“Clean up your room!” It’s a parental call that dates back, seemingly, centuries. At times it can feel easier to teach our children advanced calculus than to convince them to clean up after themselves.
Yet, the importance of learning such responsibility goes way beyond simply avoiding a mess. There are many lessons that come with learning to clean up. It teaches children to take responsibility for their living environment. It teaches them to be considerate of those they live with. What’s more, it fosters an understanding of the importance of a well-cared-for environment.
Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist and author of the wildly popular book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” has become well-known for his catchphrase: “Clean up your room.” His advice to people looking for more meaning in life is to take care of the home front first. As he puts it, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”
His point, obviously extending beyond the seemingly mundane—though important—work of actually cleaning a room, is that in our lives, there are plenty of responsibilities to take on and carry out well. Those left neglected tend to haunt us and can lead to a spiral of negative consequences. Learning to “clean up your room” is a manifestation of taking responsibility for your life.
So, when we parents decide to forgo the exhaustion of trying to teach our children to clean up after themselves, and when we begrudgingly pick up the dirty socks off of the floor for the 1,435th time, while perhaps gritting our teeth in resentment, we are robbing our children of significant life lessons.
How, then, can we instill such lessons—while also maintaining our sanity? Spring cleaning season is a great time to reinvigorate the conversation around cleaning up.
I asked parents and experts for their best tips and tricks, and here’s what they shared.
When kids feel involved, their opinion valued, and that there is room for their own creativity, they’ll be more likely to positively engage in cleaning up.
Katy Boykin, a mom of two from Flower Mound, Texas, told me she’s had great success with her expectations and opportunities system. “Expectations are a set of tasks the kids are required to do every day without pay, and opportunities are jobs the kids can elect to complete for a small commission,” she explained.
“We display their duties at eye level on a magnetic board with to-do and done columns, so it’s interactive and they can feel a sense of accomplishment after completing a task,” Boykin said.
Employ Positive Reinforcement
Leanne Page, a behavior analyst and mom of two from Dallas, Texas, said that positive reinforcement and consistency are important keys to a successful strategy.
She recommended pairing chores with a “reinforcer,” that is, “a reward, but one that actually works to increase the desired behavior in the future,” she explained. “Something that is reinforcing is something that a person is interested in, likes, and will even work to earn.”
“Pairing the un-fun task with something reinforcing is even an evidence-based strategy from the science of behavior.”
For example, she suggests making the chore into a game or race, or cranking up the music while cleaning.
“For a more systematic approach, try a structured positive reinforcement system, such as a token economy,” Page suggested. Here’s how it works: “Choose one to three target behaviors—what you want your kids to do.” After giving your children a clear explanation, reward them with a sticker, ticket, marble—some “token” that can later be exchanged for something they want.
“No matter what you choose, consistency is so important,” Page cautioned, “Too many times, I’ve started a chore chart or reward system, and we get busy and forget to do it every day, or multiple times a day. Then the house is a wreck again until I have the aha moment to get back on track with our systems.”
Payments, rewards, and other incentives allow children to begin to grasp the idea that work leads to reward.
Lauren McMillan Dendy, a mother of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, said she and her children feel strongly that “helping out around the house really helps teach kids a basic idea of how ‘work’ will be in the real world. We incentivize our kids to help out around the house by earning commissions on completed tasks.”
Inspired by financial expert Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace Jr. product, Dendy and her husband set up a system that teaches work ethic and financial management.
“We implemented a task chart where they earn a weekly commission for completing certain household tasks,” Dendy explained. “Every Friday is payday and they receive the money from the previous week’s completed tasks.”
When implementing such systems, clear communication is key. “Before we began, we sat them down and explained everything to them. One thing that we made very clear is that they have to take the initiative to do these things on their own without being asked,” Dendy said. “For example, they can get up to $1 each day that they pick up their room but if they don’t do it each day and it becomes a disaster and we have to make them clean it, then they do not get money for it.”
“We then encourage them to divide their payday money into save, give and spend into a divided piggy bank,” she added.
Keep the Work Age-Appropriate
Elizabeth Maison, president of Aimslee Institute, a professional school for nannies, described the kinds of chores that are appropriate for different age groups.
“Children as young as 4 years old can help put away dishes. The best bet is to clear out a floor cabinet and keep only plastic dishes that are toddler-safe,” she said.
For elementary-aged children, Maison recommends activities such as “unloading the dishwasher, folding and putting away laundry, cleaning bathrooms, and simple meal preparation.”
In middle school, kids can begin to enjoy more independence and self-reliance. Greater responsibilities can help them “learn how to do laundry, iron clothes, cook complete meals, change their sheets, wake up on their own, pump gas and wash a car, keep a calendar, and manage their hygiene,” she said.
In high school, children can learn to offer their services to others. Maison recommends having them “do lawn care for a neighbor and teach the value of cutting, edging, pulling weeds, and providing top service.”
“These life skills will help in their future careers,” she said.
Keep It Fun
As Mary Poppins once said, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.”
Joanna Wen, a mom of two based near Chicago, recommends using a timer.
“We set a timer on our Google Home to give a deadline to the cleaning task. This also adds excitement and makes it more like a race,” she said.
“Give specific instructions about what they should be working on: ‘pick up the blocks’ rather than ‘clean up the toy room,’” she said.
Wen also suggested singing about the task at hand.
She and her children sing made-up songs. She said, “The tune is different every time, I just make up a jingle off the top of my head: ‘Put the blocks on the shelf, on the shelf, on the shelf.”