Lately my biggest parenting frustration has been clean up time. I have visions of one day experiencing the phenomenon of all dirty clothes residing in the hamper instead of finding shirts and socks dribbled into myriad puddles on the floor. I also have visions of calling out cheerfully, “Okay kids, time to clean up!” and hearing sweet choruses of “Yes, Mommy!” followed by children darting past, this way and that, returning books to their shelves and dolls to their beds. One day my decorative pillows will find their way back to the sofa without my help, and one day art projects will be put away as exuberantly as they were begun. But for now, the word of the day is chaos, and because I’m not naturally inclined toward cleaning either, I find it the most relationally-damaging part of our day. My frustration mounts as their energy wanes, and all of our joy is stolen.
Problem number one is what I just confessed: I don’t like cleaning. I am notoriously unorganized, and I have this subconscious theory that once something is cleaned it should stay that way forever, or at least for a very long time. So my kids pick up on that. You know the phrase, “More is caught than taught”? Well, I need to be contagious. My expectations for my children cannot be higher than what I have attained. There is no way for me to expect them to be better than me. So when I choose to mop under the table for every. single. meal. instead of reasoning that one should only have to mop once a week, or, more realistically, once a day, I’m showing them that cleanliness is important to me. That leaving a mess is not acceptable, for me or for them.
Problem two goes a little further. On the one hand, I cannot expect more of them than I expect of myself, but I also cannot expect more of them than they are currently capable of accomplishing. Perhaps wanting my two-year-old to make her bed so that it doesn’t look worse than before she started is an unreasonable expectation. Perhaps also, expecting that my kids will clean up after themselves is unreasonable because it is not a habit we have formed together. I do believe that a seven-year-old is capable of cleaning up after himself. But if said seven-year-old has only been doing so inconsistently at best, then my expectations are too high.
So I’ve been thinking about some solutions. I want a clean house, but more importantly, I want children with habits of cleanliness and tidiness, and an awareness of tasks around them needing action. So I’m looking for a plan that takes into account their abilities and tendencies, as well as my own.
There’s a book called The House That Cleans Itself that teaches housecleaning success by making sure that clean-up is convenient. So step one is to put a trash can (or dirty clothes hamper) in every room, easily accessible. Make sure all items have a home that is easily accessible and convenient to where it will be used. Put cleaning supplies in every location where they will be used so they don’t migrate. My favorite idea was to close off spaces where things tend to get stashed (like blocking off the opening under beds so that no one can shove clothes or toys under there). Basically, I’m making this habit convenient and easy. Which means that obedience and cleanliness and general happiness will also be convenient and easy.
Habits take time to form. If I want my daughter to develop a habit, I need to be right in the trenches with her. It might mean we don’t leave each other’s sides for a week or two, or that my reins are a bit tighter than normal. But it’s a sacrifice that will pay off! If I stay constantly aware of her projects, where she is and what she has out, I can remind her to put things away as she finishes with them instead of finding the mess later, correcting it, and still missing the chance to build habit.
I also need to remember my kids aren’t adults. They will eventually learn the process of cleaning up, but for now, they need me to sit beside them and say, “Okay, now let’s look for all the red pieces and put them here!” Or, “Look around for any doll clothes and put them away first!” Or even, “Books go back on the shelf this way; push the books to one side so there is room for yours to slide in straight.” (Alternatively, The House that Cleans Itself mentions that putting books into baskets is way easier for kids than shelves, and usually much more successful).
For the past two weeks, I’ve tried to loosen up my expectations and play with my kids more often than not, and I have to say, we’ve had a lot more sunshine and cheer than before!
I’d love to hear what success (or failures!) you’ve had with your kids when it comes to cleaning up after themselves. And if you’ve ever gotten your house to clean itself!