A Perpetual Tug-of-War: Persuading Kids to Help Clean Up

by Kirk Daulerio

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My kids are as averse to picking up after themselves as most of us are to dental procedures. They seem to make it their daily mission to litter our house with toys, books, clothes, bits of food, broken crayons, shredded tissues, and the random assortment of garbage they’ve accumulated from the neighborhood. They don’t understand the concept of putting something back in its place after using it, much less finding a trash can to use when appropriate. To the contrary, they usually kick their antics up a notch whenever I approach them about pitching in to clean up their mess.

This situation is quite frustrating, to be honest, especially because I am a bona fide, card-carrying neat freak. I’ve always been. I think it has something to do with my upbringing – I remember my dictatorial parents bringing down the hammer if something as innocuous as an errant sock found its way into the underwear drawer…but I digress. These days I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my ankle on a stray doll, flipped a couch cushion to hide a fresh stain, or simply sat there catatonically, overwhelmed by the visual chaos surrounding me.

Been there, too? Thought so. I’m sure we’d all agree, then, that getting kids involved in the cleaning process is a healthy and beneficial step towards character formation, right? Accomplishing this feat, however, can be a Herculean task. To illustrate, let me set up for you the typical scenario in our house (I have a feeling you’ll relate): to begin, the place is ransacked (no need for further description). Now, I tend to view myself as a positive, roll-with-the-punches type of guy. I understand that being slovenly is just something that goes with the territory of being a kid – it’s simply a by-product of their exploring the world around them. With this in mind, I’ll usually broach the subject of cleaning in a positive manner by singing that old campfire favorite, “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere! Clean up, clean up, everybody do their share!” Their response: they do “their share” of tossing things around even more brazenly. At this point, I bear down. Those pint-sized rebels aren’t going to spit in the eye of authority and get away with it, I don’t care how much fatherly pride I take in their assertiveness. “HEY (bellowing with dramatic flair)! If you don’t put that down right NOW and clean up your mess, then (insert hollow threat)!!” At this point, the excuses flow like a toddler’s tears: “I’m too tired (sprawling on the floor, pretending to sleep)!” “My leg hurts (feigning utter agony)!” “I’m eating my snack right now, OK?” And the classic, “But I don’t have any hands (stuffing fifteen toys into her arms)!”

Clever buggers, I’ll give ‘em that…but the point is that negative coercion only gets you so far. Sure, eventually they’ll succumb, bowing to the power of almighty Mom and Dad, and they’ll begrudgingly pick up one or two toys. To me, however, the defeat on their faces is counterproductive. I want to empower my kids, not make them subservient! Bribes also may get you to your goal – but only in the short run. With bribery, the little whippersnappers sense weakness in you. They learn to barter for stickers, sweets, movies, you name it, and if it comes to that point, my friends, you’re up the creek. Believe me, I’ve been down that road, and it ain’t easy gaining back the upper hand.

Recently I’ve wondered: must it always be a battle of wits to get my kids to clean? Unfortunately, this seems to be the case. But then I remembered – I’m thirty-two years old, and they’re both under three! If I can’t outwit a couple of toddlers, I’ve got more problems than just compulsive cleanliness.

I recently had a breakthrough with my older daughter, though, that gives me hope in our continual tug-of-war. I was doing the dishes one night, and she was doing her thing (i.e., watching a video and tearing up the living room). Then I had a great thought. I asked her if she wanted to do something fun, something she had never tried before – helping me dry the dishes. She seemed intrigued, so I played it up. I propped her up on a stool, gave her a “magic” towel, and began handing her dishes to dry. I started with fairly large pots, and after two minutes she protested, “My leg hurts!” I urged her to hang in there, and proceeded to give her smaller items. She loved it! Everything wasn’t perfectly dry (again, my issue, not hers), but we had such a great time together doing even the most menial of tasks. I told her how proud I was of her, and when my wife came home from work my daughter ran straight to her and beamed, “I helped daddy clean the dishes!” It was an expression of genuine excitement and pride.

I realize that this was merely one occasion, a moment in time, and that the cleaning crusade between us is far from over. But through this experience I’ve learned a few things about the psychology of it all, if you will. First, negative consequences are definitely needed on many occasions, but not all. By and large, my kids respond better to positive reinforcement. Second, in getting my kids to do chores, one thing that works for me is making the task fun. Third, always compliment your kids on a job well done. It boosts their confidence, lets them know how much you value their contributions, and motivates them to get further involved in the future. Finally, I think what matters most is the simple act of spending quality time with my kids, regardless of the task at hand. Whether it’s cleaning dishes or playing ball, when I really get engaged with what my kids are doing, they shine.