I’ve been in a life coach program for about 8 months (JodyMoore.com), and I have learned so much about thoughts, feelings, relationships, and embracing all of life, including the difficult parts. Through this program I have learned that my definition of a successful parent needs to be about what I do and how I show up and not about any result outside of me and my control. I envision a space in front of me where I have my thoughts, feelings and actions, and then my part ends. Whatever happens beyond that space—meaning my children’s thoughts, feelings and actions—belongs to my children, not me.
After listening to Jody’s podcast on parenting (Better Than Happy episode 167), I sat down and wrote this article. Of course, I’m not perfect at all these things, some I’m better at than others, but this is kind of my parenting aspirations, my manifesto. You may not agree with all the ideas, and that’s fine. They are just that: ideas. But I hope it helps you see parenting in a new way and helps you to go easier on yourself and your kids!
Who I Want to Be as a Mom
I’m a mom who offers help when I see my kids are sad. I don’t need to also feel sad or mirror their emotion. I can offer help and interact with them and know that their sadness is okay. All is as it should be. It’s okay for them to have negative emotion because that is part of the human experience. I offer to listen and offer to help them work through it. I don’t give the impression that their feelings are wrong (by saying things like, “don’t be mad/sad,” “why are you feeling that?!”). I won’t try to get them out of the circumstance (this is now called “lawn mower” parenting). I won’t think to myself that there is something wrong with their situation or their feelings. I have a new outlook on struggles, difficult circumstances, and negative emotions in my kids. I see now that these are all for their benefit. Difficult times are times of growth. It’s okay for them to struggle. Life isn’t always easy or comfortable. I also see that making the struggle into something bigger (this shouldn’t be happening, why are they/we unlucky?) just makes it worse. I choose to believe that the universe is constantly conspiring in my and my kids’ favor. If this is happening, then it is just what is supposed to happen. We don’t know why, and we don’t need to know why. I choose to not resist reality.
I’m a mom who creates routines, rules, and guidelines for my kids. However, I don’t believe that my children “should” follow those rules and guidelines all the time. The purpose of growing up is to try out all the different options of behaving. Whatever behavior my children choose is okay. I don’t need to make that behavior mean anything about my parenting, or their personality/fixed character, or their future. If it’s happening, then it is supposed to happen. We can all learn from it. Kids will and should make mistakes.
I have rules and guidelines for my kids because I believe that children thrive with a little structure. But I also believe that children should also be able to discuss the rules and guidelines with me if they have a difference of opinion. We can have a calm, respectful conversation. If I say no to a request, I can do it without getting angry at them for asking (they’re supposed to ask for more and more!), without feeling guilty, and without believing that their negative emotion is a problem. If I choose to give in, I don’t need to worry that this will “ruin” them or make them more irresponsible in the future. Whatever happens is okay.
I’m a mom who sets up our family life such that religion is a central part. We go to church, hold callings, participate in church activities, have family scriptures and Family Home Evening on a consistent basis. I do this because I enjoy these things and I enjoy spending time with my family. I don’t do these things so that my kids will behave a certain way or be a certain way when they grow up. They can and should choose their own path, choose what they want to believe and how they want to act. However they act doesn’t say anything about me or my parenting.
I’m a mom who gives a lot of love to my children. I do nice things for them, listen to them, and try to accommodate their needs. I do this because I choose to and not because I require anything from them in return (such as gratitude, telling me about their lives, or obedience).
I’m a mom who gives my children a lot of latitude in how they feel and behave. If they are grumpy, that’s okay. If they are acting out/having tantrums, that’s okay. I see the noise they make as construction noise: not my favorite but I’m not making a big story about what it means (for example, thinking there’s something wrong with my parenting). I know I can feel however I want to feel regardless of how they are acting. It’s natural to feel negative if they are grumpy or to be irritated with them when they are irritated with me. But I try to remember that I can choose my thoughts and therefore my feelings, and I don’t need to mirror them. Once I’ve done what I feel is right in the situation (offered to listen or help them work out their problem), I don’t really even need to notice how they’re acting.
I’m a mom who loves whomever my children love. Whatever friend they are hanging out with, whomever they are dating or marry, I will love that person also. I can choose to feel love for the people my children want to spend time with. I will accept them and treat them with kindness. Whatever happens in that relationship will be just the right thing for my child. I don’t know how their lives are supposed to go, so I don’t need to worry that something is going wrong.
I’m a mom who chooses to believe that my children are on their own journeys and the best thing I can do is love them and allow them to be on those journeys. If they are struggling, I don’t need to make that mean anything about my life. I control myself and my emotions, and the best thing I can do for them is to take care of my own happiness and peace and give them the space to act and feel however they want. I believe that it is not my job to make my kids happy, and I realize that the reason I want them to be happy is so that I can be happy. But I can feel that emotion whenever I choose.
My weaknesses are part of my kids’ growth and journey. I’m the perfect mom for them (even with my imperfections). Also, whatever interaction they have with their dad, sisters, or grandparents is just right for them. I can’t and don’t need to manage that, and I will end up feeling resentful if I try to.
I am thankful my teenagers have been fairly easy to parent and quite enjoyable to be with. They are obedient and kind, get great grades, enjoy participating in church, and don’t mind spending time with the family. We’ve had our various challenges, but most have related to difficult things they are going through, rather than direct conflicts.
As I reflect on these years, a few pieces of advice come to mind for parents of children who are about to enter this phase. These thoughts are related to mistakes or troubles we went through or experiences we heard about other parents having.
Be specific in laying out your family rules and expectations. I wrote a post called Explain Expectations that relates to little children. But this principle applies to teenagers as well. It helps keep everyone on the same page if you specifically describe what you expect of your child at different ages, stages, and situations. If you haven’t elucidated a rule, teenagers can tell themselves, “She didn’t say not to do this.”
At this age, children are getting more and more independent and making more of their own decisions, so it’s helpful every once in a while to review what choices fall under their domain and what is still expected of them as a member of the family. You might remind them, “You are expected to come to family dinner and scriptures every evening and go to church with us each week.” Also, tell them you expect them to work hard at school, turn in their work, and get good grades. You might think they already know this, but having it explicitly spoken out loud can make a difference in their thought process and choices. It doesn’t have to be a big lecture, just a reminder now and then. And be sure to compliment them when they do these things (for example, “Thanks for coming to dinner when I called you, we like having everyone here at the table”).
Another situation you want to discuss is what items you want them to pay for and what you will pay for. If you can be clear about this it will save frustration and confusion. But allow yourself to change your policies as needs arise. There are so many factors that go into these types of decisions (what their friends are getting or doing, how much money children can earn on their own, how much discretionary money you have, etc). This doesn’t have to be something set in stone, just a foundation for future decisions.
By having these conversations early and often you prevent problems instead of struggling with them as they come up. You’ll have more conversations as they get older and more independent: to discuss rules regarding driving and car use, expectations about letting you know where they are in the evening and when they’re coming home, etc. [For more about this, see Rules or Relationships]. In all of these areas, don’t assume they know what you want or what you are thinking.
In addition to expectations regarding family activities, school work, and finances, another area that necessitates a straightforward discussion is moral choices such as substance abuse and sex. Hopefully as parents you will cover the basics: don’t drink, smoke or have sex in high school (as well as other specific values and standards you may have). But there are so many more subtle behaviors that you don’t want them to do but you might not think of mentioning. Here are some suggestions:
“Don’t read a book that has any F-words or sex scenes in it.”
“Going out to do anything with a boy where it’s just the two of you is considered a date.”
“Reading about explicit sex is a form of pornography. Don’t do it.”
“If alcohol is mixed into a fruity drink it’s still alcohol. The same goes for ‘hard lemonade’ and spritzers. Don’t drink them.”
“If someone has your same class but at an earlier hour and they tell you what was on the test, that’s still cheating.”
“We expect you to attend youth night through your senior year, even if it gets boring and you’ve completed your Eagle/YW Medallion.”
“It is not okay to park your car somewhere and make out with a boy.”
“If I say not to wear something, it’s not okay to take it to school and change.”
You are probably starting to get the idea. These exact phrases might not be important or relevant to you, they are just examples. You might be surprised or amused by these examples, but good teenagers everywhere have tried these things and tried to justify them!
I’m suggesting you mention these things to your child (whichever ones apply to you and your situation) but I’m not saying this will completely prevent them from doing any of them. All teenagers make mistakes and there are no sure-fire ways of parenting to prevent this. But there is power in just saying them. Don’t be overbearing or judgmental, but just say them. For the most part, children are obedient. If they’ve been explicitly told ‘not’ to do something, they will try not to. You want to keep communicating with your teen, finding out what they are doing and how they feel about things. It’s good to make compromises when you can, so they feel that they have a say in how things go and some control over their lives. And give them more control as they get older. Remember that they are going to be completely independent one day, and prepare them (and yourself) for that.
Try to give them as much freedom as possible, but since they still live in your home, that freedom needs to be accompanied by respect. This mean communicating where they will be, what they’re doing and how they are feeling about things. It’s definitely a balancing act to know what to do for your teenagers and what to expect of them.
2. Besides continuing to remind your teens what behavior is expected, you are also trying to keep up a good relationship with them. This can be tricky because they get “prickly” around this age: hard to talk to, hard to hug, and hard to take on family activities. One strategy I’ve found for creating positive interactions is “eyes light up.” This means be enthusiastic and excited when you see them—first thing in the morning, when they come home from school, or anytime they come in the door. These “’crossroad” times start to become the primary way you see or interact with your child, which makes it even more important to have a good interaction.
This technique may seem obvious and easy when you have little children, but it gets harder as they get older. For the most part, little kids’ eyes light up when they see you, first thing in the morning or when you come home, and you automatically mimic this and act excited to see them too. But as children get older, this unfortunately happens less and less. Teens frown or scowl or just have a neutral expression when they see you, and again, you tend to automatically mimic this. It’s natural to copy the other person’s mood and approach in any human interaction.
So there comes a time when you have to make a conscious effort to light up your eyes upon seeing your teenager. It doesn’t come naturally because they are often grumpy with you. But, it can make a big difference in the interaction because sometimes it makes them mimic you! They may hold on to their frown, but at times they will respond to you with a smile and a happy face (and those times make up for a lot of scowls!). At least they will know you love them and are excited to see them, and that is definitely the message you want to send. Get in the habit of greeting them with love and enthusiasm. It helps you feel more positive about your teenager and it will make a difference in how they respond to you.
3. Because children of this age are prickly, it’s easy for parents to start to pull away and interact with them less. When I saw this happening in myself I made a goal to try to do these three things every day: hug, compliment, and ask a question. Questions can include what happened in history today? How is so-and-so doing? How did your test go? How are you feeling about ___? Once again, when your kids are little you can’t imagine not doing these things, but there will come a time when these behaviors don’t come as naturally. Teenagers are compared to porcupines for good reason! You can get “pricked” when you try to ask questions or give a hug, and that makes you nervous to try again; you start to become afraid of future rejections. It’s natural and common to start talking and interacting less. There are times when I feel like the only reason my teens talk to me is to ask me for something (money or a ride). When I decided to attempt these three things every day (give a hug, give a compliment, and ask a question) I found that I could stay more in the habit of interacting with my girls. These small conversations sometimes lead to larger ones. And again, at least your child knows you care and are trying.
4. My last piece of advice is simple and straightforward. Have your teen make Sunday dinner every week for his/her senior year. By doing this for a year your teen will learn how to make many different meals and have a great foundation for preparing food for herself in the future. Your teen might resist at first, saying she’s too busy, too tired or doesn’t like to cook. But as the year goes on you will be amazed at how well she develops this important skill. Fostering these abilities will benefit teens their entire lives. They will feel more confident and secure as they begin to live on their own and be more independent.
I was looking through some of my parenting notes for ideas to write about and found a summary of the book Nurture Shock. There were so many fascinating sections to this book that I had to devote a whole post to it. Nurture Shock is an accidental parenting book. The authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, had been researching the science of motivation in grown-ups and began to wonder where kids get their self-confidence from. What they found surprised them greatly because it was the opposite of most parents’ natural instincts. They started to wonder what other parenting instincts were off-base and how this was affecting our children. They found enough material to fill a whole book with ways that “modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring – because key twists in the science have been overlooked.” The book encourages us to think differently about children and make small corrections in our approaches that will have long-term impacts.
I want to give a Cliff’s Notes version of some of the chapters, with the hopes that you will want to read the whole book. This book is full of amazing information. Here are summaries of a few of the chapters.
*The Inverse Power of Praise Parental instinct is to praise your child in terms of how great they are: “You’re really smart!” “You’re an awesome basketball player!” “You’re such a great artist!” This type of praise can back-fire, though, for a variety of reasons. Emphasizing effort (“You must have worked really hard”) gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) takes success out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure. Children praised on their natural ability are fearful of trying harder tasks because they might not be as good at them, and then they won’t look as capable. Additionally, children who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort – if you’re smart you don’t need to try hard, and if you do try hard you must not be naturally smart. With too much praise they get the idea that you’re either smart or you’re not, good at math or not, etc. Kids need to be taught that the brain is a muscle: giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. We need to be sure they know of their potential – that anyone can be good at math/cooking/baseball if they try long and hard enough.
Here are some examples of the correct way to praise. “I like how you keep trying.” “You were concentrating for a long time!” “You listened and followed my instructions.” “You worked hard to get the ball in the soccer game.”
*The Lost Hour Children need more sleep. Many studies show a direct correlation between the amount of sleep students get and their test scores. Sleep loss is especially devastating for teens, who biologically can not go to sleep early. They are wired to stay up late, and the problem is compounded by early start times for many high schools. This sleep loss affects not only their performance in school but their mood. Teens who get more sleep have higher levels of motivation and lower levels of depression. Studies have also shown that kids (of any age) who get less sleep have higher rates of obesity. Sleep loss has a stronger correlation to obesity than TV watching.
*Why White Parents Don’t Talk about Race Children are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism. The attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible. Don’t be surprised when they make comments about their “group” being better than the others, of any sort (skin color, teams, classes at school). They are trying to figure out the world and how they fit in. They do this by talking about it. Rather than stifling that conversation, discuss race OPENLY. Speak directly to them and help them understand the ways we are all the same, even though our skin colors are different. Teach them by explanation and example that everyone is equal. It’s not enough just to raise them in a diverse environment and hope they get the message. Everyone makes initial judgments, sometimes based on stereotypes, but the key is to acknowledge that those judgments come automatically and take the time to think through them and realize they may not be accurate (and speak about this process with your children). Talking openly about historical discrimination creates better attitudes toward those of other races and reduces the glorified view of white people.
*Why Kids Lie Research clearly shows that children lie early and often, which surprises most people. Lying is a normal part of their development. Young children began lying to avoid punishment. As they age their reasons for lying are more complex, such as to keep secrets, manipulate social situations, or spare someone’s feelings. You can talk to your children about why lying is wrong, but be sure to include why honesty is right. Teach them that their honesty is what makes you happy. Children want to please their parents. Instead of saying, “You’ll be happy if you tell the truth,” young kids need to hear “Mommy will be really happy if you tell the truth.” Be aware that there are subtle ways you might be encouraging your child to lie, for example, telling them to be polite and say they liked a present they got, or getting angry at them for tattling, which unwittingly encourages them to hold back information. Don’t ask questions that encourage lies to keep themselves or their friends out of trouble, such as, “Did you color on the walls?” or “Who taught you that word?” Find a better way to communicate and get answers.
Other chapters in this book address gifted testing, sibling relationships, teaching children self control and other social skills, and language development. The chapter on teen rebellion was very interesting and helpful to me. I will do a whole post on that topic soon.
When you sit down to play a game with your children, consider what your purpose is in playing that game. Is it to teach them to play that particular game, say Candy Land, by the correct rules? Is your purpose to spend enjoyable leisure time with your children? Is your purpose educational, to practice counting or reading the cards? Maybe you have a different purpose altogether or some combination of these things. I think you should throw out the purpose of how to play that particular game by the rules. When you’re playing games with your children, let the rules be a jumping off point or a foundation, but don’t adhere so strictly to them that it interferes with the other two purposes. Take a moment to remember your children’s developmental stages and needs. These abilities and needs rarely have much to do with learning the correct way to play Candy Land. Their needs are: to spend time with and have attention from you; to bond and become closer with you; to learn about appropriate social skills and interactions; to have fun while practicing their counting and reading skills.
Playing games at home can and should be played with rules adjusted to the needs of the child. For instance, when I first played Memory with my child, she was about 2 years old. She was too young to remember the pictures and match them, so I changed it a little. On each of our turns, we turned over two cards but we left them turned over, so we could see them for the rest of the game. I asked her if they matched and, as we turned more cards over, had her look around and see if she could find any matching pairs. When she found two matching cards, she got to keep them. The rules say the player who gets a match gets another turn, but we didn’t play that way. We went back and forth, each person turning two over and looking for matches. We talked about taking turns and noticing the details on the cards, and I pointed out specific colors and items in the pictures. She was learning about social interaction, turn taking, awareness, and listening, as well as new words and descriptive phrases as I narrated what was going on.
When she got to the age and stage where playing this way was easy for her, we moved on to keeping the cards face down. But when someone found a match she still didn’t go again. That way one person wasn’t able to collect too many matches and take away the fun of the back and forth. Obviously, the parent is more likely to be the one to win in this way, and the game becomes less fun for the child.
Just the other day I played Old Maid with my seven-year-old. She said, “Can we take the Old Maid out?” Children hate that Old Maid! It provokes anxiety when they have her in their hand, and they hope so badly someone takes her. That way of playing is not fun for my daughter so I said, “Sure! We can take her out.” It simply becomes a different game, where each player is finding matches and putting them down. There is just as much benefit to playing that game as the actual Old Maid game. The cards we were playing with happened to have different careers on them (Fireman Fred, Stanley Scientist, etc.), so we talked about the people and their jobs. My purpose was to play something fun and enjoyable with my daughter. The process of looking for matches and discussing the different professions were added advantages. Maybe she’ll never want to play Old Maid the correct way. It doesn’t seem like that will matter too much in the quality of her life.
You can see from these examples how you can take any game and change the rules slightly to fit your purpose. Be creative in adjusting the game to help your child have fun and learn something. Don’t be so focused on the rules that you are blinded to these great opportunities!
Many parents get uptight about insisting children play by the rules, and this can be an obstacle to enjoyable family time. Remember that the rules of the game are completely arbitrary. Someone else made them up! You do not have to follow them. You can just as easily make up your own rules or tweak the rules, even as you are playing! Young children do not understand the need for or purpose of certain rules of play. As children get older you can play versions of the game that are closer and closer to the actual rules. You can tell them there are a lot of different ways to play the game, some ways are for younger kids and some ways are for older kids.
The less emphasis you put on winning, losing, and keeping score, the less uptight your child will be about those things, and she will be easy-going and generous when playing with others. Easy-going and generous – those are the traits we want to strive for as parents! We can model those traits as we play games with our children.
When children are old enough to read and play games independently, by themselves and with others their age, they will begin to see the importance of playing by the rules. Because of their desire to get along with their peers, they will want to be fair and will understand the necessity of having every one follow the same rules. This comes naturally and doesn’t need to be coached by parents. If you feel you must, when your child reaches this age you can say at the beginning of the game, “When you play with other friends, they are going to want to play by the rules.”
Sometimes you change the rules before you start the game (with or without talking to your child about it) because it fits the child’s needs. But sometimes the child will want the rules changed in the middle of the game, because she is losing or didn’t get what she wanted. There’s no one right way to handle this, but I would suggest being flexible. Don’t rigidly say, “You have to follow the rules!” If it’s just you and the child playing, feel free to break the rules. If she says, “I don’t want this card, can I give it back?” say yes! Again, the rules are arbitrary, so you can arbitrarily change them. The younger the child, the less important it is to stick to the rules. If it helps you, pretend you are playing a new game with those same cards, one where whatever she wants to do is fine. Pretend that is what the rules actually say, that she can give the card back if she doesn’t like it. Your philosophy can be, “Sure, you can give the card back – I’m just here to play with you, however you want to play.” Some parents say, “She has to learn to follow the rules. That’s how the real world works.” (See my post on Allowance for another instance where this logic doesn’t apply!) That may be true, someday, but that’s a long way off. And it doesn’t have to be the parent who teaches that lesson. Why not let her experiences in the world teach her that, and you as the parent can be the good guy? When she’s in elementary school she will have a natural desire to play by the rules. She will have the cognitive ability to see that rules are important. Until then, there are so many other benefits of playing games together! This one-on-one time is crucial for your relationship and her development. Don’t interfere with it by worrying about the rules.
If you are playing a game with children of multiple ages, you will have to balance their needs. Older children will be adamant that younger ones follow the rules. You can try to talk to the older child about how the younger one doesn’t understand the rules, and we should let her play her way. If the older child won’t agree with that, talk it out between the children. Use problem solving skills and encourage compromise until you come to an acceptable conclusion. Again, pretend this is part of the game, the part where you practice those skills! This teaches children flexibility and gives them an awareness of others’ needs.
This does not mean that the younger one always gets her way. Sometimes the compromise is in favor of the older one, and the younger one might be upset about that. This is another skill she is working on, how to accept a decision she doesn’t like. But there’s no need to draw unnecessary attention to this behavior or say, “You’re a sore loser!” Be empathetic and calm; for example, “I know it’s hard when you don’t get what you want. Try to have fun just playing the game.” It would be easier if there were one correct response to these dilemmas, but you just have to find a balance and be calm and kind in responding to both children. If this is a frequent problem you can have a system such as on even dates John gets his way and on odd dates Jane gets her way. Sometimes that will solve the issue right away, sometimes you will still want to have a discussion and problem solve to help them learn how to communicate and to help ease some of the emotion.
When I wrote the post on Allowance I promised a separate post about chores, so here it is. There are different ways to structure your family chores, but the most important thing is that children have chores. Children need to participate in family work to learn responsibility, a good work ethic, and what it means to contribute to the greater good. As I said in the Allowance post, there are benefits and responsibilities to being part of a family, and chores are some of the responsibilities.
When you first introduce a chore system or add new chores for children, they will complain and resist. (See post on Resistance to Change.) But if you stick to it (kindly), they will get used to that new system. If you put in the effort to teach your children to work hard and be responsible from the time they are young, it will pay off. Your life will be much easier! The other day I had to vacuum some rooms because my daughter was sick and couldn’t do her chores. It occurred to me that I almost never vacuum! I also rarely do the dinner dishes. My children are old enough now that they are able to take turns doing them every night. I am very thankful that we have been consistent in requiring our children to help out at home.
For children ages 3-8, the purposes of having chores are more to practice working and to get into a habit of helping. Don’t expect too much of a young child, or you’re going to be continually frustrated. Their efforts are about the process rather than the product. Read the post Go Clean Your Room! for more on this. It is important that you still have chores for young children, but don’t get into a control battle over them, and don’t fret if they are not done well or independently. It’s hard to wait until children are 8, but that really is the “age of accountability.” That is when children start to understand and care about right and wrong, and have the cognitive and physical abilities to be helpful and responsible.
The two most important elements in family chores are that children have them and that they are expected to do them week to week. Their exact chores and when they do them can vary from family to family. A good system is to have a set of daily chores and a set of weekly chores (usually done on Saturday). For children 3-10 their daily morning “chores” will include getting dressed and brushing their hair and teeth, as well as making their bed (to their ability) and possibly a dish chore (unloading the dishwasher for the younger ones or rinsing breakfast dishes for older ones). Their chores need to fit their age and abilities, and can increase in difficulty year to year. Their chores also need to fit your schedule. For our children, middle school and high school start much earlier than elementary, so when the kids reach that age they don’t have morning chores anymore (besides getting themselves ready), but after school they are expected to load the dishes, and they rotate doing the dinner dishes. Additional dish chores might include setting or clearing the table.
On Saturdays we do the bigger, house-cleaning chores that take a little longer. Cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning their own bedrooms are some of the chores assigned on Saturdays. It works best if assignments are clear and consistent; then there is no question about who is responsible for what.
As children’s abilities change over time so do their responsibilities. We’ve found it works well to reassess every fall, before school starts, and create a new chore schedule. We take into consideration the children’s increasing abilities but also their school work load and activity schedule. We write out a schedule for both the daily and weekly expectations. We present the new system at a family meeting and listen to any feedback they might have. This new schedule for the school year can also include assigned days for helping with dinner preparation and instrument practicing schedules.
Once you’re in a good habit, the regular daily and weekly chores will go pretty smoothly. But when there are extra chores, you’re sure to still get resistance! Periodically I decide the house needs some deep cleaning. I try to warn the kids when this is coming up, and give them a pep talk reminding them that when everyone helps the work is more enjoyable and it goes faster. We talk about how nice the house will look when it’s all clean. Sometimes I assign the chores, and sometimes we write them on slips of paper and choose out of a jar. Another way is to tell them the options and let them choose, but this can lead to arguments between the children, so you have to be careful.
In the summer we stick to the same daily and weekly chore schedule, but we add on some extra responsibilities. Kids have more free time in the summer, and it’s a great time to teach extra skills such as laundry or sweeping and mopping the kitchen floor. This is also a good time to pick a few days for all family members to help with deep cleaning the house. Again, I present the new chores and schedule to the kids at the beginning of summer. The particulars of the system aren’t as important as sticking to it and requiring all children to work.
The past few summers I’ve had a “special helper” assigned each week. That daughter helps me deep clean the kitchen, do the laundry, grocery shop, and plan and prepare the meals. It has worked really well because it’s easy to remember who to call on for help, it’s fun to spend time with that daughter during the week, and she enjoys the extra attention. I teach her specific things about how to do all the chores, and it makes life easier for me!
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.
My oldest daughter just turned 16 and got her driver’s license. Many people have asked me about our rules for her driving: What time is her curfew? How far can she go? Whom can she drive? My simple answer is we focus more on our relationship than the rules.
My husband majored in Family Science while doing his pre-med courses at BYU. In one of his parenting classes he learned about this concept. He learned the importance of cultivating a relationship with your teenager over enforcing a long list of rules. Many people think that when it comes to parenting teenagers you’ve got to “lay down the law” and battle them to get them to obey and behave. Parents think you’ve got to establish a lot of rules and consequences and be on the lookout for any misbehavior or rebellion. But there is a different way. If you have nurtured a good relationship with your child, you can focus more on that bond for influencing good behavior than any rules and punishments.
This philosophy is based on an understanding of the developmental growth that occurs in the teenage years. Growing up includes the process of separating from parents, and by the end of adolescence that separation should be complete. Parents will and should have less and less influence. In Parenting with Love and Logic the authors describe this situation with V and an inverted V as two symbols of children’s decision making as they age. The upright V shows that when children are small (the bottom of the V), they are not making many decisions on their own. The parents control most of their lives and make most of their decisions. Parental control decreases over time as children mature. Children learn how to make more and more of their own decisions, and by the time they leave the house they are equipped with the skills to live independent lives.
Some parents mistakenly subscribe to the inverted or upside down V philosophy, where young children are given many liberties and allowed to make their own decisions (many of which may be beyond their developmental level). Then as the child grows, the parents clamp down and implement more rules (presumably to keep the rebelling teen in line). This is a vicious cycle because it leads to more rebellion from the teenager, followed by even more rules from the parents. This kind of cycle can dampen the parent-child relationship. Interactions start to focus on reviewing and enforcing the rules and this leads to a more closed-off relationship.
With a strong relationship already in place, parents are ready to guide their children through adolescence with less and less control over their choices. This doesn’t mean you don’t know what is going on with your child. In fact, it is the opposite. Through your relationship you know a lot about each other. Rather than reviewing rules, you are getting to know your child in a more mature way, trying to understand what the child is thinking, learning, doing, and experiencing. You have mutual respect and consideration, and you communicate about what is going on each day. You know where your child is and what they are doing, not because they have to tell you, but because it is a natural part of your relationship.
In the context of a relationship, the child understands that she can’t come home whenever she wants, because her parents will be wondering where she is and would be worried about her. She wouldn’t take the car without discussing it because the parent might need it. In this system, parents expect the child to talk to them regularly, not just to inform them what she is doing, but to have an open discussion together. This might include the child recognizing that what she has planned won’t work for the family as a whole. For example, if a child says she wants to go to a friend’s house after the football game and stay out until one am, the dad might explain that the family has an activity planned early Saturday morning, and so she will need to come home earlier.
Don’t get the wrong idea that keeping a healthy, strong relationship with your teen is easy! It takes work, patience, and self-control. But it is possible, and it is preferable to viewing your teen as an adversary and trying to control her behavior with rules. In the book How to Hug a Porcupine, the author goes into detail about how to create and maintain a positive relationship with your child from about age 9 on. The tween years (9-12) can be the time when children start to get “prickly,” harder to love and more distant. The author describes how to overlook the difficult but normal behaviors (similar to the difficult toddler behaviors I talked about in Why Is She Crying?!) and forge ahead with a positive attitude toward bridging the gap that your child insists on creating. If you get in the habit of these helpful tactics, you will have a good relationship in place as your child enters the teen years.
Don’t expect that this will always go smoothly. There may be a time when your child forgets or doesn’t want to communicate and just stays out late without explanation. When this happens, try to keep you irritation in check and have a discussion (not a lecture or a reprimand). The discussion centers on finding out what happened and why the communication broke down. Give the child the benefit of the doubt, asking for her perspective rather than launching into a lecture about how terrible the behavior was or how it impacted you. Believe the child wants to make good decisions and keep up the relationship, and reemphasize that expectation. Assume the best of the child, and be surprised when she doesn’t behave in that way, rather than assuming the worst and trying to “catch” her in a mistake. It makes a big difference to come at the relationship from this perspective.
Again, it’s not easy, but it is possible. We are fortunate to have this foundation of a good relationship with our daughter (the new 16-year-old), and therefore don’t have a lot of rules in place for her. She tells us where she’s going, whom she’ll be with, and when she’ll be back. We decide on an appropriate return time depending on the particulars of each situation – week night or weekend, what the activity is, etc. If she gets into a phase where she doesn’t want to tell us these details, where she wants to pull away emotionally and gets annoyed when we “make her” talk to us, we will remind her of this concept. We’ll tell her that we prefer to have a relationship instead of a lot of rules, but that requires consistent and respectful communication. We’ll be understanding and sympathetic, knowing this emotional separation is a normal part of growing up and not something to get annoyed about, but we’ll be firm in the fact that we need to know some of these details before she goes out.