It’s funny that I can write a whole post on getting kids to clean their rooms, but it’s actually quite a complicated skill, and sometimes an emotionally-laden one as well. All parents want their children to be neat and tidy and keep their rooms organized. But it’s one of those developmental processes that takes years to complete (approximately 18!). I want to talk about the appropriate developmental expectations for children keeping clean rooms (at various ages), and give some tips and tricks to help your child learn this skill.
From a parent’s perspective, cleaning a room should be a simple task for a child. The room is messy; clean it up. There are clothes and toys on the floor; put them away. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Children’s brains don’t function in the same way adults’ do. If children could verbalize their subconscious processes, they might say. . .
“Why would I want to put things away?” For some reason small children get way more pleasure out of taking things out of a cupboard or drawer rather than putting things in. I think this is a joke God played on parents! Children naturally want to explore their world, and that requires emptying any space they come across. In my efforts to positively reinforce behaviors I wanted, I tried to make a big deal whenever my little child would put something in (it was a rare occurrence, but I kept a look out). If she started putting toys in a toy bucket or socks in a drawer I would say, “Yay! You’re putting them in! I like it when you put the toys in!” I did not show as much excitement when she took things out :).
“I don’t see any mess.” Their enjoyment of emptying containers is one reason why small children have difficulty keeping their room clean. Another reason is their lack of attention to detail. They can walk right past (or through) a mess and not notice it. They don’t necessarily know how their rooms should look, so they literally don’t “see” a problem.
“I don’t know where to start.” A third struggle is the overwhelming nature of a messy room. If you say, “Go clean your room,” to a child under ten, it really is too much for them to handle. There are so many aspects to the task: the unmade bed, clothes on the floor, scattered toys of different categories. They don’t know where to start, and they don’t have the ability to break the task down to smaller chunks. This means they are discouraged before they even start.
“I want someone with me.” Furthermore, children are social creatures. They don’t want to work by themselves, and we all know they get distracted when they are working alone. Most children work better with someone by their side. They don’t think it’s “fair” that they do the cleaning on their own.
“Or what?” Instructing children to go clean their room can set you up for a battle of wills. Children, especially between the years of 2-5, are willful and defiant; they are working out that separation between their parents and themselves. They test boundaries – it’s as if they are saying, “Clean my room – or what?!” If you approach this the wrong way, you are faced with enforcing stricter and stricter consequences (punishments) for not obeying. As you hopefully know by now. . . there is a better way.
When my oldest daughter was two and a half (and before I knew or understood any of these principles), I got in just such a control battle with her. I remember a time when the living room was littered with toys, and I wanted her to help me clean them up. I’m sure I didn’t say anything more original than a few versions of, “Please clean up the toys.” She wandered around aimlessly, not picking up any toys. The less she did, the more frustrated I became (I had very little skills or tools for calming myself and remaining patient). I made threats about taking the toys away, etc., but these threats were not working. I was getting very angry and didn’t know how to motivate her. She had a beloved stuffed Big Bird which she called Birbie. She took him everywhere and slept with him every night. I decided this would be the threat that would finally propel her into action. I threatened to take him away if she didn’t clean up, and . . .nothing. She cried and held tightly to Birbie but wouldn’t clean any toys. Now I had painted myself into a corner. As I took Birbie away and put him on a high shelf I felt terrible and ineffective. I knew I hadn’t changed her behavior for the better. I’d only been the mean mom who took her favorite lovey away. It was not the solution I was looking for.
Now I know the better way! I have learned many more tools for motivating children, and I know to avoid these battles of wills. Here are a few ideas to consider and tips to keep your children motivated and you sane.
I mentioned above that children want company when cleaning. I’ve learned to avoid saying, “Go clean your room” to a young child. Instead I would say, “Let’s go clean your room together.” It’s always a group project. I stay in the room with her and work beside her. Sometimes I work slowly, or I put away the same item over and over! Things will go more smoothly if you stay with the child, giving her companionship and some direction, keeping her focused and making it fun.
If the child is old enough to read, break down the individual tasks of the overall chore on a 3×5 card. Write “Clean Your Room” at the top and then list the parts such as: make your bed, put dirty clothes in the laundry basket, put away clean clothes, pick up any items on the floor and put them where they go, etc. This card will help prevent them from getting overwhelmed and frustrated. (You can do this same thing for other chores like cleaning the bathroom or yard work.) A child doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to do this break down on his own. It’s very helpful if you teach him how to do it by modeling it and/or writing it down. This point-by-point list is much more manageable for a child than just tackling the whole room or the whole chore at once.
When you go together into a room to clean it, they might have this card with them, or you can verbally guide them through this same approach. You can explain the various individual tasks and ask, “Do you want to make the bed or find dirty clothes first?” You can each take one portion after another until the room is done.
For young children, give even smaller, simpler tasks that will be manageable for their age. This avoids overwhelming and discouraging them. For example, “Would you like to do Barbies or books?” They clean up whichever category of toy they choose, and then you give them another choice. Giving choices is very important in a chore such as cleaning, where they don’t really want to do it in the first place. Always try to present different options of what they can do. It gives children a sense of control and melts resistance. It also makes the job seem easier because they don’t have to think about the whole room at once. Don’t overdo the choices, though. Two is really enough; more can be overwhelming.
Try to motivate kids to clean by being creative and fun. Tell them to pick up all the blue toys (or ask them if they want to do blue or yellow toys, for instance), or have them pick up ten items and put them away. If stuffed animals need to go into a toy box or bucket, make “baskets” and give two points for each shot (sneak some math in, also!). If they like a certain character, have them pretend to be that character (say, Superman) and show you how fast Superman could clean up the blocks. Sometimes I would tell my kids we were pretending to be the Clean Up Fairies, and when we were done the real us would come in and be amazed at the clean room and wonder who did it! (I also do this to encourage “secret service” to other family members: pretend you’re the Clean Up Fairy and do your sister’s chore, then she will be happily surprised and want to know who did it!).
One fun and creative way to motivate kids to clean is called Five and Five. Carry a timer with you and set it for five minutes. That’s how long you all work on cleaning the room (you can give the choices and direct as needed while cleaning). When the timer goes off everyone stops and does something fun together – maybe read a book, play blocks, rough-house – until the next five minute timer goes off. Then you go back to cleaning. My kids loved this method, but it was so hard for me! Once we got into cleaning, I just wanted to finish! It killed me to stop and do something else.
As a proactive parent, you should think about the timing of your cleaning. Is your child more cooperative in the morning or in the evening? Maybe it’s best to wait until after he’s eaten a meal. Timing can make a big difference in how helpful your child is. If you’re trying to get a room clean and getting a lot of resistance from the child, maybe leave the mess (which is hard, I know!) and try again later. If you can find the time of day he’s most compliant, try to assign chores during that time on a consistent basis.
Here’s another great technique that has to do with timing. Use something your child is requesting as a motivating factor for cleaning. For instance, you know the basement toys need to be put away. The children finish and meal, and one asks, “Can I go to a friend’s house?” You answer, “Yes, as soon as the toys in the basement are put away.” Or if she is working on a craft project at the table and then asks to watch a show, you say, “You may watch the show when the craft supplies are put away.” There have been so many times when I’ve said yes to the request and realized later that I missed a golden opportunity of motivation! It’s easy to get kids to do some chore when they want something else. The chore seems painless and quick because they are looking forward to the next thing.
Think about your own attitude toward cleaning. Do you view it as drudgery? Do you go into a room and make negative comments about how messy it is or how long it’s going to take to clean? If you do, your child will sense that and be less likely to clean cooperatively! You can change the statement, “We have to go clean your room now” to “We GET to go clean your room!” Act like you enjoy it, talk about how nice it will look when things are put away and how your child will be able to find things. Have a good attitude about your own cleaning chores. When you’re done cleaning a room, comment to your children on how great it looks and how nice it feels to have a clean space. Your example will have a great effect on their cleaning behavior.
Each family’s standard of cleanliness falls somewhere on a “clean” spectrum from every last item put away every day to rarely cleaning and never seeing the floor of the child’s room. There are many variations along this spectrum that are normal and work fine for families. Some families clean each night before bed. Some thoroughly clean bedrooms once a week. There will be times when extra cleanings are in order and times when the kids play without making too much of a mess (not many of those, though!). It doesn’t matter where you fall exactly on this spectrum as long as you have a system or routine for encouraging cleanliness.
Don’t force children to clean. You won’t win. Some days your children will be cooperative, other days not so much. Encourage them to do at least something, such as pick up five toys. But if it’s not going well, it’s best to do it yourself or leave it for another time. There’s no benefit to having a battle about cleaning up. Don’t fret about your children not learning to be clean or responsible. View your children’s abilities to clean with a long-term perspective. Don’t overreact to one day’s failures. Just let it go and hope for a better day tomorrow.
I know it’s hard to know what age you should start expecting responsible cleaning behavior. My main answer is, older than you think! Once your kids reach ten or twelve or sixteen you will see how little and young a five year old is. When your oldest is five you expect a lot of him and worry that he will never be responsible. But there are many, many years for him to learn this! Here are the main ingredients for clean and responsible kids: 1. Your good attitude toward and positive modeling of cleaning. 2. Your kind but firm guidance for them to clean, with increasing responsibilities as they age.
By age 8-10 you can start to expect them to clean their room independently. I still like to be in the room with my kids, though, or close by, putting other things away. If you send a child off to clean her room on her own, be sure to follow up on that task. Inspect their work after or have them tell you when they finish the job. Otherwise kids will learn to dawdle and avoid the chore, knowing you won’t realize it wasn’t done until much later. (See the last section of Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part II for more on this.)
Expecting teenagers clean their rooms is a whole new parenting challenge! You probably know that for teenagers, their rooms are their sanctuary. They want privacy in their rooms, and they want to keep their rooms how they like them. As the saying goes, parents have to “choose their battles” with teenagers, and if this is a battle you choose not to fight, I think that is okay. Eventually your example will sink in, but maybe not until they go to college. Still encourage cleanliness from time to time, in a playful way if possible. If and when they do clean their rooms, be sure to make a positive comment about it, but don’t be sarcastic! For example, it’s tempting to say, “We can finally see the floor!” but this type of sarcasm just annoys teenagers. It’s better to simply say, “Thanks for cleaning your room; it looks great!” At other times try to find any part of the room to compliment, such as, “Thanks for making your bed every day,” or “I like the way you keep your books organized on your bookshelf.”
I’m a pretty clean person and for me a clean house is a high priority. I still “make” my teenage daughters clean their rooms; although make is not really the right word. I encourage it often and even offer to help them. They don’t usually want my help, but they are pretty cooperative about keeping their rooms clean. I communicate my feelings to them on a regular basis, telling them why I feel it is important to keep their rooms and the house clean. Their rooms might get messier and messier for a few days or weeks, sometimes because they are extra busy. When I know we have a free weekend, I’ll instruct them to work on their rooms. I still give discrete instructions such as, “Please pick up the clothes on your floor” or, “Your garbage needs to be emptied.” I try not to bother them too often about it, and I try to be very positive about the clean portions of their rooms. If it became a real battle and rift in our relationship, I would lighten up.
In summary, getting children to clean their rooms is more complicated than you would think. You have to work with them at it (literally, both of your working together), have a positive attitude about cleaning in general, try to make it fun, don’t expect too much too soon from them, and model cleanliness in your own life.