMAZING.

Firstly, for me, when I stopped expecting them to help and trying to coerce them in to it I immediately felt less stressed. I had no expectations of them helping so there was nothing to be frustrated about. I expected that I would be cleaning everything for a while and they would be enjoying a relaxing time while watching me work, but we didn’t even have that.

Why I stopped asking my kids to clean up | Happiness is here

Instead, you won’t believe what I have heard. From the first day, when I went down to the play room by myself to tidy up…

‘Mum, I can help you if you like?’

‘I think it would be nice if I helped you Mum’

‘It’s nice to help isn’t it?’

‘I like cleaning up with you, Mum!’

‘How about a helping hand?’

Why I stopped asking my kids to clean up | Happiness is here

I know, I know, it’s hard to believe. But, this is exactly what has happened. When we took away the stress and the pressure, we saw how helpful they really were. They want to help. They like to. Instead of telling them what to do and ordering them around, we showed them. They see that looking after these areas is important because we show them with our actions. Cleaning is no longer a stressful thing, but something we can enjoy doing together.

Why I stopped asking my kids to clean up | Happiness is here

“Children need models rather than critics.” -Joseph Joubert

I did worry that this might make things worse. That I was ‘letting them off the hook’. That they would never learn to clean up, to respect their things, to help! But this hasn’t been the case. Children want to do the right thing, they want to be helpful, they want to be involved. It’s just about approaching it in a different way. I wouldn’t demand another adult do things around my house according to my schedule. I would feel rude. I would hope that they would just join in and offer their help. And so I took the same approach with my children, and they did.

Why I stopped asking my kids to clean up | Happiness is here

They amaze me and teach me something new every day.

118 thoughts on “Why I stopped asking my kids to clean up

  1. Great post! Cleaning up after my toddler every day drives me crazy, but even at her age I’ve found she will mimic my actions, putting toys back in the baskets, wiping down surfaces with paper towel etc. It gives my hope that she’ll help like your girls when she gets older!

    • The key here is that now they are helping get a job done, instead of being ordered to do it on their own. Yes, you will have moments of putting things away only to have a child immediately pull them out again. But as they get older they will come to understand that putting things back when they are done with them is part of the entire process. Kind of like folding or hanging up the clothes and putting them away is the final part of the clothes washing process whenever you do a load of laundry (which I have yet to be totally consistent about).

  2. I’m tempted to do this myself because of the daily struggle of asking my kids to put their things away. Then I think about people like my little sister who grew up with my mom always cleaning up after her, and at 23 is still an epic slob. My mom still cleans up after her! I’m ready to just take a break from the struggle though. My biggest problem is the older kids leaving things thrown all over the floor where the baby can eat them. Pick up your crayons! Gaaaah!

  3. I like this idea, yet I’m not wholly convinced. I think it’s really important that children take their share of the responsibility of living in a house, so I have tried to encourage routines that mean they do their share. Before breakfast I fill the sink with soapy water and put the steps in front of it so that they can wash their dishes as they finish. Do they do it? Not very often! I’ve left a damp cloth next to the sink in the bathroom so that they can wipe around the sink when they’ve finished, and a mop for cleaning up accidents around the toilets. Do they use them? Hmmm, yes, sometimes. I’ve created nice spaces in their bedrooms for all their belongings. Do they tidy? Not without a reminder. Do they run around and play while I do all the laundry, dust, clean windows, vacuum etc? Yes. Do they offer to help? Very rarely. I wonder if maybe I should make it look more fun and appealing. I have tried. But when you feel as though you’re the only one in the house taking responsibility for ALL the cleaning up, and are miffed about it, you don’t really feel that it IS fun. Following your post though, I will try and do it with a little more joy, and hope that they take the initiative and come and join me. It would certainly make it more fun!

    • I agree! I’ve done the same and it rarely works. I think it depends on the age of the kids and their temperament. One thing that helps is to use music to clue kids in to the transition from play to cleaning up — whether singing your own clean-up song or just blasting fun music so it’s more of a game. This works better for picking up toys and helping to clean around the house and less for basics, like cleaning up after dinner. With our 2 year old, making anything a game works — he even loves to put wet clothes in the dryer with me!
      Most recently with our 8 year old, one thing that has seemed to help is a book: ‘The Day Mommy Quit’ by Kally Mayer. As an Amazon member I got this for free and placed it on the tablet. It’s silly but really gets the point across. (No, I’m not trying to plug anything; it really helped!)
      Lastly, we have a chore chart for our 8 year old and use Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace Univ for kids system of commissions. Our daughter has earned enough to buy toys and things she wants to do since about age 4. Most recently, she save enough to pay for the tablet she desperately wanted. (Note that she doesn’t earn all that much so we pay half since things are so expensive). When I added that Mommy Quits book to the tablet, it was a good reminder about how we all need to help around the house. She was over the moon to earn the tablet. Prior to that what was motivating her most was when she DIDN’T have enough to buy things. Then, she asks to do extra things, like weeding!
      Best wishes on this tricky topic!

  4. I’m glad it worked for you because having tried this in our home, it did not work at all. One way we have found is to make our daughter think about her refusal. She’s at an age now that when we ask her to do something, she will say “I don’t feel like it” or “No, I feel like doing this”. We ask a second time, explaining gently that this would help out mom and dad a lot, that it would make our home, as a family, more enjoyable. We also insist on the fact that respect is very important. And helping to keep our home clean is showing respect for the other people that live here cause not everyone is happy in such a mess. 75% of the time, by now, we’ve gotten help. But if that dreaded 25% of the time happens, then we turn it on her. If mom is knitting and she asks if I can help her take a toy down from the shelf, I say “no, mom feels like knitting now.”… That prompts an immediate conversation. We don’t yell, we just show what it feels like. We never need to ask her how it feels, she comes to us an says that next time, she’ll be better about helping. And then she’s good until the next “25%”. It may not be ideal for everyone, and it may not be up there with still-parenting methods. And I know some might find it passive-aggressive, but we’ve stopped fighting. There are many ways to learn by example and I think this fits the bill : Let her be her own teacher.

  5. Great Post! Thank you. I am learning I need to pick my battles, I don’t like the arguing that cleaning can bring on. I hope I have as good as success as you have.

  6. I have found if we set a time to clean as a group, that has worked for us. Everyone pitches in because everyone is doing it at the same time and nothing else is a choice. I don’t love to clean so teaching kiddos motivates me to keep things neat and clean more often. We also found that telling them they are responsible for packing their own bags and gathering necessary materials for activities they enjoy (martial arts, swim team, etc…) goes pretty well because they have to take responsibility with their coach/instructor if they are late. It’s not perfect and they aren’t perfect at doing their chores all the time, but neither am I so I can’t get too upset.

  7. Wow – what a great experiment πŸ™‚ Thank you for sharing and for the reminder to lead by example. It’s wonderful to see your kids wanting to help out. xo P

  8. Brilliant! It’s much the same here to be honest. I get stressed constantly asking them so do it myself! They help at times but it’s a work in progress! The 3yr old is better at tidying when asked than the 6yr old! Good on you guys!

  9. hi,

    Thanks for the insight.

    Please can you tell me where you purchased your lovely childrens wooden table and chair as shown in the picture?

    Thanks

  10. Good for you!! For a Type-A person like me this could be one of the hardest things for me to do…but I think one day I will try it! It makes sense that the more we “nag”the less likely our kids will do something to please us. I love the reaction your kids had!!

  11. Yes, I am all to familiar with that battle of getting my little one to clean her room. I will try your experiment and see if it works for us. She is only four, but that is her chore, to keep her room tidy by picking up her toys before going to bed. I’ll be keeping my fingers cross. Tomorrow I stop asking her to clean and do it myself.

  12. As the mother of 10 and 5 year old boys, I’ve found if I don’t ask them to do it, they still won’t offer help.The five year old even went as far as to say I don’t have to clean that up because mom will. While I think the idea is good for some parents, it just doesn’t work with my family πŸ™

    • It’s the same in my house. If I do everything, they just keep slacking off, having the time of their lives and expecting me to do everything. I’m at my wits end to be honest, but they’re still young (they’ll be 3, 5 and 7 in february). The oldest does help out when I ask her to most of the time though but to have any of them help me out of empathy would be a big surprise.

    • As a mum with 3 boys (7, 9, 12) I’ve long told them that their rooms are their own responsibility. If things are a mess and they can’t find something important, then too bad…
      To keep things vaguely clean, there’s ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD in their room, so things that are strewn across the floor are mainly clothes (clean), books and toys. As they slowly outgrow toys, the toy mess seems to decrease…
      My 12yo goes through spurts of crazy mess then fanatic cleaning up….a bit like me, so I guess I can’t complain =P
      They also get paid to do extra chores, but these payments are only made when they’ve completed their own responsibilities. At 50c per chore, a lot of packing away & cleaning gets done πŸ™‚

  13. That’s exactly what I do most of the time. My toddler just copies as they do πŸ™‚ I simply say while cleaning “we always put things away” and clean up myself without asking or making her do it. And it always works well for her – she just instinctively cleans up. Great post! Pinned!

  14. Me too!! And yes the change in stress levels is huge. :). I thought carefully about my values and my limits. I decided tidying was a request not a limit. I ask my kids to help, but it is a genuine request and I’m fine if they decline.

    But…like you I have found the amount of contribution they make has increased and they get that genuine feeling of satisfaction.

    Thanks for sharing this. I love that you chose connection with your children.

  15. I’m glad I read this because this is exactly what I started doing last week.

    “That is not what we’re about!” – ditto.

    So I needed to try a different tactic. I just knew the nagging wasn’t working, nor pleasant (for anyone – me included!).

    Here’s to increased co-operation from the Kids!

  16. I have semi-tried this approach, especially when the kids want something from me. I’ll say something like “oh I would love to help you build that/read that/etc…..as soon as all these clothes are put away I can help you!” Unfortunately, that has not resulted in offers to help get the work done!

  17. I did something similar with my two children. They are 9 and 13 now. About a year ago things had gotten to a point where there became constant resistant to their daily contributions (chores) around the home. As I am parenting independently, this became more exhausting than doing the work myself. I think at one point I even resorted to saying something along the lines of not signing up to be the chore police. So we sat down and had a family meeting. I told them they no longer needed to contribute to our family life by doing chores. I said that as much as it feels better to have all of the family contributing, the struggles were exhausting and were hurting our relationships, which were more important to me than having help. I said I would do it all myself. After their initial shock wore off, they both said they would not allow this. They would not feel good seeing me do all the work. As of this posting, I haven’t experienced struggle around this since. We also now make most meals together. My oldest son recently told me he would like to make a whole meal by himself for us. My feeling is, that when we shift our own energy around situations and speak honestly we then make spaciousness for them to do the same. When we release the struggle and relax our energy and resistance, they then can meet us there and expand in their expression of capability. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Hi, i found it interesting reading your Blog. I believe you fell by accident into a Biblical truth that’s been in the Bible for thousands of years.

    This truth is found in: Genesis 1:28 Then God blessed them (Adam and Eve), and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

    God put seed within the first apple tree so it would reproduce after it’s own kind. Hence, apple trees reproduce apple trees, not orange trees!

    God put seed in mankind to reproduce after themselves. This applies not just in giving birth to children but in children mimicking their parents.

    Children will follow the example of their parents because it is genetically built into them by God.

    The parents reproduce after their own kind!

    Thanks.

  19. See…I tried a different approach. If I tell them to clean and they don’t…they are disobeying. That’s defiance and needs to be dealt with. I tell them once and if they don’t, they go to the corner and we try again. They only ever go once or twice.
    ALSO however, I need to recognize that at two and three…their attention spans are tiny, so I need to supervise clean-up and provide regular encouragement to keep them going and if a toy distracts them, I just gently remind them that they can play with it once all of the other toys are up.
    Tried this approach several months ago (when my youngest was just 18 months) and it has worked wonderfully! The kids always clean up their own room and Mommy can focus on cleaning the bigger items!

  20. Yes young children are wired to learn by imitation. If we consistently do our work with joy they will learn to as well. Engaging the child during clean up is key “you many put these blocks in the bin…” often the task can be too overwhelming for a young child and they do not know where to begin or what to do. Limiting the number of toys and books that they have access to in a play area is helpful as well.

  21. Oh I just love this little experiment, don’t kids just always amaze us adults? They really do want to help they just need to be allowed to make the decision for how they can best do it sometimes I think. my twins have watched me packing up so often after the family day care kids that they often just do it themselves now and do ‘set ups’ for the kids the next day. The power of modelling lol Glad it has worked so well for you!

  22. Thank you. NO: THANK YOU!!! I think this post might save my sanity. I hate power struggles and had been trying to avoid them for the longest time but with cleaning it’s been a totally different story: battle field!

  23. Great reading about this πŸ™‚ I tend to find that when I am hurrying and telling the kids to clean it doesn’t really happen. While if I just start and sing as I go they join in with both song and cleaning. We have some fun cleaning songs that they like and we have fun with. It is really about my mood and how I set the mood for the home in cleaning up, and imitation, if I put myself into the cleaning they will come to it too.

  24. I like what one poster said about the little ones always mimicking your actions. Even if you work with joy and happiness, they will mimic that too I think!God bless, everyone

  25. I loved reading this. I’m okay with a little mess by hubby is not. He gets so frustrated. I hate that i get frustrated the mess too now ( and I never used to). I think I’ll try your method, it can;t hurt, it can;t be worse than getting cranky at my kids all the time. Thanks for giving us another option!

  26. I love that relaxed approach. My kids help with things that they love helping with, but we don’t ask them to pack up all the toys at the end of the day, when they’re tired and over it. Instead I spent five minutes doing it myself when they’re asleep! I always said that my kids would always put one activity away before getting out another…. HA. That was before I had kids LOL It’s not a free for all, but we do have more than one thing going on at a time. As they get older we’re learning and changing together. Thanks for sharing your approach, I find it interesting reading about how other people do this parenting thing.

  27. Amazing.

    A while ago I was also fed up with a cluttered house. I made decision that I wanted a neat house and I’m going to do it for no one but MYSELF…guess what, I was less stressed and totally loved keeping the house neat for myself. No resentment toward my husband or kids.

    I’ve forgotten about this in the meantime and I’m glad that I’m reminded of this again. It’s also interesting that we had our family meeting last night about what plans the children have around chores in and around the house. It was so cute what they all came up with. I closed the meeting after I said that I will work out the schedules according to what they we decided. And when we got up they immediately started cleaning the house. So cute.

    I’ll be keeping your advice in mind in the next few weeks.

  28. It took me until my kids were teenagers to suddenly realize I was being aggravated by the endless chores and mess and also because no one listening to my requests for help. I’d get the “yeah mom” and then that was it. I also decided I’d be less stressed just doing what I asked them repeatedly to do. They responded (probably out of a little guilt) by helping. I expressed my gratitude for the help which in turn lead to them helping more. Too bad I didn’t read this when they were toddlers.

  29. My god this scares me so much but I’m going to give it a go, same fears same struggles…. Hopefully same outcome.

  30. It’s wonderful that you had such a great outcome. I’ve heard that girls are much more willing to lend a hand and to help out with chores around the house. I’ve tried this with my boys and they are more than happy to let me do it all… so we’ve had to come up with other ways to get them involved in chores around the house. Money and privileges are good motivators for them…

  31. I can totally relate to your story. We constantly do this here. I wonder if it would truly help with older children or perhaps, we’ve gone too far off the edge. I think we all threaten and bribe to no effect at times.

  32. I wonder if this method is more effective “after the battle” so to speak, as opposed to applying it from the start (while your kids are still toddlers). It would seem that children who know that they should help out and have responsibilities would learn to recognize the need to assist, than would children who have never had anything required of them.

  33. They just like attention is all, they will take good attention or bad. In fact”bad” is more intense to the chronic attention seeker, but they learn to like it. When you started ignoring them, paying attention to something else and enjoying clearing up by yourself, they wanted in on that.

  34. My children are grown (45, 43, 40, 23, 21) and we cleaned up rather than expecting them to do it. It worked well when they were young, they enjoyed pitching in to help. But as they got older, it became evident that they liked the part where they made messes and I cleaned up. Somehow they didn’t get any message other than mom will do it. So I would rather train them from a young age and expect them to do it. If they can’t clean up maybe the answer is fewer belongings to take care of? One thing for sure, different ways work for different families….

  35. This is a great post! I am only starting out, my baby is just learn how to play with his toys, like putting his toys in a little bucket and taking them out again and putting them back in, etc. I value a clean how and taking care of my things, so this helps me clear up the questions I have about teaching him to clean!

  36. I once was so tired from cleaning up and tidying up all day, that when my girl asked me to read her a story at bedtime, I said the truth – “I’m too tired, I did so much cleaning today, I really do not have energy anymore”. We skipped our reading that night. Some days later she was playing in our lounge with her toys and then I saw how she left the room and all of her toys were put back in the drawers. Lounge looked clean and tidy as before. I thanked her for tidying after herself. She proudly answered – “so you do not get so tired today, mummy, and could read me a story!”. Not that it works like that every single day, but I’m glad something “clicked” in her head πŸ™‚

  37. I love your blog …thanks so much for all the inspiring ideas. Did I just see the Jesus Storybook Bible in your photo? I bought that for our grandchildren and love reading it! Glad to see others using it too. Keep up the good work!

  38. Awesome read!

    I thought I’d also share how I get my toddler to help around. Like you mentioned most of the time when I ask her to clean up she wouldn’t even if it meant going out to play if she did clean up.
    But then I try the”can you help me clean up the mess?” method and then she’s quite happy to join me.

  39. You have girls right? I have 2 boys 10 & 8 and then my daughter is 4. If I did this, and I sort of have, the boys just sit back and say “mom will do it”. Little sister learns things from her brothers, not all good. I already feel like the maid in this house – hubby doesn’t do much around the house either. One thing that worked well(before my daughter was born) was a “project chart”. Each of the boys had up to 5 or 6 things they could do daily and at the end of the week if they had so many stars they would earn money and we’d get an ice cream. They were more helpful w/o being asked, but unfortunately we got out of the habit. I liked an idea I saw on facebook. You have a list of things that need to be done and each one has an amount of money to go with it -ie taking out the trash 50 cents. They always want money so maybe that would work better and maybe, just maybe they’d be helpful w/o much persuasion.

  40. Love this idea! I tried it out with a twist. I have a 4 year old girl, a 3 year old boy, and an 18 month old boy who hate the trigger words “clean up” or “pick up”. I find my kids want to be with me, so if I am cheerfully picking up, and casually ask them to hand me something, or put a toy in the closet, they are more than happy to help than if I use the words ” can you help me pick up “. VoilΓ , no more fighting, they help, and the house gets cleaner. Sometimes I wait to see first if they will offer. At these ages they usually don’t, but some of that may be the over use of the dreaded words ” clean up ” in the past.

  41. That’s is amazing I tried that with my kids I Got 5 of them and they look at me like I’m crazy and they won’t clean the room no matter what I do what I say or even helping them they want me to do it all so one day I did it all and they still wasn’t trying to help they made a bigger mess after I got done what do I do

  42. Aw, I wish this worked for us. I’ll keep trying tho’; perhaps we haven’t let enough days pass. My four year old son just moves on to the next thing, leaving an endless trail of destruction in his path. But I’m so done with trying to get him to clean up. It’s a major daily stressor.

  43. That’s really wonderful, thanks for sharing. I am going through an absolutely similar situation n stress n tantrums. Will certainly try it out.

  44. Great post, this is exactly how the clean up process is like in a montessori classroom.Children love to help but many adults don’t realise that or dont know how to encourage them to do so. A whole area of montessori called practical life is dedicated to learning these skills and encourage children to take care of their environment. Sounds weird but they love it!

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  47. I was coming to the conclusion myself that role-modelling tidying rather than asking might be a good plan. Tidying up isn’t fun or effective currently so I am going to definitely try out this approach now.

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