"Cleaning the house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing," the comedienne Phyllis Diller once said. But though it can be challenging to keep things clean, neat, and orderly when you've got young children at home, it's not impossible. In fact, the secret is to make your kids part of the solution, rather than the problem. Just in time for spring-cleaning season, here's how to get the kiddos in on the act.
"Toddlers love to help out and often feel such pride in their accomplishments," says Andrea Reiser, a Westport, Connecticut-based parenting blogger and mother of four boys. "When cleaning and picking up is part of the expectations you establish within the family, kids catch on quickly and accept that they are an important part of making the household run smoothly and neatly." But finding tasks that are within their capability is key, she says. For 2- and 3-year-olds, that might mean putting toys back where they belong or collecting place mats after meals.
Preschoolers may not have the coordination or dexterity to neatly make their beds every morning, so a good first effort may be to have them pull the comforter up to the top of the bed, says Kim Cosentino, owner of The De-Clutter Box, an organizing company in Westmont, Illinois. "Be proud of your child's efforts, and don't expect perfection."
Try to give one simple instruction or direction at a time. To a 5- or 6-year-old, "Clean up your room" is an overwhelming statement, but "Put away all the cars in their container" is clearly understood, says organizing pro Cosentino.
For the pre-reading set, visual aids can help ensure their success, says parenting blogger Reiser. "For instance, attach a picture of the object that goes inside each bin or box so your child knows where all the little cars or blocks go."
Cleaning is a lot quicker and easier when there's less clutter to pick up in the first place. Keep toys under control by storing them in covered bins, says Cosentino. "When the bin is overflowing, that flags you that it's probably time to weed out and eliminate." Designate a few hours to help your kids choose toys to donate to children who don't have so many. They'll learn organization skills and charity at the same time.
Kids 5 and 6 years old love to role-play, so try encouraging them to start "Cara's Cleaning Company" or "Henry's Helping Hands." Outfit them for the role with a hat, apron, and child-size rubber gloves. You get to play the part of the appreciative customer.
Make housework fun by incorporating games into various chores. "My girlfriend gives her girls a task such as picking up everything on the floor and challenges them to accomplish the task by the end of a song," says Tracy Fish, a mother of a 7-month-old in Scottsdale, Arizona, who is already thinking of how to help her child get involved in simple chores. "If they get done before the song is over, they get to dance, which is a huge motivator."
The playroom is totally trashed, but the kids aren't in any hurry to start cleaning up? Name a color and have them pick up and put away everything that is that color. "This is kind of embarrassing, but even through my high school years, this is how my mom would get me to clean my room, or any room," says Libby Fearnley, a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York.
On heavy-duty cleaning days, Fearnley's mom would assign each child a room to clean from top to bottom. "Whoever cleaned their assigned room the quickest and the most thoroughly got a treat," she says.
You've heard of the "honey-do list" for hubby? Why not draw up a "sweetie-do list" for your son or daughter? "Once your child can read and you want him to do more than one thing, give him an itemized list with a realistic number of chores for his age and a time frame for it all to be completed," says Cosentino.
"One year when my boys were younger, we were very excited to watch the Winter Olympics together, so I made and posted a colorful chart in our kitchen with each boy's name. They were encouraged to "earn medals" for going above and beyond expectations in keeping the house neat and organized as well as being recognized and celebrated for kind, generous, or helpful behavior," says Reiser. "When each guy accumulated a certain number of medals, he would receive a small gift card to the local bookstore. It was a positive reinforcement project that worked so well we extended it well beyond the Winter Olympics."
If your children's toys are threatening to take over the house, an easy way to downsize is to have them weed through their toys and decide what they want to sell. "It's often easier for them to do if they tackle one category at a time," Cosentino says. "At the sale, older kids can sit at a table with their items with the agreement that they get to keep the money, and whatever doesn't sell will be donated," she adds.
"Parents expect their children to do things the minute they are asked," says Cosentino. "That may be okay when the are 5 and under, but as they get older and are truly concentrating on something else, it's better to give them a time frame, such as 'before your friends leave,' 'before dinner,' or 'by the end of the weekend.'"
That's sending your children the message that their work wasn't good enough, says Reiser. "If you do that, they'll quickly grow discouraged and as a result, they won't bother to learn how to do the task properly and will rely on you to get it done." It helps if you avoid giving your kids tasks that will irk you if they're not done perfectly. "If you're a stickler for crisply folded laundry, for example, you'd be better off taking on the folding yourself and assigning the kids something you're less fussy about," she says.
"Try to be as supportive and encouraging as possible, even if the job isn't done precisely to your expectations," says Reiser. "You should thank them for their effort rather than insincerely praising them for a less-than-successful execution, and then practice the task again together and offer helpful hints that will result in more success."