As soon as a child is old enough to have his or her own room, the battle begins to keep it clean. After raising five children and finally finding a happy balance between clean rooms and happy children, I thought I would share what has worked for us. Keep in mind, we have young children (1, 3, 4, 7, and 8), and I am a stay at home mom who loves to organize and keep things clean!
My Philosophy on Cleaning with Children
I want to raise children who can someday take care of their own house and keep it organized and clean. I know that I only get them for a short time in their lives, and it is up to me to help them get to a point where they will be intrinsically motivated to continue with the lessons I have taught them.
I know that by having my young children clean or help me with chores, they will not do it to my standards, but the point isn’t just to have a clean house, it’s to teach them how to clean.
Maybe when they’re older, they will start to do things to my standard, but I think that as parents, a perfect cleaning job is far less important than a child who knows how to do every chore in the house in their own way. With this in mind, I guide them through the process and offer plenty of praise and support along the way. I know that they won’t need this scaffolding forever and will someday take off in ways I couldn’t even imagine.
What Doesn’t Work
It can be very frustrating to see your child’s messy room, ask him or her to clean it, and get no results. These are some common recommendations that I believe to be very ineffective.
- Set a time limit, and if the room isn’t clean by that time, go in with a big black trash bag, put everything on the floor in the trash bag, then donate the contents to a thrift store.
- Take away privileges like screen time or attending a special event if the room isn’t clean.
- Keep all toys belonging to your child in his or her room without a place for toys in any other rooms in the house.
- Leave the child in the room, shut the door, and don’t let him or her come out until the room is clean.
The ultimate lesson my husband and I have learned as parents when it comes to guiding children towards positive behaviors is that if you have to do the same punishment over and over again, then it is not working. Maybe you really do need to go into that room with a trash bag because you’ve allowed it to become filled with too much junk, but don’t rely on yelling, threats, and severe consequences to get your child to clean his or her room until you have first tried some of the following positive suggestions first.
While raising our five children, we have tried a multitude of strategies for getting them to chip in with chores, pick up after themselves, and keep their rooms clean. The most important thing we have learned about cleaning is that the ultimate goal isn’t for a perfect cleaning job with no effort on our part, but rather for our children to learn about the process along the way.
Below is a video tour of our children’s bedrooms along with some commentary from them about how their rooms are organized.
Here are some tips that have worked for us:
- Make sure everything in the room has a home. I like to put things that are alike together in one spot and store them using baskets, bins, etc. I don’t typically label these containers, however, because I like to leave room for the contents to change based on what each child is into at the time. If the floor is littered with toys and there’s a question as to where they go, you (with the help of your child) should find them a home. Decide where the stuffed animals should go and how they should be arranged, have a place for books, and make sure every little toy, marker, basket, and structure has a place where it is supposed to belong. I cannot tell you how helpful this is!
- Reorganize the bedroom to suit the needs of your child. Based on the furniture we have and the needs of each child, I really enjoy rearranging each room so it can maintain the best function for the space. Our oldest daughter Ruby, for example, really enjoys art so she has a desk for drawing and a space for all of her art supplies. Sometimes, a room just needs a little tweak here and there and some other times it needs a major overhaul. I like doing the major overhauls alone because kids are sometimes sad to see things change, but they always love seeing their “new room” when it’s done.
- Only keep certain toys in your child’s room. In the video I shared earlier in this blog, you will notice that there are several places throughout our house where we keep children’s toys. I like to encourage everyone to play together as much as possible in central locations so I can hear what they’re up to while I’m doing other things, but children always love opportunities to play alone too! Having special toys in their room where they can get away from the hustle and bustle is a very important thing.
- Keep it clean starting young. Children get used to having a clean and organized room (and house) and will enjoy playing in it more when they can find things. With my little ones (currently 3 and 4), I do all of the cleaning and organizing myself. If we are in the room together when I want to clean, I do sometimes get their help, but what typically happens is they get distracted playing, and then I slowly sneak away to do something else. 🙂
- Be specific about what needs to be cleaned and give feedback. If I want my children to clean their rooms (usually when the whole family is working on chores) I don’t simply say, “Clean your room!” because this could mean like 12 different things. Instead, I break down each of the tasks that need to be done and have them report back to me after each task. To get it started, I’ll say something like, “I want you to pick up/clean/organize _________. ” Then I give them some time to do it, follow up by checking in to see how things are going, and finally helping where needed. Here are some examples of specific tasks children can do while cleaning their rooms.
- Put all of the clothes on the floor in the laundry bin.
- Pick up all of the toys on the floor and put them in toy basket(s).
- Neatly stack up all of the books and make a pile of the ones you don’t want to read right now.
- Find all pieces of trash and put them in the trashcan.
- Make your bed.
- Pick up all of the stuffed animals and put them neatly where they belong.
- Organize your toys in a way that you want to play with them.
- Clean rooms when they are not around. This is probably the most controversial thing I will say, but it works really really well. After the big kids leave for school, I go in and tidy up their rooms. I make their beds, I put all toys where they belong, I straighten books, and I remove anything from the rooms that should be in the common area. If I want to tidy up their rooms when they are home, I will either get them to help me or I will do it when they are busy playing somewhere else. I never clean their rooms while they are lying on their beds doing nothing! I also like to tidy up the house and make sure everything is clean before we go to bed. If a child’s room is trashed or really messy, then whoever made the mess will help to clean it up, but if it’s just a bit of cleaning, I like to do it myself.
- Work together for big messes and reorganization. If rooms are getting REALLY messy, I don’t view this as the problem of the child but rather a problem with the system. A really messy room may mean that there are too many toys or other certain items in the room or that there needs to be a better system of organization. This is when I get the big kids to help me out. We talk about what is causing the most clutter and together figure out a way to keep it clean.
- Recently in Ruby’s room for example, I noticed big piles of random drawing utensils, so we worked together to get several small cups and put pencils in one, markers in another, pens in another, etc. She also accumulates large stacks of books because she likes to read so much, so together we will sort through the ones she’s not reading anymore and put them in one of the family bookshelves.
Learning how to keep a room clean requires many skills. As parents, it is our job to guide children as they learn these skills each step of the way. When we keep in mind that the goal isn’t a perfectly clean room, but children who are learning how to sort and organize things, how to appreciate cleanliness, and how to apply the skills we have taught them in their own way, then we can heave a big sigh of relief knowing that what we are really after is the process of cleanliness not the destination of a perfectly clean room.
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