Sibling Fights

A friend of mine suggested I do a post on sibling arguments.  I want to use this as an example of how we can take any parenting problem and apply the different principles from this blog to find solutions.

If you are concerned about your children’s arguments, start with the following basics.

1. Build your relationship with each child separately. Help each child feel secure in your attention and love.

2. As they fight and bicker, remember that’s just how kids are, and practice patience. Siblings are going to fight. It’s normal, so don’t blow it out of proportion. Arguing with siblings helps children learn and practice communication and problem solving skills.  Stay patient, kind and calm.

3. Point out the good. Find 5 times in the next week when your children are getting along or being nice to each other. Say, “I’m so happy you guys are playing nicely together. There’s a good feeling in the house;”  “I like the way you are speaking kindly to each other today;”  or “Thank you for using your words to ask for that toy instead of just taking it.”  Try to think of the specific things they do that create arguments (grabbing a toy, poking or pinching) and then find times when they do the opposite and comment on the positive behavior.

4. Teach your children how to use their words. Tell them the exact words to use as you guide them through solving the problem. It takes a lot of parental time and involvement in the beginning, but soon they will start doing it more and more on their own.


Beyond those basics, there are a few other things you can do to help your children get along with each other.

Let’s start with what I call The Three Steps to Apologizing.  If one child (Jane) has hurt or harmed her brother (Tom), and Tom is upset, I have Jane say three specific things:

First, “I’m sorry I ____” (fill in the blank with whatever she did. Make it a sentence, not just two words).

Second, “I won’t do it again.”

Third, “Is there anything I can do to make it better?”

Having the offending child say these three things creates a conversation between the two of them instead of just an unrepentant, “Sorry.”   It helps Tom (the one who got hurt) feel better, and it reinforces in Jane’s mind “I won’t do it again.” I tell Jane all these words and have her repeat them.  It seems a little contrived at first, but it teaches them what to say, and it diffuses the situation.

If Jane has physically hurt Tom, then we have a talk about that, also.  I will tell her, “It is not okay to hurt someone else in our home.  No one is allowed to hurt you, and you aren’t allowed to hurt others.”  Jane might be thinking (or saying), but I wanted that toy!!  She is not developmentally capable of generating a different method of getting what she wants other than grabbing and hurting. I know I need to teach her other solutions or tools for getting what she wants (which is what Use Your Words is all about).

If using words is not getting her what she wants (and her anger is rising!), she needs a backup plan.  This is how I teach my children to handle these difficult situations: “Jane, when you want something, the first thing to do is to use your words.  Don’t just say, ‘Give me it!’ but tell him what you want and why you want it.  Use lots of words and sentences to let him know why you need it.  If that doesn’t work then come get me to help.  I will help you solve the problem.  Remember, it’s not okay to hurt your brother when you don’t get your way.”

This formula of use your words and then come get me is something we talk about a lot when conflicts come up.  So after a while I might ask her to repeat it back to me; I could say, “What are you supposed to do when you want something?” and encourage her to tell me the two steps (use your words, then come get mom) with the added stipulations use LOTS of words, and never hurt or hit.  This simple format not only gives them the skills for solving their own problems, but also provides a secondary plan for help when needed.

Teaching your children this method implies that you are willing to be involved in their conflicts.  Many parents respond to sibling arguments with, “Don’t bother me with this!  Go somewhere else; figure it out on your own.”  I think those parents are missing a great opportunity to teach children about conflict resolution and to train them to stay calm and use words instead.  When you are present and involved you can help them diffuse the situation, calm hot emotions, and find a solution that everyone is happy with.

We often focus on what to do when siblings fight, but you can prevent contention from happening by being proactive and teaching children how to get along.  Teach them specific skills such as how to initiate play, how to find activities they both enjoy, how to gently decline when they are not interested, how to be less bossy (older children) and less passive (younger children).  Some theories say that sibling fights are based in a conflict over parental love, but really they are simply arguments over toys!  If you work on skill-building, the conflicts will diminish.

Competition between siblings is another form of conflict.  Going through the four basic principles at the top of this post will help with this problem, also.  It won’t make the competition go away necessarily, but it will give you the peace of mind that you have a plan and are doing the right things.  There are two other pieces of advice I have about reducing sibling competition.  The first is to avoid any comparisons between your children.  Most parents realize they shouldn’t say, “Why can’t you be like your brother?!” but there are some more subtle comments that can also tear children down.  If one child is feeling bad about something he didn’t do as well on as his brother, don’t say things like, “He’s good at basketball, and you’re good at drawing.”  You don’t want to pigeon-hole children or discourage them from continuing to work at something they are not currently excelling at.  You never know what each child’s potential is and you don’t want to do anything to stifle it.  It’s better to avoid any comparisons at all.  Only refer to the child you are speaking to.  Console him by saying statements such as, “Sometimes you do well at basketball games and sometimes you don’t,” or, “Some things comes easily to you and some you have to work a little harder at.” It’s okay to tell him some specific things to work on or gently ask what other boys on the team do to develop their skills. But don’t say, “Your brother shoots baskets every day; that’s how he improved.”  Just leave his brother out of it!

The second piece of advice is to not play up one child’s achievements in front of another child, especially if the second child is sensitive about his abilities.  When one kid brings home a report card with all As and you get all excited in front of the other kid, it sends the message that good grades is what makes mom happy, and the other kid feels like he won’t be able to bring mom that same happiness.  This is tricky because of course you want to celebrate the first kid’s successes.  But when there are sensitive issues try to celebrate away from the other child.  You could say, “Let’s go in the living room and look over your report card!”

Try to create a family culture of succeeding.  For instance, “Browns are great at piano!  You’re a Brown, right?”  This is better than saying, “You’re just as good as your brother!”  You don’t want to give the impression that he needs to live up to his brother’s achievements, but you do want to have a family culture of high expectations and excellent performance.  An even better statement is, “Browns work hard at piano and that hard work pays off!”  Focusing on the hard work instead of the outcome gives children a sense of control and greater motivation.

Watching sibling disputes and mediating between children can be frustrating and exasperating.  Much of the time parents need to be patient and suffer through the bickering and nit picking.  To deal with this or any parenting problem, start by applying the **Basic Principles.  Then move on to strategies specifically aimed at helping children solve their bigger disputes: teach them the three steps to apologizing and exactly how to use their words; remind them that if words don’t work come get mom (or dad); teach them proactive ways to reduce contention; and avoid sibling comparisons.  Remember, the problem solving skills they learn and practice though their sibling interactions will benefit them in all their relationships.

How to Prevent Messes

Every parent has a different level of cleanliness – the state of the house where we feel comfortable and “done” with cleaning.  And everyone goes through the same cycle: your house gets dirtier and messier and you feel overwhelmed, and then when you get time (and energy) to clean it and get it back into shape, you feel calmer.  There is a range or spectrum of normal cleanliness, and wherever you are on that range is okay.  You know where you feel comfortable and how much energy and time you want to or are capable of putting into it.  Your level of cleanliness comes from the type of house you grew up in and the habits you have developed over the years.  It takes a lot of work and energy to raise your overall level of cleanliness, and I’m not suggesting that is necessary.  There are pros and cons to being super clean.  Your house looks great and you avoid embarrassment when people pop by, but you also can get frazzled about messes and be overly strict with your children about cleanliness. I’m not saying everyone has to be perfectly clean, or that doing so will make you happier.  But I did want to share with you some ideas of how to prevent messes, with the understanding that your housekeeping methods may be different than mine, and that is okay.

I like to be organized and have everything in its place. But I don’t really enjoy cleaning, as in getting out the cleanser, spraying, wiping – deep down cleaning. Therefore, as a parent, one of my main goals is to prevent messes! If I can prevent a mess I will not have to do as much cleaning up afterwards and I will have fewer loads of laundry, which not only saves time but also uses less water, soap, and energy.  My motivations for preventing messes are somewhat selfish, but teaching children to be clean is beneficial to them (creates good lifelong habits), and it can lead to more interaction and time spent with your children.

There are three areas of the household you can focus on to prevent messes:  the kitchen (eating), the bathroom, and toys and activities.  Because we eat so often and eating can be so messy, meal times are the main opportunity for avoiding messes.  To help contain the mess and give children structure and order, have rules about where, when and how children eat.  Examples of such rules are: ask before getting any food; only eat in the kitchen area; sit down on a chair at the table to eat; wash hands after eating.  After these ground rules are set you can encourage them to eat as cleanly as possible: take small bites, lean over their plate, use their napkin.  All these skills take years to perfect, of course, and there is a certain amount of messiness inherent in feeding children.  But the point is you have a goal in mind.  You want to encourage and teach these practices all along the way, and eventually they will be natural to your children.

You also have to model these habits yourself. Eat purposefully, which means make your meal, sit down to eat, turn off the TV or other electronics, and enjoy time with your children.  This approach to eating has many benefits. It is better for your health – you end up eating healthier foods and less overall food.  It is calming rather than stress-inducing.  And it creates built in time with your children.  What starts out as a selfish endeavor aimed at having less cleaning and laundry is actually the ideal way to have a meal as a family.

Focusing on preventing eating messes can be a strength and a weakness. It’s important to get children in these good habits, but you don’t want to get too uptight about it.  Children have a developmental need at different ages to play with their food, touch their food, or feed themselves.  These are trying times for a clean parent!  You have to balance your need for clean with their need for exploring their food.  But you have the goal in mind to teach them, over time, the clean way to eat.  When your children are eating, stay close by with a rag or wipe to clean their hands and face before they touch furniture or their clothes.  If they are always seated (and hopefully supervised) while they eat, their clothes have a greater chance of staying clean.  Little by little you teach (but don’t expect) children to not throw their food, to not smear it in their hair, to take smaller bites that fit into their mouth, to not spill food on the floor, etc.

Another place that gets dirty quickly is the bathroom.  Kids + brushing teeth = huge mess!  I didn’t want to be wiping down the bathroom sink all the time, so I taught my kids to be clean when brushing their teeth.  I brush their teeth until they are about six years old, and after that I teach them to not use too much tooth paste, spit close to the drain, and wash down the spit when they are done.  If there are any globs of toothpaste in the sink I have them wipe those down with water and their fingers.  They don’t like doing that and learn quickly how to avoid creating those globs.

We have four girls, so our toilets don’t get very messy.  Some families with lots of boys teach them to grab a wipe and wipe down the toilet seat (one or both, depending on where the pee got) every time they go (once they start standing up to go).  This sounds extreme, but even with my little exposure to boys’ bathroom habits, I think I’d adopt that rule!

Lastly, children can be taught to be cleaner with their toys, activities, and other possessions.  Try to get children into the habit of putting away whatever game or type of toy they were playing with before getting out something else.  Also, teach them to ask you before they do a messy activity like painting or beads.  That way you can supervise them properly.  Another prevention tactic is to keep certain toys out of children’s reach.  Toys with lots of small parts like Legos or Polly Pockets can be kept up high.  The child has to request to play with them, and then you know (try to remember) that they’ll need to be cleaned up and put back up high when she is done playing.  You can see that teaching children these habits requires you to supervise them closely and continually remind them.  Children who are taught to stay out of certain cupboards or drawers will cause fewer messes.  I know this all sounds slightly ridiculous, as if you can just tell a child once to stay out of a cupboard and he’ll never open it again!  But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m just saying you can try.  Improvement in behavior happens over months and years.

When you walk into your child’s bedroom and see a huge mess, often there is part of you that knows you could have prevented this.  You could have checked on them more often instead of being on your computer or phone call.  You could have asked them to clean up the one game before moving on to another.  It’s a trade off: if you are more present and aware during the time they are playing, you’ll have less work to do afterward.  Sometimes it’s worth it to let them make a big mess, but it’s important to know that it is possible to prevent it.

In summary, you don’t have to prevent messes, but if you want to, there are strategies to decrease your time spent cleaning and doing laundry.  Try to help your kids learn clean habits (in a kind and calm way!) and you will reap the benefits.

The Song and Dance

As I have mentioned, I started off my parenting career frequently irritated, baffled and exasperated.  I did not understand how little brains worked.  I wanted to just say, “Put on your shoes” or “Time for bed” and receive a happy, “Okay!” as a reply.  Of course, this is not how children work.  The more I read about parenting, experimented with different techniques, and sought to understand children’s motivations and needs, the more I realized they respond well to what I call “the song and dance.”

The song and dance is anything you do that is fun, silly, funny, or crazy that motivates children to do what you want them to do.  They get interested in what you are doing and distracted enough to not realize they are obeying.  The thing about kids is, you never know what to expect.  At times they are cooperative and compliant: they will do what you ask without a fuss or complaint.  When this happens, say a quick prayer of thanks and move on with your day!  But there are other times (all too often!) when they don’t follow instructions, and they need a little motivation.

As I have mentioned, I try to avoid any type of bribery to motivate kids for chores or other activities that have to be done on a continual basis.  Getting dressed, eating meals, completing chores, and other daily or weekly tasks need to be done without external prizes or motivators.  But what else are you to do?  What other tools do you have?  You say, “Get dressed,” and they don’t – what choices do parents have besides saying it louder (yelling), giving a lecture about obedience, or bribing them into it?  This is where the song and dance comes in!  You can find creative, fun ways to encourage compliance.

I’m not saying you have to do this.  If you are not up for the song and dance, the other option is to continue to guide the child, direct them with what to do, and stay calm and kind.  This is difficult because your patience can wear thin and frustrations mount as you stay with your child and observe them disobeying.  But, consider it a challenge to stay calm (see Practice Patience for some tips), and stay with or close by the child until the task is completed.

On the other hand, the song and dance can be a great way to motivate, and at the end of the task everyone is usually in a good mood!  It’s hard, though, because the song and dance takes emotional energy.  It requires you to rise above the melancholy and grumpy atmosphere your child is creating.  Their ornery, defiant attitude can bring the whole house down.  But think of yourself as the sun, rising above those dark clouds, shining so brightly that you can dispel any grouchiness!

Image result for tap dance

The idea is to make the task fun and create a situation where they want to comply. Here are some examples:

“You pick up the blue blocks; I’ll get the red ones.”

“Let’s each pick up ten things.”

“You get two points for every stuffed animal that makes it in the toy box!”

“Can you be faster than Superman?!”

“Should we hop like a bunny or tip toe like a mouse to the bathroom?”

“Let’s be the clean-up fairies and then tell dad we don’t know who cleaned this room!”

When the child is unloading the dishwasher, she can create a king’s palace with the dishes.

When she is helping you make dinner, you can be stirring a witch’s brew.

You can pretend the spots on the mirror and bathroom counter are the bad guys, and you need to wipe them away to save the town.

Children love to pretend, so any pretend scenario you can come up with will help them get going.  The more elaborate the better!  Or try to create a way that the task can be made into a game.

Another wonderful tool to encourage compliance is teaching the child about something in their world.  There are teaching moments all around: How does the oven work?  How do our bodies heal from hurts? How did these rocks get here?  Where does the fabric for our shirts come from?  Most explanations to these questions are simple and on their level, but you can still teach them something about how things work, and get them to cooperate along the way.

One time my daughter didn’t want to buckle her seatbelt.  While I did it for her, I asked, “Have you ever heard of crash test dummies?” She hadn’t.  I said, “When companies make cars they want them to be safe, so they test them out by crashing them into walls!  They can’t have people in them, of course, so they created crash test dummies. . .”  I continued to talk about how the dummies fared when buckled in and not buckled in.  I didn’t say this in a scary way, to frighten her into staying buckled, but more in an informative way, to keep her interested and distracted while I buckled her, and also to teach her the benefits of seat belts.  I love that magical moment when I find something to teach my children that grabs their attention and helps them comply with my instructions.  They love it, too – they are enraptured with this new information!   It has to be age-appropriate, of course, so I tweak the story depending on the child. It is a wonderful way to avoid contention (she obeyed while listening to my story), connect with her, and teach her something new!

To get children out of their uncooperative mood sometimes I try story-telling.  I’m envious of parents who can come up with their own stories.  This is such an amazing skill with so many great benefits: you can entertain and distract your children, bond with them in an enjoyable activity that is available anytime, and help their creativity blossom.  I’m not very good at creating stories, so I usually think of movies or books and tell my kids those stories. For example, if kids haven’t seen Mary Poppins or The Jungle Book, those are terrific stories to tell!  Bible stories are also very fascinating to kids.  I happen to know a lot of Old Testament stories by heart, and my kids love to hear these. Children are immensely interested in stories where the characters’ lives are different from their own.  Even adult movies that have a good story can be adapted to kids’ level.

Again, I’m not saying this is easy.  It can be very frustrating because sometimes you just want the kid to do the task and not require the song and dance to obey.  It takes energy to do the song and dance, and sometimes you are just not up to it.  However, using these tricks will help you have a better attitude.  It will lift your spirits as well as motivate the children.  If you can rise above the gloom and try to get the job done with a little bit of fun, you will bring energy and happiness into the home. I try to view it as a personal challenge – to find the magic “key” that will turn the mood of the house around and get everyone going. It’s easy to see that these techniques might not be the fastest way to get things done.  Household tasks would be much more efficient if children would just do what we told them to.  These techniques might take a little longer, but everyone will be happier in the end, including you!

When There Might Be a Problem

Sometimes it can be hard to know if your child’s exasperating behavior is within the normal range or something more, something where you might need professional help.  If you are wondering this or just feeling more frustrated than you can handle, I would encourage you to take your child to see your pediatrician.  You can talk about your worries at a well-child visit, but the doctor might not have adequate time to really explore the situation in that type of appointment.  It might be better to make an appointment just for this dilemma (tell the scheduler, “I want to talk about his difficult behavior and how best to deal with it.”).  Your pediatrician will go through your concerns and your family history and discuss some possible solutions.

In the post Practice Patience I referred to a time when I did this very thing.  I had been consistently frustrated and overwhelmed with my 5-year-old daughter.  I sincerely started to think there was either something wrong with her or something wrong with me!  I was embarrassed and nervous to go in, but our doctor was patient and kind.  He didn’t seem like this discussion was out of the ordinary at all.  He sees all kinds of parents, and maybe he even thought it was a healthy problem-solving skill to have the courage to come talk to him.  He went through an exhaustive list of different behaviors and troubles.  By the end I was thankful for all the problems I could say “no, she doesn’t do that” to.  It made me realize that I was possibly blowing some things out of proportion.  But it was definitely worth it to go in and check it out.  If there were something wrong (with either of us) where professional help would be needed, he could explain to me what it was, why we needed more help, and where to go to get that help.

But as it turned out, he was able to assure me that my daughter was within the “normal” limits, and we were going to be okay.  He sympathized with me that parenthood can be very difficult and children are sometimes frustrating, and encouraged me to keep trying.  It was both scary and consoling to be told: this is just how parenting is! But in subsequent frustrating moments I took great comfort in his reassurance and his words of support.  I was certainly glad I went in and spoke with him.  It was worth the potential embarrassment or fear to have a secure knowledge that we were on the right path, however trying that path might be!

If the problem were more severe and professional help was necessary (and it was not a medical problem), your doctor would most likely refer you to a counselor.  The idea of getting counseling can be scary and intimidating to a lot of parents.  After I received my Master’s in Social Work, I worked as a family counselor for a short time, and I became convinced of the many benefits counseling offers.  If more parents sought counseling for their concerns there would be less of a stigma associated with getting help.  Everyone needs a little help now and then.  Different children need different parenting styles sometimes, but we as parents only know one style!  A counselor can help you explore others, if she felt that was needed.   A counselor can be your ally in your parenting struggles, offering new tools and strategies for dealing with problems; she can offer a nonjudgmental listening ear to talk with about your stress; and she can be a source of strength and support.  Simply talking through your family dynamics, your failures and successes, and your communication styles can be very helpful.  The counselor is an objective third party there to listen and help you find your own solutions.

Counseling has many options – you can just go by yourself to get some parenting help; you and your spouse can go together (this is especially helpful if there are marital concerns getting in the way of optimal parenting); or you can go together with your child.  It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process.  Many counselors start out with ten sessions, and most problems can be resolved or greatly improved in that amount of time.  There are parts of counseling that can be uncomfortable – the first session is probably the hardest.  You might feel a sense of defeat and weakness admitting you have a problem greater than you can solve on your own.  But try to view counseling as a resource available to you to improve your life and improve your functioning, much like taking your car to an auto mechanic or seeing a medical doctor when you are sick.  Choose to see yourself as strong and courageous for taking this large step to make things better.  There are other difficult parts as the counseling goes on, when you realize ways you’ve been wrong or things you need to change.  But if the end result is better and more satisfying interactions with your children, the discomfort will be worth it.


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!


I had some quick ideas about a few topics and decided to group them into overrated and underrated.

Overrated: Sharing

While it is true that sharing is a skill that parents should help children learn, many parents focus on it way too early.  Child development specialists will tell you that in the first few years of life, children are ego-centric and unable to notice or care about the needs of others. (This is a general statement.  There are times when young children notice and care about loved ones, but the rarity of those times is what makes them so sweet.)  Around the age of four they start becoming more aware of their peers and having more of a desire to “get along.”  This is the time when sharing can be emphasized, and children will be able to learn and understand the concept.  Focusing too much on sharing before this is like saying, “If I start young teaching him to tie his shoes, he’ll be really good at it!”  We all know that kids will eventually learn how to tie their shoes, when their dexterity and coordination allow them to.  Different kids reach that stage at different times, so there is some benefit in “starting early” but there’s also clearly a time when shoe-tying lessons would be completely ineffective.

When young children first start playing with other kids parents should focus more on keeping the peace than forcing kids to share.  You can model problem-solving by talking problems out.  At first you will do all the talking, but as you do so you teach the words and phrases that the children will eventually say themselves.  (See Use Your Words).  If a child is not sharing, don’t worry about it, and certainly don’t punish him for it!  Soon his desire to please his peers will naturally kick in and sharing will become easier.  Too much focus on sharing creates bossy kids.  It’s better to have a child who is adept at problem-solving than one who makes sure everyone else ‘follows the rules!’

Underrated: Time Spent with Kids

Children need more of our time and attention than many parents realize.  They are attention sponges, and their need for it can get overwhelming.  But try to remember that when you focus directly on your child, you are helping him in so many ways: emotionally, physically, and mentally.  Neural connections are created and strengthened in his brain when you listen to him and have conversations with him.  In these interactions you non-verbally teach appropriate social skills, reinforce your emotional bond to each other, and build your child’s self-esteem.  You communicate to him that he is important and worth listening to.  So much is accomplished in these seemingly mundane moments.

For newborn babies, gazing into a parent’s eyes is exercise.  Their heart rate goes up and their attention is focused.  It is a mentally strengthening activity.  For the first year of my baby’s life I try to have this one-on-one, focused interaction for 10 minutes every day.  I smile and talk to her and rub her arms or legs.  It’s a very bonding time.  After about ten minutes the baby will look away, indicating she is tired.  This is her cue that she’s done ‘exercising’ and needs a little time to look off in the distance.  She is processing what she just took in.

For my toddlers and preschoolers I carve out at least ten minutes a day to spend one-on-one, playing or talking.  I try to make this a habit by tying it to some other routine, such as doing it every day after lunch.  I play whatever the child wants to play and let the child lead the interaction and discussion.  It’s difficult to put other things aside and spend focused time with my child.  I’d rather get to my ‘to do’ list than sit on the floor and play ponies.  But I know it’s so important to the child’s development and to our relationship.

Once children are in school all day it’s harder to quality spend time with them.  After school they have homework and dinner and activities.  But it’s still important to have regular one-one-one interactions with each kid, even if it’s once a week or once a month.

Overrated: Consistency

This is a word that strikes fear in parents.  They fret that if they aren’t consistent children won’t learn that they are serious about the rules.  Being consistent is important, of course.  You don’t want to have different rules and consequences all the time.  Consistency helps children know what to expect and shows them that they can rely on you.  But it’s a little over-emphasized.  Situations come up where flexibility is important.  When you’ve been out late or have a guest staying with you or your child seems to be going through a growth-spurt – these are times when you can stray from the normal rules and make exceptions.  You don’t have to be so locked into being “consistent” that you can’t use your own judgment about the situation at hand.

I think follow-through is more important that consistency.  Follow-through has to more to do with short term situations than overall rules of the family.  If you ask a child to complete a chore, following up to see if it’s done is crucial.  If you say you’re going to give a consequence for a certain misbehavior, do it.  But, you should think about what you’re going to say before you say it!  (Even then, if you speak in the heat of the moment, it’s okay to come back a few minutes later and apologize and explain that you weren’t really thinking clearly, and the consequence (or threat) that you gave isn’t reasonable.  This is still a form of follow-through.)  Follow-through has to do with you being present and aware of what children should be doing and when.

We encourage our children to use their words when they want something, including an exception to a rule, and that means that sometimes we end up bending that rule (not always, though).  Consistency is a principle to look at over the long term – are you generally consistent?  If yes, then it’s okay for exceptions in some situations.

Underrated: The Home Environment

You and your children probably spend a lot of time at home.  The home is the environment your children are most comfortable in, and it has a great impact on whom and what they will become.  Why not fill it with inspirational and educational materials in places children can easily see and access?  Surround your children with the good things of the world.  I’m sure you have family pictures on the wall and books on the shelves, which is a great start.  Both those things are important.  But you could also include poems, inspiring quotes, and scriptures.  You could print out history facts and famous quotes and tape them to the wall.  This will be of interest to your child and the papers taped to the wall can serve as a reminder to you to talk about those things and teach your child about that person or time period.  You could also listen to snippets of classical music and learn about it together. Children are very interested in new stories and in learning about interesting people.

My husband has a small notebook of copies of famous paintings from a college humanities class.  We hang one picture at a time on the fridge.  The kids notice it and read the title, and sometimes we discuss it.  My goal is that when they encounter that picture in their own college humanities class they will say, “I’ve seen that before!”  One of the keys to this infusion of knowledge is changing the wall hangings on a regular basis.  People quickly get accustomed to whatever is around them and stop noticing it.  So every few weeks or months, change it up!

Overrated: Helping Kids

In this age of helicopter parenting, there are a lot of tasks that we rush to help our children with that they could very well do on their own or at least should be able to attempt to do.  The importance of allowing children to try for themselves starts when babies are first playing on the floor.  When they reach to grab a toy, don’t hand it to them right away.  Let them reach and struggle; this will work new muscles and brain pathways and motivate them to move in new and different ways.  That same logic can be continually applied as they grow.  Children gain self-confidence when they are able to be independent.  We should praise their efforts in trying to accomplish something, rather than rush in and do it for them.  I like to say, “It feels good to do things by yourself, doesn’t it?!” to reinforce the positive feelings of self-reliance.  Sometimes they end up doing the task by themselves because I was taking too long to come help them.  In those cases I congratulate myself for being too busy to help because they learned they could do it on their own!

There are many situations where an adult can see that a child won’t be able to do the task, for example, opening a restaurant door.  But to jump in and help before letting her try gives the impression that she can’t do things and shouldn’t try. We don’t want our children to think they should only try things they know they are good at or they know they can do.  We want them to try all sorts of new things, even if they are unsure of their abilities.  In general, people like to try.  Let your children try.  It’s hard to hold back when you know they won’t be able to, or when it would be easier to do it yourself.  But it only takes a few seconds or minutes.  Don’t help until they ask.

This goes for opening things, making things, doing homework, doing chores, and many more tasks.  It takes longer and sometimes is frustrating to watch, but it creates independent, can-do kids.  Allowing children to do things for themselves will result in teenagers who wake up to their own alarm clocks, do their homework independently, and remember their own appointments!

In the book Parenting with Love and Logic it says,

“Everything we fix for our kids, our kids perceive they are unable to fix for themselves.  If there’s more than a ten percent chance that our child might be able to work it out, we should keep clear of the problem.   The greatest gift we can give children is the knowledge that . . . they can always look first to themselves for the answers to their problems.”

Go Clean Your Room!

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.

The well-loved Birbie


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.