Seattle's Child

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get kids to clean

How to get kids to clean and help around the house

This is an ideal time to work on this life lesson.

How can we get kids to clean up after themselves?

Now that families are home more, the mess can be unruly with toys, school supplies, and a mish-mosh of clothing scattered around.

We’re running behind on the chores, watching laundry and dishes piling up amid our busy schedules of keeping the kids engaged, dinner on the table and our own work projects on track.

We asked some parents what they’re doing to make it easier on themselves to keep their home tidy and organized. Families chimed in with the things that worked for them — and ones that don’t in the long run, like yelling and threatening to lock out the WiFi. Many noted that it’s important for children to learn this important life-skill at a young age and tidy up every day, rather than waiting for things to get out-of-control messy. Here are some of their best tips and strategies:

[Related: Are you cleaning more? How to keep kids safe]

How to get kids to clean: parent tips

Communicate: Let your kids know why it’s important to be clean and stay clean. Talk about germs and how tidying a room can feel calming and help your child to focus (especially when spaces are small). Explain to your child and model for them the how and the where to put away toys and supplies. Use labels and bins to contain the toys and designate an appropriate space for art supplies and books.

Make it a game: Use a timer to set a limit. Ask the kids to clean up before the timer runs out, then switch to another room. See how fast they can go! Fill a jar with daily tasks and have your child choose a few to accomplish each day. Use different tools and your imagination to clean up. My kids use a dustpan to scoop up Legos, pretending to be a machine.

Make it fun with music: Boogie to the music and pick up things to put away, as you go. Younger children might want to listen to songs that incorporate the words cleanup, like the “Barney” song. It’s a great way to teach your kids that everything has a place and to practice putting things away in those places.

Use a reward system: Create a chore chart that provides minutes for screen time/video games or an allowance for jobs done around the house. Toilets cleaned? 15 minutes of screen time. Mopped floors? $2. Cha-ching! Tally marks or stickers work well for younger kids, too – chores around the house and good behavior can earn you a treat at the end of the day.

Provide routine: Kids like structure. Parents write out age-appropriate tasks for the week, within a schedule, that helps children know what is expected of them for the day.

Parents also let children know that they can’t move on to the next activity until they have cleaned up the materials of their current project. It’s a good way to keep the mess contained and avoid creating new ones. Cleaning up now also saves you from the fighting later.

Make cleanup a family activity: Megan W. and her family choose a room in the house to clean and at 4 o’clock every day, they gather to do the job.

Family cleanup can take many forms: Older kids take on a set of chores they do to contribute to the family, while others are paid. Over the weekend, families can get together to do a bigger chore like wash the car, purge old clothes and toys, or deep-clean a part of the house.

Declutter a mess and donate: Allow your child to pick and choose the things that they don’t play with anymore (for some kids it’s a little harder to let go, and that’s OK). Let them know that it will go on to someone who needs it more. With all the paper, art and workbooks at home, help your child to choose things that have meaning, while upcycling the rest by sending it to friends or relatives with a loving note, using it as wrapping paper, or simply recycling it. The less there is at home, the less there is to clean.

(Note: Donating may require some research. Goodwill, for instance, has been overwhelmed and reports long lines during its limited hours.)

Editor’s note: Originally published May 2020. Still pertinent now, and probably forever!


More things to do while stuck at home:

Ready to potty train? This could be the perfect time!

Beyond the books: Life lessons for younger kids

Life skills to teach older kids and teens