At what age do kids start generally cleaning up after themselves?
October 28, 2021 9:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm struggling a bit with my 8 year old daughter who is heinously bad at cleaning/tidying up after herself and it causes me heaps of stress. Do I need to wait this out, or are there other techniques to explore?

In the scope of potential issues with kids, I realise this is absolutely not a big problem, but it's just one of those small things that has been slowly driving me nuts over time and I feel at a loss on how to address and worried that my stress might impact our relationship or that I might be making things worse somehow.

The issue is so basic, I feel a bit bad even posting this as a question here, but surely I'm not alone! It's nothing shocking - just basically never putting anything back where it belongs, leaving rubbish out, clothes on the floor, dirty tissues on shelves, etc etc.

Working from home for the last two years, having a clean space is really important to my own mental wellbeing. I've tried to explain the importance of having a clean house and taking care of our things by demonstrating these behaviours myself. I have also given her a really wide berth in her own private areas which she can leave as messy as she likes. Furthermore, I think have greatly expanded my tolerance for mess and disorder, but at times it goes beyond what I think is acceptable (and in some cases, hygienic).

Apart from some anxiety she's mostly a typical kid, but she absolutely *hates* being told what to do (again, another shocker), so as soon as I point out the issue or ask her to do something, she can get very upset or defiant. The best I have been able to achieve so far has been using rewards, but then it just feels like I am constantly bribing her and it doesn't feel right.

It seems that this is either just not in her DNA, or she just isn't at the age where it's appropriate to expect this. I'm not sure! I've seen other posts on the green about similar issues with teenagers, and I'd really like to cultivate some better habits here if possible before then.

Either way, I hate when our interactions become a struggle of either me asking repeatedly for something very basic to be done and it turning into a whole drama, or me ending up just cleaning/putting away/ignoring the thing itself, and then feeling bad that I'm sending a bad message or something.

Parents of the green who have been where I have been - please share the wisdom of your lived experience so I can either re-adjust my expectations or explore some new approaches! Thank you! 🙏
posted by sxtrumpeto to Human Relations (39 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: I don't have any grand insights about making it into a habit, as this has remained a struggle in my household forever. No one in my house is naturally tidy and there are endless power struggles over it. However, one thing about trying to get a younger kid to clean up (vs a teenager) is that you can make it fun and organize tidying up into a game, and then it's just one less negativity- generator. The thing that worked best when I had young kids was making a jar of "tasks" on folded slips of paper, which they would select one at a time. Out of every three or four serious tasks (ie pick up 5 toys and put them away, line up shoes, gather books from around house and put back on shelf) there would be slips of paper that said things like "imitate a monkey," "run up and down the hall," or "draw a funny picture of Mom." Just adding some fun and laughter to this whole thing took away some of my own stress about it, too.
posted by nantucket at 10:22 PM on October 28, 2021 [15 favorites]


Best answer: What does she say about her own feelings about mess & tidying up? Have you tried involving her in the problem solving process?

Problem: "You do not want to tidy up because [it's boring/she doesn't see the point/her friends don't have to tidy their mom does it all/etc etc etc]. The problem is that I work from home and I need a tidy space to function. So how do we solve this problem" Then just like brainstorming at work, write down all the answers even if they are objectively bad, like "have the parents pick up while they serve me ice cream."

"Tidy up" might be too broad to start. Maybe start with the habit that annoys you the most.
posted by muddgirl at 10:30 PM on October 28, 2021 [13 favorites]


For reference this is basically paraphrased straight from the book "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen" which I highly recommend.
posted by muddgirl at 10:40 PM on October 28, 2021 [12 favorites]


Well, my folks had me standing on a stool and doing dishes at that age. They would put a quarter on top of the fridge, which I could have when I was done. Yes, it was bribery, but I am totally at ease with doing dishes today. The thought of all the penny candy I could buy with that quarter was enough motivation for me.

I also was given age appropriate tasks, like sorting clean socks and balling them up, and helping to set the table. We did get a weekly allowance as well, so I didn't get paid for doing those other chores.

When my daughter was 9 or so, we all did chores together on Saturday mornings, think she dust mopped the floors, and also helped with dishes, but not every day.

I've known people who used to threaten to bag up and throw away toys if they weren't picked up, I don't think I ever did that, but I did have a lot of clear plastic bins and shelves in my son's room, for his toys, and I'd have to sit on the floor and have him help me put them away.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:47 PM on October 28, 2021 [4 favorites]


I would also say that waiting for a specific age is a losing strategy; I'm a grown adult and my threshold for tolerating a certain amount of untidiness is relatively high. My parents generally looked for ways to contain the messes to places where they didn't have to deal with it much (e.g. my bedroom), and the expectation was that if anyone made a mess in a common area they were responsible for cleaning it up, no questions asked.
posted by Aleyn at 11:04 PM on October 28, 2021 [8 favorites]


I didn't address the age question, kids can start cleaning up after themselves (with age appropriate help and reminders) starting around 1.5 years old.
posted by muddgirl at 11:05 PM on October 28, 2021 [15 favorites]


Instead of asking daughter to do x task (which gives her the option to say no) tell her she can do A or B. So she can either put away her toys or help unpack the dishwasher. That way she feels like she has some agency and control.

For my kids who are 8 and 10, I tell them I need one to unpack the dishwasher of clean dishes and another to put the dirty dishes in. Now if I just asked one of them to do a task, I’d get a lot of pushback but because I’ve told them they both need to help, they jump in as fast as they can to beat the other to the least obnoxious task (seriously, they race to be be the first to unpack because neither want to pack it!)

So if she doesn’t have a sibling, and you have a partner, maybe involve them, you need one to do x and one to do y and chances are she’ll race to do the ‘better’ chore. It’s weird kid psychology but it works.
posted by Jubey at 11:32 PM on October 28, 2021 [6 favorites]


Pick three tasks, everybody picks one, the ones not picked go in the hat and the non-pickers (well, the remaining two, but actually only one) has to pick from the hat. These would be naturally easy at first, but get harder as time goes along. Or everybody picks from all three and then you can swap for favors or other enticements. (My boss did this alot, worked rather well, pick your least horrible poison, everybody has something to get done.)
posted by zengargoyle at 12:27 AM on October 29, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: For new approaches you might do some reading around pathological demand avoidance. I do t think your daughter has this issue but it has a lot of insight about how to get things done and ask for things when demands cause stress and anxiety.
posted by pairofshades at 2:41 AM on October 29, 2021 [4 favorites]


Best answer: My daughter is a toddler, so I can't speak to having a tween.

However, she picks up toys, puts away laundry, sweeps, and helps change sheets on beds. She also helps with some tasks in the kitchen, like loading food into the slow cooker and mashing the buttons.

I treat chores as a non-negotiable part of the day, but I give her some sense of control over them.

"It's Thursday, so we need to change sheets on beds and do a load of laundry. Do you want to do that before or after lunch?" "We need to pull weeds today, want to grab your tools after breakfast or should we go for a walk first?"

Then we do the tasks together, as a team, and we make them fun - we wiggle pillowcases on and off while singing "shake shake shake...shake your pillows!" or we put the less fragile toys away by playing catch with a Dollar Tree butterfly net and lobbing them into bins.

It's not perfect. I've had to dramatically chill on my housekeeping expectations, and everything takes FOREVER. And I still get defiance and meltdowns.

But setting the expectation, while giving her a bit of say, seems to work so far.
posted by champers at 3:43 AM on October 29, 2021 [28 favorites]


Oh goodness, as a lifelong untidy person I feel for you- prepare yourself for years of struggling with this issue, and likely you will both have to compromise. I hate cleaning, it's so boring and things get messy right away anyhow and if it's just clutter (not dirty dishes or anything unhygenic) it doesn't really bother me. But my natural habits would drive a tidy person insane! As for what might help an 8 year old develop good habits? Bribery (as mentioned above) absolutely. Making small, manageable tasks (pick up 10 items and put them away before you do X every day), picking and choosing your battles (common areas need to stay clean, kid's bedroom not so much). Does she ever have friends over? Cleaning up her room/the house before company comes over might be another motivator.
Maybe there will be some aspects of cleaning your kid won't mind (vacuuming, washing dishes, whatever) and that will be their job? My mother hates doing laundry so she taught us how to use the washing machine and dryer basically as soon as we were old enough to reach the buttons. I still left clothes all over the bedroom floor, though. Lastly, my one piece of advice is that some people are naturally messy- please do not take their bad habits as a personal attack or lack of respect.
posted by emd3737 at 3:49 AM on October 29, 2021


So, I was kind of like this and my parents just left me to it. We all had to do a share of the chores around the house (kids did the washing up after dinner, we had a rota for the house cleaning at the weekends), which I just got on and did but my bedroom was my own domain. It was a foot deep in stuff for most of my childhood. At the time I felt super-proud and lucky that I was allowed to not tidy up and do whatever I wanted, unlike other kids. But a couple of years ago I found a photo of my room in those days, and I just felt... a bit sad. It looked like a hoarder's place. And I'm really now in my 40s learning how to keep my living space tidy through regular effort.

I honestly can't decide how I feel about it now. I don't suppose I would have been fun or pleasant if my parents had tried forcing me to do it. I'm not sure I'm a naturally tidy person and perhaps by wishing I'd been helped to have a tidier room, I'm actually wishing for an impossible personality transplant. I can see why my folks decided it wasn't a hill to die on. Then again, I got on with doing the chores I was supposed to do, so maybe if they'd just made it What We Do, I would have got on with it. I certainly think being told "Go to your room and tidy it" would have turned it into a horrible experience, a battleground and a punishment. Somebody saying, "OK, let's work on your room together today," not being antagonistic, but both putting some effort to turn it back into a nice space, chatting while we did it, might have paid dividends. And probably bribery.
posted by penguin pie at 4:21 AM on October 29, 2021 [5 favorites]


What works for us is to have tidying up done multiple times per day, before the next thing: Clean up before next toy or activity. Yes we can go to park once cleaning is done. Dinner will be ready when everything is put away. Chores done before screentime.
posted by halehale at 4:24 AM on October 29, 2021 [13 favorites]


Don't wait it out. There are plenty of people (including me) who do not naturally develop tidiness. Just don't treat it as a moral failing, but as a habit/skill to learn. She is probably not being untidy at you (and if she is, that's not a tidiness problem). Providing more scaffolding, so that tasks are not overwhelming. If possible, work on one thing at a time. Encouraging routine so that some things have a chance to become habitual and so less effort. Make sure that things have homes to go to when they're put away and that she knows where those are. I wouldn't worry all that much about the bribing. I bribe myself to do housework.
posted by plonkee at 5:09 AM on October 29, 2021 [27 favorites]


Best answer: To answer your age question, kids can clean up after themselves a *lot* younger than 8! Mine have been helping since they were two years old, possibly younger, and have had the actual responsibility for certain chores (like making their own bed or putting laundry in the washer/dryer or unpacking the dishwasher) since they were about 5.

I have one kid who readily does chores and another with whom it's like pulling teeth. My trick is to shamelessly bribe children with token rewards. My reluctant kid gets offered one chocolate chip or one gummy bear for every 3 clean clothes folded and put away from the laundry, or for every 5 items put away from the dishwasher, or whatever. At the start of the chore, my kid often needs to immediately eat the gummy bear for motivation, but after eating maybe two or three, the kid seems to simply get into the swing of the task and works all the way through, collecting a nice little pile of candy to be eaten at the very end.

I should say that there's also a "stick" hanging at the other end; I will offer to set a timer for my kids as motivation to get the task done in a reasonable time rather than let them dawdle, and the idea is I'll start taking away their screen time by the minute if they go over the timer. But both of them always say they don't want me to set the timer. And I'll agree and say, "Okay, make sure you don't dawdle then," and they don't, because otherwise I really will set that timer for them.
posted by MiraK at 5:26 AM on October 29, 2021 [3 favorites]


I am not naturally tidy.

My parents are both clutter-people with hoarder tendencies. Everything in our house was clean growing up, you could eat off our toilets, but you'd trip over 40 stacks of books, papers, and boxes to get down the hall to the bathroom.

And on top of that, my brother and I were constantly blamed for the mess that was plainly at least 75% our parents' stuff. We would get in trouble for playing with our own toys in the 5x3 strip of carpet we cleared off to have room to play because we were messing up the only clear floor in the house.

Anyway, as you can probably guess, I did not develop good coping skills around chores and cleaning. And since there was some emotional abuse packed into the psychology of mess for me, I'm also extremely antagonistic to anyone telling me to clean.

Here are the ONLY things that have worked for me:

- Seeing the impact of mess (mine or anyone's) on others. I'm not an asshole (mostly) and I don't want MY shit getting in the way of other people living their lives. The tidiest I have ever been is living with roommates. Honestly talking through how you and the rest of the family is impacted by specific aspects A, B, and C of kid's mess could be very beneficial. Don't tell her "pick up your sweater," tell her the reasons how leaving the sweater on the living room floor will negatively impact laundry, floor use, etc (and be realistic and reasonable about it please). Let her realize for herself that picking up her sweater, and in the future not leaving the sweater on the floor at all, is the best solution to those problems. This would have been effective for me as a child.

- Having other people, and adults in particular, agree that chores suck, they are miserable and no fun, but we have to do them and we're all going to be doing them until we die so it's probably best to figure out a way to just get things done. Look, I know people in real life who actually enjoy scrubbing their sinks to gleaming perfection. That's never going to be me. I'm 35, have a house all my own, friends, a career where I am successful, and no matter how mature or capable I am I will always. hate. doing. chores. Level with me, admit that it's one of those miserable and inescapable parts of life so that I know I just have to figure it out and deal with it. People who say "come on cleaning can be fun!" to a person like me only succeed in making me feel like a broken human who is bad at life and that attitude can get fucked.
posted by phunniemee at 5:30 AM on October 29, 2021 [7 favorites]


Best answer: I've tried to explain the importance of having a clean house and taking care of our things by demonstrating these behaviours myself.

This is the opposite of explaining :) Explaining the importance of having a clean house would include things like:

"Leaving dishes in the sink means it takes an extra five minutes every time someone needs to make a meal, and that adds up to over 1820 minutes per year, or over 30 hours -- and if you clean your dish as soon as you're done with it, it takes much less time. Food doesn't dry or harden, bugs are less likely to invade and spread disease..."

"Fairness is so fundamental to life that psychological studies of apes and even dogs have shown that unfairness triggers resentment and meanness. It just feels really, really bad, and it's hard to forget. So please be fair to me and don't make me clean up after you any more than needed."

"Every time something is left out on the floor, it increases the chances that someone will trip over it and fall. Falls in the home are a huge risk for the elderly -- a single fall like that can be the difference between laying in bed in a nursing home for the rest of one's life, or being able to drive, meet friends for lunch, travel and hike in nature, and living independently. It's really major! I'm not that old yet, and you certainly aren't, but it's still a big risk -- if you fell and hit your head on the corner of a table, or landed on your neck awkwardly, it can be life-changing for sure. It's not a very probable event to be sure, but the possible outcome is so very bad that even a tiny increase in probability is something that we must avoid if at all possible."
posted by amtho at 5:35 AM on October 29, 2021 [5 favorites]


Oh and I should add, bribing never worked for me. I have always been alarmingly stubborn, and between that and my general contrariness I am unbribable. Parents and lobbyists hate me. You have to convince me or it's not going to happen, same today as when I was 7. Your kid may be the same.
posted by phunniemee at 5:36 AM on October 29, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: We gave our kids each a spot - one has a cart, one has a basket. The stuff they get out every day goes to the spot - the chromebook and ipad and mouse and current fidget toy and art crap. Everything else has a spot that it's supposed to go back to, and if it is found somewhere else it gets put into a bag that gets donated after 30 days if the kids don't notice that something in it is missing. If they have a currently set up big project - barbie town or immersive lego - they can leave that out. On Saturdays, in the morning, we spend an hour as a family doing big cleaning, and they know that if they've kept up with their stuff we finish in that hour - otherwise it often takes them longer, and that's a good stick.

But we also let them do as they please (within reason, no food or drinks, we have to be able to vacuum, etc) in their own rooms.

It's taken YEARS to get to this point and our 8 year old is a lot like yours. Our 12 year old was great for a while and now has entered into a phase that involves a lot of heavy sighing.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:37 AM on October 29, 2021 [3 favorites]


What helps a lot in our family is framing chores as “part of being in a family is making shared space nice for anyone to be in.”

Various family members are “captains” of certain tasks. I am the captain of the Good Ship Laundry, my husband is the captain of dishes, kid is the captain of stocking the bathrooms and letting us know when we are low on TP or soap. A bit of responsibility and visible sharing of tasks seems to help.

We also have semi-regular all-family cleanups. My husband is better at tidying as he goes, and the kid and I even this out by spending an hour a week on the things that are easier to overlook day-to-day, like vacuuming. I write a list and we pick whatever we want from the list, which overwrites some of the “ugh stop telling me what to do” programming. We listen to podcasts or music as we go. If we had more issues with daily stuff, I would totally do a daily 10 minutes after dinner, or whatever time of day was likeliest to meet with compliance, and have a checklist on a whiteboard with basic management tasks like “remove garbage from table” or “look for empty dishes and bring them to the sink.”
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:05 AM on October 29, 2021 [2 favorites]


My 7-year-old is just learning this. She has chores to do every day - put dishes in sink, empty her bookbag, and clean up her room and her play area before bed. We explain why this has to happen - if you leave food out, it will attract bugs. If you leave toys out, someone could step on them and break them, or pieces could get lost. Mom could trip and break her toe (which actually happened). If you don't put your clothes in the hamper, they won't get washed and you can't wear your favorite shirt again. Every night we do a 10 minute cleanup before bed - everybody in the family straightens up something. To start off I would pick one task at a time until she gets used to it, then add on. Agree with others that chores must be done before favored activities.
posted by jennypower at 6:08 AM on October 29, 2021 [2 favorites]


But just remember that an eight-year-old is not going to remember to do everything consistently all the time. They're distractable and impulsive and reward-driven, and none of these naturally give rise to a steady discipline of cleaning. As with many other complex tasks in their lives, reminders are going to be part of your job for a long time yet. You really have to not take it personally. They're not defying you when they don't do it (for the most part; if they are, they'll be super obvious about it) and you can't react as though they are. Even when you see the coat on the floor for the ninety millionth time.

Source: someone whose parent absolutely treated small children making a mess as a move in a power struggle and to this day has to overcome internal violent resentment and/or avoidance re: almost any cleaning task whatsoever. (We'll say nothing of the resulting relationship with that parent.)
posted by praemunire at 6:56 AM on October 29, 2021 [1 favorite]


Tidying up is a very general term, with an 8 year old you need to be more specific. Honestly I would set it as a daily chore, rotate zones weekly. At x time each day the whole family does tidying chores, parents have their areas and set her a an area to tidy, maybe rotate weekly if you guys want or not whatever works for your family. Then have a list for each area of what is expected (of course expectations on her are age appropriate) so Tidy Kitchen chore might be (Put stuff on counter away, wipe counter, load dishwasher, hang up towels), not just "Tidy Kitchen. This way it's not you against them, it's just this is what we all do and she can see everyone doing their chores at chore time.

Also if you are expecting her to Tidy make sure things have "homes" make sure she can reach and use them very easily, she's eight, she's not as strong, tall or able to manipulate things. Hang up backpack doesn't work if her bag is heavy and the hook is too high or if hanging up her coat means moving 3 other coats and picking up the umbrella that fell to the floor. You want to make tidy and away the easiest option.

Have a chore chart for the whole family, at the end of the week when you've all done your chores that week, it's family trip to Dairy Queen time, or some other fun family activity. Have any adults act excited by this treat and make it a family treat you all do together as you all did your chores that week. Again reinforcing it's a family effort that all members of the family do.
posted by wwax at 7:14 AM on October 29, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: I have a couple of kids who suffer from executive dysfunction. If your kid has this she will need a lot of support strategies.

The first thing I would do is figure out what parts of the job are giving her difficulty. Some people are thing blind. So if you ask her to collect all the clothing that is in her mess, does she get two or three items and then tell you she has found everything even though she has missed three times as many? If so there is a perceptual issue making it hard for her to figure out how to sort. She may have to pick up every single movable item in her room one at a time, say what it is out loud and then say out loud where it goes. "Clothing.... goes in hamper"

Another executive functioning issue can stem from not knowing where both hands are at the same time and what they are doing. If your daughter has this, she can forget what she is holding and not observe herself putting it down (in the wrong place). This means she can't remember where it is and when combined with thing blindness finding things again is a challenge.

It would be a good idea to simplify the heck out of your daughter's bedroom. Often busy rooms make it much harder for people with executive function issues. Busy patterns and objects on display make the environment so stimulating that they can't process the incoming data. Something as simple as a flowered or multicolored patterned comforter on the bed can make it impossible for the person to figure out that there are also three stuffed animals that belong there, and yesterday's pajama top, two books, a slipper, their book bag that doesn't. However if she has a plain solid colored comforter on the bed the pajama top, books and slipper have a greater chance to become visible.

Make sure there is lots of empty space in her room, so that drawers are not full even when everything is put away, For some kids the challenge of having to move stuff to fit something else in is enough to defeat them. They have to put down the object that goes in the drawer, rearrange the stuff in it... and can end up removing stuff from the drawer and not putting the original item in, so that the room ends up even messier.

Anxiety can also be an issue. If your kid struggles with executive functioning they can end up very defensive because just the idea of cleaning makes them upset. They can't do it, everyone thinks they can and this means they are stupid or bad... and then they are frantic before they even begin. If you ask her to clean up and come back five minutes later to find her deep in a book, there is a good chance that anxiety is making her hide.

Short term memory and distractability can also make it difficult or impossible for her to sort and put away. If all her effort is going to processing that clothes are laundry and any clothes not already away go in the hamper, then asking her to distinguish between dirty and not-dirty may be entirely beyond her capacity. If she can't pick up her laundry reliably, then she's not ready to also put clean laundry away, and bringing it into her room will result in a tangle of clean and dirty on the floor. If she is distractable asking her to put laundry away will result in her doing something else or not noticing when she is putting things that are not even laundry in the hamper. You can learn a lot about her failures as to what she is struggling with.

Watch out for "shoulds". She should be able to sort and put things away, yes. But if she can't, continuing as if she can is silly. You need to look at what you are doing and make sure you are not putting unrealistic expectations on her. Letting her room get trashed and then asking her to clean it up isn't working, so what you change is what YOU are doing. Change your behaviour instead of hers. Even if she should be doing something, she won't do it if the circumstances are wrong because there is too much stuff, or not enough time, or not enough space or too many conflicting issues. It's up to you to rescue her from this. And I don't mean by just cleaning up for her, but by making your own organizational changes, with love and affection as a form of support, not in disgust, let alone punitively.

If a mess overwhelms her than she needs to get into routines of frequent daily cleaning, but no big lengthy jobs. Starting with a clean room spend the entire day for several days drilling her to clean up at every transition point. When she gets up to pee, when she finishes anything that has a scheduled time from lunch to homework, whenever you interrupt her and get her to change activities, such as calling her to come get cookies - you can remind her to put whatever is out away. With luck and management the stuff that needs to be tidied will be few and of easily perceivable categories and not overwhelm her. And make sure that this is perceived by both of you as affection, not you being a martinet.

Watch out for possessions that mean she can within a few seconds create mess that takes much longer to clean than it did to create. If your daughter dumps the contents of her dolls house, a box of blocks and her sock drawer onto her floor she has the makings of an excellent game where the socks become sleeping bags and the blocks make a fortification for the dolls to have a battle. But the clean up will take at least fifteen minutes and is going to be beyond the capacity of a child with executive function issues. It is unfortunate that the type of objects that are conductive to imaginative play and creativity are the things that result in challenges.

If she has executive functioning issues they will show up in other places in her life. Does she fail to finish things? Does she have issues with doing things at the right time and not have the ability to estimate time accurately? Does she remember that she has homework without being prompted? Does she spend a lot of time apparently oblivious to things in her environment?

If this sounds like stuff that is effecting your daughter and if you spending some time that is fun for both of you teaching her how to sort and how to follow routines doesn't work, then you should consider both getting her assessed and ruthlessly simplifying her life. One thing I did was provide lots of enrichment - art materials, books, toys for imaginative play - I ended up with kids who were artistic, creative, imaginative and who devoured books - but I also ended up with miserable, overwhelmed kids who had to wade through their bedroom floors and deeply resented living in the mess. They would have been happier if I had not given them control and responsibility over their own belongings because they didn't have the skills to deal with it. They would have been happier with less stuff.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:31 AM on October 29, 2021 [33 favorites]


I have a messy child (16) and a tidy child (10), and I parented them both, so although there are lots of techniques you can use, some of this is out of your hands. I hope that is reassuring.

I grew up with hoarders and being blamed for and screamed at for the mess, and I had my things thrown out and thrown ON THE LAWN regularly, like my first boyfriend walked me home and my bloodstained period underwear was on the lawn. So from that warped perspective, I decided that I wanted to help my kids have a good relationship to stuff, but not make it emotionally fraught.

So...this is how it works in my house. First, I have good systems around - we have hooks at kid level for coats, mask hooks, a boot tray in the hall rather than in the closet (a visual compromise on my end), hooks for backpacks, bins for homework and hooks for lunch bags that are empty. My kids are definitely not perfect at using those things but in order to come home and be tidy all they really have to do is put things on hooks, in the sink, in the bin, and they are done. For toy/art supply storage in common areas we have literally an Expedit in almost every room with a row of bins on the bottom for those things, and a big basket for things like Nerf guns. And an art closet, but this is my kids. :)

Second, their rooms are their rooms. They need to vacuum them on weekends and get their laundry out, so that ensures a certain level of hygiene at least. We have two weekends a year (Family Day weekend here and Labour Day weekend) when we spend one day, all of us, reorganizing and sorting out outgrown clothes etc. Those are the baselines but after that it's up to them.

Third, common areas (hall/rec room/living room) need to be tidied up daily so things don't build up. For us we do this before dinner, so as dinner is coming together, they do a "grab and stash" with their things - Lego in the bins, paints put away, apple cores in the recycling bin oh-god-why-did-you-not-do-that-when-you-ate-it, soap carving shavings swept up, etc. If there's a secondary mess sometimes it's tidied up before bed or it waits for the next day, or I do it.

They know I need the common rooms to be ok. The kitchen tends to collect miscellany but I deal with that.

Then for things like wiping the sink out after you brush your teeth, that gets a check before bed. In both kids' cases I usually have to remind them because by that time of day they are just done with the requirements. In the morning they seem to remember better.

They have other chores but I don't think that's what you're talking about. :)

I hope that helps. For me it really has been about leaving some spaces messy and having daily routines in the other, and being aware that as the adult, I probably have to do reminders yes, every day or every other day.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:32 AM on October 29, 2021 [8 favorites]


I am an adult who was probably like your kid. I empathize with my mom's similar frustrations when I was a kid, however: even as an adult who is pretty stressed by a messy environment, it was a real struggle to master the executive function aspects of tidying up. I was definitely capable of the specific actions necessary to tidy up but I would still say I didn't really know how. What I needed was probably some sort of scaffolding and/or structure--like how as an adult I know to start cleaning up my room by, say, picking up all the dirty laundry first (concrete and not so overwhelming), or how I put away the previous day's washed dishes while waiting for my morning coffee to brew.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:09 AM on October 29, 2021 [4 favorites]


Lots of good info above, but I will add one thing that helps a bit with my now-adult daughter with anxiety/ADHD and who struggles with this mightily (more so than me, and I'm an admittedly messy person): do tasks together or in parallel (a concept that her therapist refers to as having a "pacer"). If you are often tempted to just do it yourself, then working together on the problem is a good middle ground between that and getting into a big battle about her doing it herself. It allows an opportunity for cooperative engagement rather than hierarchy, and you can try to make it a little fun and light-hearted. Making a game out of work, singing songs, and giving yourself rewards (the more immediate the better) for doing hard tasks isn't just for little kids--these are tricks that even adults use to muscle through unpleasant tasks or jobs.
posted by drlith at 8:16 AM on October 29, 2021 [4 favorites]


My kid who is not naturally neat has gotten a lot better recently, he's 10. He's never been defiant but he does hate being asked to do things sometimes (demand resistance fits him). I make sure he knows where things go, and I help reset things if he's overwhelmed (like if his room is bad and there's stuff everywhere I see that as my fault for not helping him declutter and have more organization, so I help make that happen). I did a lot of work on his room in the past year with his permission and now he can maintain it better because there is space and clear homes for things. I also give him a wider berth because we also have a toddler and his step-dad is not neat so I don't blame him for piling on sometimes (like there isn't always a clear place to put his glass or the dishwasher needs to be emptied first), but I'm trying to reinforce basics like hang your coat, hang your knapsack, put your shoes away, empty your garbage, etc. Things he can do at school he can certainly do at home, maybe not right after school but before bedtime. He's with us half the time on a not consistent schedule so on weeks he's only with us for a couple of school nights I don't make him do anything, but our longer stretches together are when I try to get some routine going. For him it's motivating to have a nice relaxing space, maybe that will motivate your daughter too, and he wants to feel like he's contributing more and more.

And fwiw our toddler is very different than he was at the same age, she loves cleaning and helping with chores and has since a year old, it's so easy to get her to contribute, she's just much more likely to mimic me and want to follow us around and find cleaning everything engaging. I wouldn't blame yourself for your daughter not being as motivated to engage in chores and I hope you can find some solutions that serve both of you.
posted by lafemma at 8:21 AM on October 29, 2021


Best answer: I'll add that one general principle that I wish I'd picked up on decades ago is to approach these kinds of problems from a troubleshooting perspective that starts from "what is the underlying obstacle?" rather than looking for solutions without really understanding the root of the problem. And even with an 8 year old, that can be an interactive process. So in addition, maybe ask her why she's having a hard time with this and what she thinks would help! She may not prioritize keeping things tidy but she certainly is motivated to avoid a lot of ugly battles with her parents over it.
posted by drlith at 8:23 AM on October 29, 2021 [4 favorites]


Make sure cleaning up is easy. I used buckets on shelves to organize my kid's stuff. I'd go in his room with him, he could put on music, or I would, and put stuff away. I helped less a she got older. If a kid refuses to put stuff away, or the stuff is in shared areas, and I have to deal with it, it gets put away someplace inaccessible. Don't argue or plead, just apply logical and natural consequences. If the room is really untidy, the tv/ tablet/ etc., stays off. If you have to tidy, stuff goes away. Some parents throw stuff out or donate it, I never did that. As an adult, my son knows how to clean his home, does when he feels like it. feels like success.
posted by theora55 at 9:33 AM on October 29, 2021 [2 favorites]


purely habit. model cheerful attention to housework. bring them into it according to skill, age. works for four and up. requires supervision for some time. enculturate that these tasks must be done for a happier life.

kiss it goodbye from 17-22. if it comes back, that's an adult choice.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:54 AM on October 29, 2021


Best answer: I am mostly of the belief that kids generally know what the right thing to do is, and they generally do it if they can. If they aren’t doing it, it is often because it is too complicated, they haven’t had enough practice, or they sense an adult’s resentful feelings and don’t know what to do about those feelings.

I would say that at least for now, you should clean up with her. It seems cheesy but you can describe what you are doing as you are doing it. “I am picking up the blocks. Where should I put them? Oh, you are bringing the basket for the blocks, thank you. Let’s bring them to the shelf.” Or, “I am wiping each dish with a sponge, why don’t you rinse it in the water? Then you can put it on the drying rack.” This thinking aloud will help her understand the task as you go along.

Keep it simple, use a light and straightforward tone. Do these things with her in a routine. Eventually she’ll be ready to do these things by herself.
posted by mai at 11:29 AM on October 29, 2021 [3 favorites]


Best answer: If you have to choose a top priority, it really is the relationship. My experience is that feeling trusted and praised and loved is a strong motivator for my eldest now that she's older, and I figured this out after quite a few years of what I think was too much negative feedback from me. Because I was scared of what would happen if she never learned to clean up. But what makes a better adult - someone who can clean up after themselves but carries a lot of negative feelings and self-hatred? Or someone who is really messy, but is kind and happy? I'm not saying it has to be one or the other, but thinking about it this way can give you some 'what's the worst thing that can happen' clarity.

My eldest (11) was always this way. She was diagnosed with ADHD eventually, but even if she hadn't been, some kids are going to be better at this than others. She's much better now than she was at 8, but she's still worse at it than my 3 year old.

I'd maybe try scaling your asks way back, and consistently ask her to put away just one type of thing. Try that for a long time. Months, even. As parents, we sometimes feel like we have to solve a problem right now or it's going to be an issue for life - but that's just not true. Doesn't matter what it is - dishes/backpack/dirty clothes/stuffies. You're not giving up. You're making the task so small that she can do it in very little time, she gets used to it, it becomes a habit, and there's no more fighting. It's better to have her spend 30 seconds putting dirty clothes away every day and be successful in that, than trying and failing to make her do more complex things every day. She'll get better. Really.
posted by kitcat at 11:37 AM on October 29, 2021 [2 favorites]


I grew up with a mom who didn't work out of the house and she did all of the domestic labor while I was at school. The house was always clean and I never saw the sausage get made. It has taken me a long time to learn to be tidy. I used FlyLady to learn routines and systems but it doesn't come naturally to me at all. My house can be cluttered, but it's never dirty.

I say all of this because my "default" for a home is immaculately clean and organized, but I never was never taught how to. I commend you for asking this question.

We've gamified tidying up. We do a 5 minute tidy the room as part of a bedtime routine replete with song on called..."Clean up the Room" found on Youtube. It puts a time limit on it and the room can still be messy, but it'll look better after 5 minutes. If you do this regularly, things don't get too messy and maybe, just maybe, she will continue cleaning after the song ends for another minute. 2 of my 3 kids will do that.

Also, a scavenger hunt for x number of things to throw away, put away, etc. Saying things like: if everyone tidies up 10 items, we will have 50 items put away. If one person (mom! your daughter!) had to put all 50 things away and everyone else put away 0, that wouldn't be fair.

Finding checklists for age appropriate chores, printing it out, putting the list in a Ziplock bag, giving the child a dry erase marker to check it off is great because you're being very clear about what needs to get done. When child is done with the list, congratulations and thanks are in order for helping out and maybe a treat. (We also do this with getting ready in the morning.) You can have your child help create the list--that's a confidence builder. One of my pre-literate kids loved when she got to pick images for the chores, too.

I think the magic is not being told what to do, but rather allowing some autonomy in deciding what needs to be done, making that external/crystal clear in the form a list, having a limit either on time or number of item, and having her hold her herself accountable for those things. Reward her as you see fit.
posted by Hop123 at 12:55 PM on October 29, 2021 [3 favorites]


Please also have her vision checked if you haven’t already. I got in a lot of trouble as a kid for being messy, and I felt frustrated and like I could never do enough. Turns out I just had phenomenally bad eyesight that didn’t get discovered until I was a teenager and really quite literally couldn’t see mess.
posted by Bottlecap at 2:00 PM on October 29, 2021


Wow, you could be describing me. I'm 47, and it took spending 23 hours a day in a studio apartment during a pandemic for me to be "tidy."

First, I'm so glad my mom didn't fight me on this, even though I wish I'd become tidy 20-30 years ago. Being told what to do infuriated me, I struggled with cleaning, and it would've had a terrible effect on our relationship. I'm not saying to give up getting her to tidy, but strongly support your decision to avoid fighting about it.

Reading these answers, the things that resonate with me are ADHD and executive functioning issues. I didn't know I has these until a few years ago. Now, it makes a lot of sense that if I looked at a mess I literally didn't know what to do about it.

This has been key to me becoming tidier in the past couple of years: First, I have good systems around - we have hooks at kid level for coats, mask hooks, a boot tray in the hall rather than in the closet (a visual compromise on my end), hooks for backpacks, bins for homework and hooks for lunch bags that are empty.

I've bought a lot of hooks and bins and baskets in the past couple of years and it's made a big difference. I have more cute little trash cans than I suspect most people do, but my trash goes in a trash can now. Pandemic retail therapy actually changed my life.

The other big help is the pomodoro technique, which has been a game changer for me. Maybe instead of "tidy a space," you can try "tidy for 10 minutes." Buy a cute timer. Build in rewards. Bribery worked better for me than anything else.

I'm sorry you're dealing with this. I was a very difficult child and am both sorry for how hard I was on my mother and grateful she didn't push me too hard. If your daughter is the type to cut off her nose to spite her face (I was), then battling over it will not work.
posted by Mavri at 3:56 PM on October 29, 2021 [1 favorite]


Working from home for the last two years, having a clean space is really important to my own mental wellbeing.

Do you have a work/sitting/retreat space you can keep everyone else’s clutter out of?
posted by clew at 5:16 PM on October 29, 2021 [1 favorite]


I love these answers and reading everyone's stories.

My mom has a college degree in Home Economics - I've had the domestic arts drilled into my brain since before I could see over the ironing board.

I'm a very messy adult. The only thing that really motivates me to clean is if someone is coming over.

As a kid, the cleaning wasn't the bad part, it was the stress of how important the it was for the house to always be spotless.

So now I live with my mess which is formed from two things - my last molecules of teenage rebellion and knowing that I'll fail at making it spotless.
posted by bendy at 8:03 PM on October 29, 2021 [2 favorites]


When people talk about two year olds being able to help clean up, they have very different expectations of how much help they'll need and how helpful they can actually be. I think it's really easy to think that eight year olds must be so far beyond that that they can just be left in their room and it will be clean. But a lot of eight year olds need someone working with them, directing some amount of work, and motivation. (The toddler already has motivation, usually, so the older child actually needs more.)

I think actually talking over some of this with your kid might help. At a calm time, you can brainstorm ways together to make doing some of this cleaning better. You can definitely offer up some of the ideas various mefites have given, but don't discount odd ideas your kid comes up with.

And sometimes part of the solution is someone else. My little sister could never keep her stuff straight when it was around anyone else's (thing-blind, essentially). Once I put her stuff into the living room crate of her things, she would take it all back to her room (usually with delight at having found it again). And this was as teens. She probably would need the same today if she lived with other people, so some things just aren't age based.
posted by blueberry monster at 5:30 PM on November 1, 2021


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