Tote that bale, jr.
November 21, 2005 1:15 PM   Subscribe

How do you get your young children to do *some* housework and pick up after themselves?

Did your parents do anything that worked? Is this an intractable problem? My kids are 9/6/4/1.5
posted by craniac to Human Relations (41 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are there any consequences if they don't do it?

That would be a great place to start.
posted by agregoli at 1:20 PM on November 21, 2005

It has to be something specific that they do regularly- like, every night, 9 unloads the dishwasher, and 6 and 4 pick up all the toys off the playroom floor.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:21 PM on November 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

Are there any rewards if they do it?

That would be a great place to start.
posted by Jairus at 1:22 PM on November 21, 2005

For the older child: Warn them their stuff goes in the garbage if it isn't cleaned up. Give them a week. Next week take everything that isn't cleaned up, put it in a bag and place it outside their room. Let them know that it will slowly edge its way to the outside trash. Every day move it closer to the garbage bin. When it's garbage day, problem solved. Rinse and repeat until the problem is solved permanently (ie: The child has no more stuff to trash the room up with).

The above is best co-ordinated with your local trash pickup, of course!

Don't bother with that unless you're actually willing to turf their stuff. You might want to keep anything you'd end up having to replace (NOT toys or personal books, but clothes, schoolbooks, etc).
posted by shepd at 1:25 PM on November 21, 2005

Not that I'd necessarily recommend the route my mom took, but, well, it worked, and I don't hate her for it.

She worked away from the home, and was divorced. There were a lot of things around the house I had to do, therefore. When she got home, I would usually be asleep. If my chores were not done, she'd wake me up. I was a heavy sleeper so she'd usually pour water on me. This probably happened maybe 3 or 4 times -- it doesn't take long to "get it". All but the first time were probably things I legitimately forgot (that is, I was not deliberately skipping my chores).

One result of this is that when I left home, I knew how to cook, clean, iron, change diapers and all associated baby care, do laundry, yardwork, basic home maintenance, etc.

Everyone always asks her how she made us do it. I honestly don't know. I always ask people how they knew they could NOT do stuff and get away with it. Somehow she communicated to us that we were not getting away with anything, probably at a young age.
posted by RustyBrooks at 1:34 PM on November 21, 2005

This is what allowances are supposed to be for. If I did my chores, I got paid. Pretty simple. Having a chart on the wall to keep track of who is supposed to do what helps, too.

I had a messy room, and my parents pulled the same thing as shepd's, but with none of that edging it slowly. I got one week, and when I didn't clean up, my parents did. Ended up with just clothes and school supplies and the few toys I never played with that were put away properly. It was a looong 3 months till christmas.
posted by muddgirl at 1:37 PM on November 21, 2005

In part, it depends on how old the children are. Knowing this could help answer the question.

Warn them their stuff goes in the garbage if it isn't cleaned up

I really hate this approach. I know lots of parents who use it, and I have to say that shepd's is notable for at least providing warning/several last chances, but I know several people whose parents did this to them as (really young - like, ages 4 - 6 and up) kids, and its left them with permanant issues about their belongings, the value of their belongings, and (in one case) issues about their parents seeing them and everything they do/achieve as "worthless". (Of course, other parenting problems here as well).

One thing that I think we forget is that kids have a different idea of what "put away" might be than adults do. People often just send their kids in to "clean your room" without having ever done the task with them - showing them how to fold stuff, helping them make decisions about where objects go, what is trash and where trash goes, etc. - and then the parent gets upset when its not done "up to standard".

(Had a conversation about this just last night with a friend who is also a parent. She got very upset when her 8 year old daughter's solution to "put away your clothes" was to push 3/4 of them under the bed. Got taken up short when said daughter said "but Mom, you keep clothes under your bed". And so the mom does -- she stores seasonal stuff and rarely used "fancy" clothes in sealed underbed boxes. Mom then realized that she had never shown her daughter how to do things like fold her clothes or make hospital corners on her bed - she had just expected her to know how)
posted by anastasiav at 1:42 PM on November 21, 2005

No TV unless my room was clean.

A list of regular chores that needed to be done to get my allowance, plus a chart of how I could earn extra $ (ex., $0.75 to vacuum the living room, $0.50/piece to iron - slave labor, I tell you!)

As far as how they started me on the "regular" chores - it was just always there. I don't remember a time when I didn't have certain duties, and they just grew as I got older.
posted by ferociouskitty at 1:45 PM on November 21, 2005

At those ages you could get a lot of mileage out of asking them to pick a specific chore to do. Ask if they want to clear the table or dry the dishes. Ask if they want to fold the laundry or sweep the floor. It doesn't always work but with most kids under 12 you can get a pretty good window where they have trouble recognizing that choosing none of the above is even an option. It works well with vegetables too. Kids really enjoy the illusion of power this approach gives them.
posted by I Foody at 1:48 PM on November 21, 2005

For little tasks like picking something up or gathering their things/putting things away, my wife used the following method when she used to work at a childrens center, and still uses it or on our nieces and nephews or friends kids (we dont have kids yet).

She basically gives them a time limit of X seconds and tells them to hurry and get it done on time, then she starts counting down from 5 whenever they get close to being done, so they feel like they beat the clock. It sounds cheesy but it never fails to work. Especially if you get other people to count with you the final 5 seconds.

For difficult kids or weekly chores, my family members all have chore wheels, but I dont know what the incentives are.
posted by skrike at 1:49 PM on November 21, 2005

By vegetables I mean choosing between peas and carrots I don't mean getting people in comas to do chores.
posted by I Foody at 1:50 PM on November 21, 2005

If I didn't so something I was supposed to, I'd get a bollocking, and then be prevented from doing some activity that I enjoyed; the threat of not being able to watch The Muppet Show was usually enough. Money never came into it. Personally I wouldn't go down the route of rewarding them for not being lazy. IMO kids should learn that acting responsibly and with decency is the very least that is to be expected of someone.
posted by chill at 1:53 PM on November 21, 2005

I feel like I need to write down what it was like as a child forced to do chores before I forget and have my own kids and yell at them constantly. First, my parents are very neat people. No toys in the living room, the kitchen had to be clean at the end of the day and my room had to be clean each Saturday. As a kid I absolutely hated it, but as an adult I like a clean house. There are a few mistakes that they made and a few things that worked really, really well.

You kids are still a bit young, but some of this will work better when they are teenagers. First, the biggest misconception that my parents made was that me or my brother cared about the state of the house at any given moment. My mother desperately wanted us to do chores without her having to ask, but I think she had just forgotten about how everything else (video games, legos, friends) is more important to a child than cleaning. This is why a chore board and a carrot/stick approach is so important.

Some chores should automatically be done without compensation every week like keeping bedrooms/toy rooms clean. The 4 and 6 year old should be expected to keep the floors of their rooms clean and should know how to put their toys away. This can be tied to a punishment or reward such as extra TV for clean rooms if they aren't ready for money.

For your older one other chores should be tied to an allowance. You should have him/her do X-number of chores each week to qualify for an allowance and phase in the rest of your children as they get older.

Your kids may be better mannered than I was, but expect them to need a reason to do their chores and reward them when they do anything extra. I once spent a summer living at my aunt's residence. We could do extra chores for spending money. I have never cleaned a garage so enthusiastically.

Also, get used to the fact that it is likely that your children will not do as good of a job as you do. It may be that they are not skilled enough (learning to use a broom properly takes time) or don't care as much as you do. Let it go. This used to set my parents off and it did our relationship no good.

Good luck! Four kids must be a challenge!
posted by Alison at 1:55 PM on November 21, 2005

Rather than throw the belongings out, donate them to Goodwill.

With the younger kids, you probably want to start doing their work with them, make picking up the room a habit they get into, something that gets them praise from Mom.
Little kids love to "help" so let them, even if you have to end up redoing what they do. It's more about "cleaning equals fun", than it is about the cleaning getting done.

For the older kids, you need them to understand that what you tell them to do isn't optional.
For me, it was simply taking away whatever I thought was more important than helping my parents.
Playing with matchbox rather than folding clothes? Well, no more matchbox for me.
I should add that my parents instilled an "Our word is law" attitude from the time I was a kid, so the above approach worked pretty quickly as a reminder on me.
It might not work so quickly if you have a naturally rebellious child.
posted by madajb at 2:15 PM on November 21, 2005

Fofr myself and my sister, it was punishment/reward. I didn't get my Saturday allowance nor was I allowed to leave the house until I had vacuumed. My sister and I alternated drying the dishes. I finally negotiated with my dad that I would take out the garbage whenever I was told to rather than taking it out when I figured it needed to be taken out, because I could not predict when he would consider the garbage to be full enough to need taking out.

My room had to be tidy, but the trade-off was that my desk could be as messy as I liked.
posted by solid-one-love at 2:17 PM on November 21, 2005

I'm told that if you get 'em young and make it a habit it sticks better. My inner messy child says you should accept sub-standard but well-meaning efforts if you are asking the child to do something that takes some motor skill practice or other physical faculties that they may not actually have yet.

My mother is one of those people around whom things are simply clean; you almost never see her actually doing it because it's always happening on a level just beneath your notice. She was the one who arranged my bedroom with the bed against the wall and then got all disappointed because I "wasn't even trying" to make my bed right. I wasn't able to articulate that she was 6 feet tall to my 3 so cut me some damn slack, longarms. Everything was like that: "do this thing...[sigh, dejected] nevermind, I'll do it."

And once you get the message that you can't do anything right ever, there's no point in trying. And now I'm 33 years old and my house finally only looks kind of bad instead of really awful most of the time.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:33 PM on November 21, 2005

I know someone who uses an increasing reward system to get her kid to school on time. The kid gets x amount each day he's ready for school on time, with a bonus if he does it every day in the week, and a bigger bonus if he doesn't miss a day in a month. It's completely turned this particular boy's behaviour around and he's gone from regular lateness to regularly getting the monthly bonus.
posted by cardboard at 2:34 PM on November 21, 2005

I have 3 sisters, and each of us are 13-16 months apart. We did chores for money, $0.25 was the max we could get for an activity and it was the hardest/longest ones of course (like everyone's laundry, mowing the lawn, etc). Most were $0.10 for simple things that are only once every few days like vacuuming. Doing all the dishes was $0.10 because no one liked doing that many dishes. My parents were even able to get me to paint the outside of the house for $75 when I was 13.

Have the incentive was money, but the other half was the fact that my sisters and I were so close in age. We competed for money. The chores were on a chart that was drawn each week, so we only mowed or did laundry once a week. I remember looking forward to Saturday, not for cartoons, but for the fact that vaccuuming and mowing were on those days.

I can't help it, but when I meet someone who got a set amount for an "allowance" for doing almost nothing, I think of them as a lesser person that can't take care of themselves. Of course I'm jealous, but I'd rather know how to fix a broken vaccuum cleaner, dust a ceiling fan without using a chair (stop the fan, throw up a towel over the blade to clean, turn on fan), and how to clean an oven properly.
posted by cleverusername at 2:44 PM on November 21, 2005

let them choose what to do from a list of things that need to be done.
Also, warn them in advance that the chores are going to need to be done at time X. For example, don't decide that you want the laundry folded 15 minutes into their favorite tv show, instead say, "as soon as *show* is over, want you to either empty the dishwasher or fold the laundry"
also, young kids haven't always mastered the concept of cause/effect so rewards/punishments can be frustrating.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:44 PM on November 21, 2005

Whatever you do, be consistent and as fair as possible. (I had to mow the lawn, dust, vaccuum, etc, but my brother had no similar responsibilities. I assume that this is because he has a penis and I don't, but I could be wrong about that.) Also, nagging turns into white noise after awhile. Pick important things to deal with. My mother would screech at us for getting our play clothes dirty--and then later screech at us for forgetting to look both ways before crossing the street. Guess which screeching we listened to? Yep, you got it. None of it. :)
posted by xyzzy at 2:54 PM on November 21, 2005

For the older child: Warn them their stuff goes in the garbage if it isn't cleaned up. Give them a week. Next week take everything that isn't cleaned up, put it in a bag and place it outside their room. Let them know that it will slowly edge its way to the outside trash. Every day move it closer to the garbage bin. When it's garbage day, problem solved. Rinse and repeat until the problem is solved permanently (ie: The child has no more stuff to trash the room up with).

This sort of thing really depends on your kids and what they're like. I hated (and still hate) being threatened. Being threatened is itself worse than anything you could possibly threaten me with. So when my mom said she was going to throw out all my stuff if I didn't clean my room, I took all my stuff and put it in a garbage bag and handed it to her. (There, now that the stuff's gone, she can't threaten to throw it out.)

My mother eagerly awaits the day when I have kids. Then I'll see!
posted by duck at 3:20 PM on November 21, 2005

When they do pick up after themselves, how are they doing it? Does all their stuff go into a single huge toy bin? That pretty much guarantees that they will empty the entire bin next time they want to play with their toys, since what they want is invariably at the bottom. You could try giving them a few bins to sort their own stuff -- trains in one bin, dolls in another, blocks in another, etc. Kids like sorting their own stuff anyway, and they won't have to empty the entire toy box most of the time.

Also you could take infrequently used things and store them for a few weeks, then rotate the stuff out. They'll have fewer things to put away, and every few weeks they'll feel like they're getting something new.
posted by ldenneau at 3:45 PM on November 21, 2005

Our children are 11 & 14. Over the years we've tried numerous approaches. Below is what now works very well for the whole family (I should mention it didn't' happen overnight):

We instituted the Sunday Family meeting about three years ago. It provides a time to acknowledge achievements of the past week and review what coming up in the week ahead. Over time, our children have begun to understand that when they help with family activities and chores, it actually facilitates doing the things they want - you might say they've changed their "I" attitude to a "we" mentality.

It's also done wonders for family communications. It doesn't handle all the "gotchas" that present themselves during the week, but has sure helped mitigate them.

As for actual chores, about a year ago, we agreed on the weekly household chores that needed to be done and which they could do. They worked together to agree on who does what and we "negotiated" the value of each chore.

My wife and I then created an LLC and hired them as "contract staff". Now they do their weekly chores on a very consistent basis and instead of an allowance, we pay them a salary based on the above payment schedule. Sometimes, one will do some of the others chores, and get paid accordingly. Those times we've had to do their chores (less and less the case as they like having spending money the older they get) they don't get paid.

A nice side benefit to us is we get a tax write off since their "employees" of the LLC and they are beginning to learn some valuable "business/life" lessons.

Hope the above helps. Good luck!
posted by TheLama at 4:02 PM on November 21, 2005

I've been thinking about how I've managed to get my children to tidy up and I can't come up with anything specific. My kids are 8, 4.5, 1.5. The oldest has chores (empty dishwasher, sweep floors, feed pets & whatever else I ask). The 4yo helps set & clear the table & whatever else I ask. The 1.5yo enjoys doing whatever his brother's do (his chore is to put the food on his highchair tray back onto his plate when dinner is over, seriously). They all pick up toys & other of their belongings from the main living areas, and they all help bring items in from the car after shopping and with laundry. 8yo gets himself up in the morning & showers. Both 8 & 4yo dress themselves.

How? I guess I started young, like with the food back on the plate. I also started young with helping them tidy each evening or after playing with certain toys - they watched me, then joined in by the time they were 1.

Their bedrooms I don't worry about much - sometimes I ask them to clean & they pretty much just clear the floor. Every month or so I do a big cleaning along with their help.

Sometimes I'll say, "I'm sweeping or vaccuuming, you'd better get your toys put away or they'll end up in the trash." No yelling or threats, it's just a fact, and they scramble to get the toys. If they spill something then they clean it up, from a very young age (I will help the 1.5yo use paper towels). Today my 8yo spilled applesauce on the floor and without a word from me he groaned & cleaned it up.

We don't pay allowance for chores, allowance is for learning about finances-, not a reward for being a contributing family member. Families work together to maintain a clean, safe, and comfortable home - I don't get paid for it, Dad doesn't get paid for it, and kids don't get paid for it. We offer a ton of praise, thanks and pride for jobs done well.

Wish I had more concrete advice or ideas for you but I think we've always just assumed that our kids would clean up after themselves. Perhaps it'd be helpful to offer your kids a lot of guidance and help until they really know how. The work you do in that direction now will pay off soon enough.
posted by LadyBonita at 4:08 PM on November 21, 2005

My father, when I was aged but 9 years old, told me I was 'too small' too handle the lawn mower and 'couldn't handle a man's job.' You can imagine the tone in his voice. No sooner had I proven that I could handle a man's job than it became a young man's job.

Oh, and sunday is by far the best chore day. Get 'em done by noon if you and the kids both wake up early.
posted by Cycloptichorn at 4:27 PM on November 21, 2005

When i was growing up my parents kind of did it half the time, so now my stuff is totally messy and then I totally clean everything up once in a while. It's a problem :)
posted by Dean Keaton at 4:39 PM on November 21, 2005

Damnit this post is getting me to clean up again.
posted by Dean Keaton at 4:40 PM on November 21, 2005

Remember that rewards are much, much, much more motivating than punishments. I don't know your kids, but think of a way for them to want to help, rather than get pissy if they don't. I still remember times when I was resentful that my mom or dad made me do some chore that I'd be punished for if I didn't. There must be something they want to do, something they want to eat, etc. (And don't forget to reward yourself when the chores are done, too!)
posted by zardoz at 5:53 PM on November 21, 2005

I know I tried very hard to get out of work because I knew that, no matter how much I did, my parents would always want more. (Both are workaholics and felt my siblings and I should ape this behavior). If your children understand that you only want them to perform a certain, set list of tasks each week and that they are free to spend the remainder of their time slouching, playing video games, watching violent movies, and generally being a kid, I think that would help. Also, if you can give them some flexibility with regards to the work schedule, that could help a lot as well. Oh, and also.. it always helped me a great deal if I saw a need for the task at hand. Putting toilet paper in all the bathrooms was good, cause I didn't want to be the one who ran out at an inopportune moment. But washing windows sucked; what did I care if they were dusty and streaked?
posted by Clay201 at 6:33 PM on November 21, 2005

Throwing stuff out -- yes, even with second chances -- may well result in kids with value issues later. My parents' tactics were similar: "If you don't bring down this small, fragile toy at the top of the stairs within two minutes, I'm going to throw it down." I would of course be busy doing something and overestimate the time I had left, and another toy would bite the dust. Now I'm pathological about putting everything I own where it cannot possibly be damaged (usually in unhandy spots where I can't enjoy the whatever-it-is).

Sometimes there wasn't even a warning: "You know you're not supposed to leave XYZ at the top of the stairs!" *crash*

Going superpsycho with warnings isn't the answer either. My father must have read a book about this at some point, because everything he said had a limit. "Stop slurping your milkshake in five seconds." "I want your room picked up within an hour." On the other hand, my mom would say things like "If you want to go on the trip Friday, I want you not to punch your brother at all" or "When the show is over, why don't you take out the trash?" Guess which I got (and still get) along with better?
posted by booksandlibretti at 6:44 PM on November 21, 2005

People often just send their kids in to "clean your room" without having ever done the task with them - showing them how to fold stuff, helping them make decisions about where objects go, what is trash and where trash goes, etc. - and then the parent gets upset when its not done "up to standard".

This is very important. I have too many friends who simmer with resentment over the poorly-cleaned bathroom. Well, the 6-year-old and the 8-year-old neither particularly understand or care why they're not doing it right, and Mom and Dad's bathroom isn't really any cleaner, anyway. Chores suck, but try to set a good example with your attitude, and teach your kids how you expect things to be done. A checklist of what it means to be "clean" may be helpful.
posted by desuetude at 6:57 PM on November 21, 2005

I find everyone's childhood memories of cleaning strategies fascinating, and quite useful. We are using a CD in the morning that plays specific songs with specific tasks attached, which works ok, except we are trying to develop an evening strategy.

I grew up with inconsistent threats and a terribly messy house. My wife grew up with something similar, and an angry mom.
posted by craniac at 7:04 PM on November 21, 2005

It's hard to break the lazy habits of youth, to make them do chores. Use a carrot and stick method. Just make sure it's a really good stick so they go for the carrot!
posted by parallax7d at 7:14 PM on November 21, 2005

What LadyBonita said. I helped out without resentment when I was a kid, because that was what families did. There weren't threats and there weren't rewards. Likewise, a friend of mine put the toys away at the end of the day from the start of his son's life. Now his son, who isn't yet two, puts things away at the end of the day.

I think it also helps to get kids to be responsible for the parts of their life for which they can be responsible as early as possible. When I was about nine, my mother showed me how to do laundry. From that point on, if it was important to me that something be clean, it was my job to see to it. If she was doing a load, she might ask if I had anything to put in, but if all my clothes wound up dirty, that was my fault. I've had many many roomies whose parents did their laundry till they moved out. Guess whose better at keeping the house in better shape?
posted by dame at 7:41 PM on November 21, 2005

Another echo of LadyBonita. My son (8.5) does some of his chores alongside his father or me and he does some all by himself. Household maintenance is just something people do when they live indoors. He does occasionally need reminding and redirection -- at 8.5, he's soooo easily distracted -- but it's just part of our daily routine, like brushing teeth and eating breakfast.

He does get an allowance, but that's not connected to chores.
posted by houseofdanie at 8:05 PM on November 21, 2005

I agree with letting kids pick, and would add that it works best if you alternate who gets first pick from week to week. Reading these responses makes me realize that what my parents did best was to act like chores were something to look forward to. It sounds cheesy when I write it down, but just using phrases like "Pick your favorite job" instead of "Decide which chore you have to do" makes a big difference to a kid. They're learning behavior from you, if you show how much you dislike chores they'll learn that too. We also always did our chores together, little ones before dinner and big ones on Sundays, so it was a social time we got to spend doing "big kid stuff" with our parents. My brother and I were really competitive and being given a special solemn responsibility that (it was implied) our sibling wasn't old/clever/skilled enough to handle was pretty cool too. In short, I just realized that my parents were marketing geniuses.
posted by cali at 9:09 PM on November 21, 2005

1.5 seems a little young.
posted by Paris Hilton at 9:19 PM on November 21, 2005

My advice would be to remember that you have access to one of the most powerful and adictive intoxicants known to man, television.

Make them earn points to watch TV by doing chores.
posted by Paris Hilton at 9:27 PM on November 21, 2005

My daughter has this ability to totally ignore anything I'm saying when the tv is on. So I turn it off, and I make it clear that it doesn't go back on until the job is done (and I help her, too, depending on the task). I have a Tivo so she doesn't miss any shows when this happens, she just has to postpone some enjoyment for awhile. I'm actually pretty indulgent because I'm a noncustodial parent, so I don't make her do as much as I should.

Once I was cleaning and she volunteered to help me. The task at hand was the bathroom. She was so helpful and had such a great attitude (she was completely undaunted by grossness), that I bought her a special reward for how helpful she had been.

What I really need is a way to make *me* do my chores. :)
posted by beth at 11:35 PM on November 21, 2005

My son is almost 7.5 and my daughter is almost 4. They both help out with chores simply because that's the way it works at our house. Everyone helps maintain the house. My son's responsibilities are to feed the dogs and do his homework (with help). My daughter's responsibilities are to throw her trash away (yogurt containers, mostly) and to help put away the silverware from the dishwasher.

They are both expected to keep their rooms (mostly) picked up, and to help clean up the common areas - lots of times this is done with my wife and I helping. They both "help" with yardwork and other tasks as needed.

Fortunately, both my kids are pretty agreeable, so it's generally not a hassle. However, they know that I will shut the television off if I need to, or to remove all options for entertainment and fun until the work is completed. The "illusion of power" that Foody talks about above is one of my favorite techniques.

My son gets an allowance and interest on that amount, but the money is not tied to chores for two reasons: 1) sooner or later, kids will decide that they don't need the money as much as they need to skip the chores and 2) we're using the allowance and interest to teach him about money, savings and purchasing power.
posted by Irontom at 11:11 AM on November 22, 2005

Paris Hilton wrote:1.5 seems a little young.

When the 18 month old sees us cleaning she picks things up and hands them to us. It's very cute.
posted by craniac at 7:54 AM on November 23, 2005

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