Children, Cleanliness, and Chores: Myths vs. Facts

How can you get the kids to do chores without a fight? See these tips from WebMD.

From the WebMD Archives

Before you had kids, you cleaned your home and it stayed that way. Now, there are more messes than ever. Just as you’ve gotten one mess cleaned up, it seems that the children are following behind you making another.

Let’s face it: it’s almost impossible to keep a perfectly pristine home with children in it. What are the most important tasks for health, hygiene, and sanity? How can you get your kids involved so that you’re working with them instead of against them?

Make it a party. Kids model what you do, so don’t give them a job and leave the room.

“Write all the chores down on slips of paper and put them in a jar. Play dancing music,” says Erika Salloux, a personal organizer in Cambridge, Mass. “Everyone picks a slip on a Saturday morning and does their chore before you all go to the beach or the movies or on some family outing.” (If your kids are too young to read, draw pictures of the chore instead.)

Children and Chores in the Kitchen and Bath

When you have kids, you have to set cleaning priorities. Two of the most important spaces when it comes to health and hygiene are the kitchen and the bathroom. The kitchen harbors more germs than any other room in the house, but the bathroom isn’t far behind. If you want to focus on family health, keeping these two rooms sanitary is at the top of the list.

In the kitchen, many of us worry about crumbs on the floor. Although you don’t want a crust of goo attracting rodents and other pests, a few cookie crumbs never hurt anyone. Instead, pay closer attention to the food prep surfaces and the sink.

Don’t scrimp on sponges. Sponges and dishtowels are havens for germs. So don’t wipe more bugs onto your dishes and counters than you’re wiping off. Toss out dirty sponges regularly, and sanitize the ones you’re using by soaking them and microwaving for 2 minutes. Wash dishtowels in hot water and dry on high heat.


Disinfect kitchen surfaces once a day. Keep disinfectant wipes or a spray bottle with distilled white vinegar handy. Spray down the countertop, sink, and hard surfaces like faucets and handles at least once a day. Don’t forget to disinfect the cutting board, which has more germs than a toilet seat.

Ditto for the bathroom. Wipe down all hard surfaces with disinfectant wipes or a vinegar spray at least once a day, and scrub the inside of the toilet with a toilet brush. Don’t worry so much about marks on the floor.

From a young age, kids can get involved in these cleanups. Give your 2-year-old a bleach-free disinfectant wipe or a paper towel and a spray bottle of vinegar, and let him wipe down the countertops as you scrub the sink or toilet.

Or, hand your toddler the dry mop. He may not get every spot on the floor clean, but he’ll love pushing it around and “helping Mommy.”

Children, Chores, and Laundry

You may be more worried about getting the chocolate stain out of Junior’s best shirt, but in reality, the items that are closest to our bodies -- underwear, pajamas, and sheets -- are often the ones that harbor the most germs. Make sure these items are washed in the hottest water the fabric will tolerate, and use bleach.

Make chores a game for younger kids. Start the “matching game” to involve them in laundry folding. Challenge them to match socks, pajama sets, and two-piece outfits as you sort. As you strip the beds, let them built a fort or two with the sheets. Then they can help you “destroy” the fort and load the washer.

Create some fun competition for older kids. Set the timer and see who can fold the most underpants, pillowcases, socks, shirts, or shorts in five minutes. (Points taken off for a sloppy job.) The winner gets to choose dinner that night, or where to go on the next family outing.

Children’s Chores in the Bedrooms and Living Room

Bedrooms and living rooms tend to be filled with lots of fabrics -- drapes, linens, upholstered furniture -- that can catch dust and other allergens. So although plastic toys on the floor might be unsightly, the bigger hygiene hazard is the dust mites on the carpet, the lampshades, in bookshelves, and in the curtains.


Vacuum side by side. Let your young child use the hand-vac as you use the bigger vacuum. As your child gets older, they’ll take pride in being put in charge of the big vacuum themselves. Make a big deal of it. And praise their work. Don’t criticize the few dust bunnies they left behind, as long as you see them trying.

Dust for an allergy-free home. Use dusters with extendable handles to let your child dust behind the bed or in high corners of bedrooms, where dust bunnies and cobwebs tend to collect. Consider micro fiber dust cloths, which pick up more dust. Have your child dust areas that don’t have breakable vases or lamps. Dusting the bookcase is a good chore for a child. You dust in the same room around the ceramic or glass items on tables.

Don’t say, “clean your room.” Instead, assign specific chores. “Please pick up all the toys that are on the floor and put them away.” Make sure they have an “away” -- small plastic bins, clearly labeled (crayons, Barbies, action figures, cars) can keep a kid’s closet or toy shelves from chaos.

“If you have to follow up and clean up a little after them, don’t let them see you do it,” says Wendy Young, a Michigan social worker and children’s counselor. “It’s the fact that they’re contributing that’s important, not that they do it just as well as you would.”

Never Too Early to Begin Children’s Chores

No matter where in the house you’re cleaning, it’s never too early to start getting kids involved. If your child can walk, they can help out. Start early. Buy your child a set of small household cleaning tools, like a mini-broom or dustpan set.

“One mistake that parents often make is suddenly deciding that their child needs to help out around the house when he turns 12. This rarely goes over well,” says Young. “Most kids start to show an interest in chores by around 2 or 3 years of age. Children are natural imitators and they enjoy copying what the big people in their lives do. Parents need to capitalize on that.”

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 30, 2009



Wendy Young, LMSW, founder, Kidlutions, Bessemer, Mich.

Erika Salloux, personal organizer, Living Harmony, LLC, Cambridge, Mass.


© 2009 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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