The age-old problem of getting children to clean their rooms is one of the top issues discussed in Parents Anonymous Groups around the globe. There are almost as many solutions, though, as there are parents! The thoughts and suggestions here are a compilation of a few of the many ideas discussed by real parents in those groups.
Cleaning the room teaches children responsibility, troubleshooting, time management, collaboration, cooperation, empathy, adapting, communication, negotiation and other life skills. Children who clean their rooms gain a feeling of accomplishment, empowerment and are more self-reliant than kids who do not perform the duty.
What should we do and understand as parents?
Parents should know their child: Knowing what their child is capable of at any given age and increasing their duties accordingly is key. A toddler is usually capable of picking up their toys with help. By age five a child may be able to make their bed, fold their clothing and put it away and dust the dresser and moldings and so on, even if it is not perfect. A teenager should be able to do their own laundry completely, make the bed, wash windows, dust furniture and moldings, vacuum and so on. “Don’t do for a child what they can do themselves!”
The first time is hardest: Know that the first time a child cleans the room it will be more difficult and take longer than the second time. Each time a child performs the task they gain experience and kids will get better and it will take less time.
Set expectations for your child: Write down exactly what ‘clean your room’ means and make a list. In kids’ fast-paced lives they can forget – even if you told them ten times. For toddlers and very young children you can make a list using pictures: Toys in a toy box or put on a shelf, books in the bookcase, bed made, dirty clothes in the hamper, dust cloth for dusting and so on.
Cleaning rooms is not a punishment: Every child should grow up understanding that cleaning their room and doing chores is expected as a member of a family and is not used as a consequence or a punishment.
Set the example to follow: Keeping our own areas neat and tidy shows the child a neat, organized room is important for cleanliness and combats chaos. Few children will learn to keep a neat room if parents leave clothing strewn about or live in a cluttered room themselves. Double standards do not teach children anything positive.
Set the mood while cleaning: Turn the television off and play light, cheerful music while everyone is working. No visitors, phone calls or play activities until a child is finished; if kids have a sleepover friends, they can wait, help or go home with a parent if they wish. If parents make cleaning look and sound like fun then it probably will be. Likewise, if parents complain, then kids will complain as well.
Set aside time: Not having a specific day to clean leaves parents chasing and nagging after the child to get it done all week long. It helps to have a specific day every week for cleaning their room. Some parents prefer a daily cleaning blitz and then a thorough once-a-week cleaning. Saturday is the traditional day set aside by most parents because it is a no-school day when most parents are available for guidance and to check the finished room. NOTE: The child can clean or tidy the room any time they feel the need, though.
Help children develop a method: Children can begin cleaning by putting things away, then clearing dirty clothes and so on then cleaning the floor last. Kids could divide the room into sections: desk, bed, closet, floor, walls & windows and so on. Some parents provide children with a bucket that has everything they need to do a thorough job. Parents can help tailor the cleaning style to each child.
Food and beverage rule: If dirty plates, flatware and beverage containers are found in the rooms from the day before (or earlier) then they can lose the privilege of snacking and eating in the room for a month, or six months, or more.
Do not pay children for cleaning their room: Children should clean their room because they are part of a family. Paying children to clean their room can backfire over time because they will eventually want more money or simply refuse to do it, virtually holding the clean room as a hostage, “Pay up, mom and dad, or the room stays dirty!” NOTE: Parents can pay a child their weekly allowance and wait until after the room is clean to give it out. This is not paying a child to clean the room; it’s giving out allowance at a specific time every week.
Hold off on negativity: Positive feedback or instruction works better than demands and judgmental comments so try to keep the mood light. No child wants or needs to hear that they ‘are the biggest pig in their neighborhood.’ If parents feel themselves getting frustrated it may be more productive to step back and go work on their own chores until calm returns.
Here are a few tried-and-true methods that are not guaranteed to work for all children:
Use privileges as incentives: Fun activities, technology and toys can be used as the proverbial carrot – something the child wants – to get kids to move toward getting the room clean. “When you finish cleaning your room then you can ___________.” Fill in the blank with: use the cell phone, go on the computer, play the game, go to the movie with friends, have the sleepover, go outdoors, have a friend over, and so on. If the room has not been cleaned by that time then the privilege is withheld until it is. Be firm and consistent; do not yell or cajole.
Family meeting then get cleaning: Family members gather at breakfast on Saturday then move on to their hour-long, weekly family meeting, and then on to cleaning rooms and other weekly chores. This can go well because it starts with a genial meal that sets the mood. From there, everyone meets to discuss the day’s plans, upcoming week’s schedule they bring up any needed issues and pick up rotating chores list. After the meeting is finished, most of the family goes on an outing of some sort. There is little complaining because everyone is busy with similar duties at the same time.
Make the task fun: Children love challenges and having fun.
(1) Children can be timed and set records for fun; parents must approve the job quality to set the official record.
(2) Parents can hide treats around the room for children to find by cleaning; treats could be tokens to be saved toward a prize, a specific number of coins (nickels, dimes or quarters) to be put toward their savings account or a movie (If all the coins were not found then the child goes back and cleans more).
(3) Go to your public library and get audio books so kids can clean while listening to a great story. All it takes is a little creativity and imagination!
Children can pay a family member to clean: Parents must approve any hire-to-clean bargain between siblings because they do not want one child taking advantage of another. It works like this: The child can use their allowance or other money to hire a parent or sibling to clean their room for them, provided all agree and approve of the terms. Parents can help decide what amount of money is fair; in New Jersey the minimum wage is currently $8.25 per hour and a good place to start. The child who is having their room cleaned may want to be near to supervise and to answer questions. If the pay is to be salaried or per job then the amount could be more or less depending on how much work is involved and time it takes to complete. This can cause disagreements, though, when a cleaning takes longer than expected, the cleaner backs out of the deal or when the employer does not pay the agreed upon payment.
Bedrooms are a privilege: When a child completely refuses to clean their room then parents have options. One option is closing the door and not looking at the mess and the other is to remove the door from its hinges completely until the room is cleaned. If parents choose to remove the door and store it away, they may also want to set a short time limit, perhaps one week. If the room is not cleaned within the week then parents need to gather everything and put the salvageable items in several heavy-duty garbage bags. If and when they ask for things then they must deal with the bags one at a time. At this point, parents will want to decide on another level of encouragement or consequences.
Closing the door is an option: Ignoring the mess and not insisting that it be cleaned by the child is, unfortunately, a choice some parents make. Why? The parents may be frustrated or exhausted at the end of the day and simply do not feel as though they can deal with the struggle. Some parents may feel afraid of losing their child’s affection or triggering violence. Parents may feel like getting a child to clean the room is just not worth the battle. To these parents I would encourage them to look ahead into the future. Is the adult child going to ever move out and take care of themselves? Will the adult child get a job and learn to care for themselves? Does caring for a 35-year-old child sound like fun? Then perhaps it is time to give it one more try, before parents get older and weaker.
Give children the ‘you or I’ choice: Parents tell children that either “you or I will clean the room” by a specific day and time. If a child has not finished cleaning the room – picking things up, putting things away and so on – then pick up what is left and bag or box everything. Once stored, parents only have to wait until the child wants something. When the child identifies what they want, inform them they can have it only after the room is cleaned and everything is restored.
The Last Option: Parents who have tried everything – asking, begging, pleading, bargaining, threatening, bribing – sometimes out of desperation will strip the child’s room of everything except the bed, five-days-worth of the child’s clothing and the basic school needs. Gone are all the electronics: the cell phone, the games, computers and other devices. Gone are the trips to the mall, to movies, to visit friends and outside activities until the room has been cleaned and restored. The struggle is not about power, it is about a child learning responsibility and taking care of themselves. It is also about treating parents respectfully and appreciating their hard work. In some instances, children do not respect or appreciate all the things until they have done without.
This might seem very harsh to some but in the Parents Anonymous Groups, I have heard of parents shoveling belongings into garbage bags and putting things at the curb or carrying things off to the dump saying, “If my child doesn’t want to take care of their things, then neither do I — problem solved!”
There are two points about The Last Option that I would like to make. One is that The Last Option is difficult for most parents to employ, especially because they love their children so deeply. Parents do not want their child to feel the ‘pain’ of not having things: the fancy clothing, the cell phones, electronics and other things. But it’s precisely because the child has not been without that they do not appreciate the things or respect their parents’ hard work to get them. The second and last point about The Last Option is that at no time, does a parent want to deprive a child of the things that they are entitled to: Adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision and so on.
These tips and suggestions are not written in stone, they are mean as a tool to spark ideas for parents that can bring forth solutions. I have been a frustrated (mad as heck) parent who has walked in your shoes and dealt with messy room issues — it does get better.
Jackie Saulmon Ramirez has served as a volunteer with Parents Anonymous® of New Jersey, Inc. for more than twenty years, giving and getting support. Find her blog here contact page.