8 top tips to teach young kids the value of cleaning up

 Kids who start doing chores from an early age are more likely to have better relationships, better academic success and eventually success in their careers. Here's a few tips to start them off without putting up a fight.

Dr. Tamar Chansky, psychologist and author of several books including “Freeing Your Child from Anxiety” points to a study published by the University of Minnesota, which found that giving children household chores at an early age “helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self reliance.” The study, which followed over 80 children throughout their life, found that kids who started doing chores early (at about age 3 or 4) were more likely to have good relationships with friends and family, as well as academic success and eventually sucess in their careers when compared with those who didn’t have chores as young kids.

Children love to make a mess, but cleaning? Usually not so much, and too often, the onus of tidying up falls on Mum or Dad, with a survey from ClosetMaid finding that the average parent has to pick up after their kid 28 times a week — while half of parents do their kids chores for them to ensure they’re done right.

Just as young children need to learn the value of money; they need to learn the value of cleaning. Here’s 8 ways to teach them why cleaning matters not just to get them to do it willingly on a regular basis (though, that’s a definite plus), but throughout their life.

Don't use cleaning as a form of punishment

How many times as a child was I sent to clean the yard or scrub the kitchen floor as a form of punishment? Too many times to count. My mother may have meant well (and it certainly got the job done at the time), but this method doesn’t bode well if you would like your child to actually want to clean.

The better message to send to kids is that cleaning “is not a punishment or a chore, it’s a ticket to other things being possible,” says Chansky. “If you are negative and talk about what kids ‘have to do’ in a grumpy manner, kids will be grumpy right back.”

Tell your child why cleaning is important on a strictly hygienic level

Britta Gidican, a corporate communications professional in Seattle, found that helping her child connect the dots on how a messy home can lead to bigger problems got him interested in cleaning.

“I explain to [my six-year-old son] how germs travel, bugs lay webs/nests in messes, etc.” Gidican says, noting that she started doing this when he was around three years old. “That has seemed to do the trick in illustrating the ‘why’ behind our need to clean so he now understands and even goes further to explain it to others. [If] he sees someone leave dirty clothes on the floor or not clean up their dishes he will lecture them about how it's messy and needs to be tidy.”

Toddlers may not be able to clean, but they can still help

The aforementioned study notes that children who start to clean as young as age three were best positioned later in life. That sounds awfully young. What three year-old has the attention span and cognitive ability to really clean? Few, if any — but they can still help, and as Sonja Meehan, a professional organizer, owner of Simply Thriving Organization and the mother of two boys points out, toddlers usually really want to be involved in any activity, tidying up included.

“Take advantage of this and help them form good habits while they're still such enthusiastic workers,” Meehan says. “Find ways that they can participate in doing chores — sorting socks, dusting low surfaces, pushing the buttons on the washing machine, picking up toys, etc.”

Keep it small and realistic (this can be helpful for adults, too!)

“Why do adults even want to run away screaming from household tasks?” asks Chansky. “It’s overwhelming. Counteract that ‘everything is a mess and everything needs cleaned up’ with realistic expectations: identify a few small tasks (or, when it comes to kids — even just one task) and get them done. Then you and your kids will have a sense of accomplishment rather than dread when it comes to cleaning.”

Give them options

Part of what can make chores feel punishing is when you have no say in what they are or how you’ll deal with them. So give young kids some choice in the process.

“You can let your child choose their preferred chore within the parameters you set: you can do blocks or clothes — which would you like?” says Chansky. “Your child can also choose the thing they like to do: shredding mail, watering plants, setting the table — they will get a sense of ownership for their ‘domain’.”

Use a timer to “race” your kids in clean ups

Gidican has also found that setting a timer when her son cleans effectively taps into his competitive spirit.

“The idea to use a timer came to us when my son started racing his dad for every little thing, eating faster, coloring faster, getting dressed faster, etc.” says Gidican. “From there we started setting timers on other stuff like tidying up to get him to do it and have fun with it. He's a super competitive kid, so it worked out nicely. It's benefited our family by avoiding tantrums and meltdowns about cleaning.”

Have your child factor clean up time into play dates

Is your kid having company this weekend? Make sure they know that the end of the play session will be devoted to tidying up toys and any other messes made. This may sound a bit punitive — but really it’s just teaching kids that a mess they make is theirs to clean up if they can, and that doing tidying with a friend can help get the job done faster and more enjoyably.

“Before playdates begin and end, create an expectation of cleanliness,” says Curley. “Ensure the standard is met before a friend is invited or arrives. About 20 minutes prior to the playdate ending, let the kids know to begin cleaning up. They could either choose to do it together, or your child can go it alone afterward. They will likely enjoy the assistance as it is faster and more fun to clean up with a friend.”

Use ‘Grandma’s Rule’

You’ve probably heard of the old school discipline tactic “Grandma’s Rule,” more formally known as the Premack Principle. Here’s a refresher, courtesy of Chansky:

“Grandma says no dessert until after you finish your dinner.”

Grandma’s Rule is handy when teaching kids to make a habit of cleaning, and Chansky recommends having “clean sweeps” timed before play time or another activity that kids are looking forward to. For example: “We are going to the movies at 3; Let’s figure out our clean sweeps to do before,” she says.

Note: You can apply Grandma’s Rule to something as routine as time with electronics, “You can use your iPad once we get this kitchen cleaned up.”