Lessons in Cleaning House

Quick tips that encourage your child to help with cleaning the house.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 16, 2011
5 min read

Who knows better than parents that cleaning the house regularly helps keeps germs at bay and goes a long way toward preventing kids from catching colds, flu, and allergy symptoms?

Sometimes, though, parents could use a helping hand when it comes time for cleaning the house. Although you might not expect members of the toddler set to stash toys every time they’re done playing, there’s no reason that an older child -- say, ages 6 and up -- can’t start taking those first steps toward becoming Mother’s Little Helper.

  • Tell the truth. Don’t try to fool children into helping clean the house, Armin Brott says. Kids aren’t primed to want to do housework any more than adults are. Brott should know. This California father of three has -- under the guise of his alter ego, Mr. Dad -- authored seven books of parenting advice and appeared on TV shows as divergent as the Today show and Politically Incorrect. Instead, Brott recommends trying logic, but a little explaining goes a long way. He suggests something along the lines of “This is the way, as a family, that we like to have the house,” rather than falling back on “Because I said so.
  • Make it a game. One great tactic for motivating younger kids to clean the house, Brott says, is turning chores into a game, because kids want to win and to be proud of themselves. “You say, ‘Let’s see who can put away the most toys -- I’ll race ya,’ and they win and they feel proud of themselves and they want to do it again.” But be careful about pitting siblings against one another, Brott says. “If they’re racing against you, you can deliberately throw it. If they’re racing against each other … you could end up with them sabotaging each other as opposed to working toward achieving the goal.” The better idea, he suggests, is having them work together toward a common goal. Try something like, “OK, everybody has to clean up! You two kids get this whole place cleaned up in five minutes, and we’ll go out for ice cream.’”
  • Keep promises. When it comes to rewards for helping clean the house, whether it’s ice cream, money, or extra time playing a favorite game, parents must come through, says Brott.

  • Take the time to time it. When setting a time constraint on kids to complete a house cleaning chore -- especially smaller kids who don’t have a sense of how long five minutes is -- Brott suggests using a kitchen timer. “I do this all the time for my little one,” he says. “I’ll say, 'Look, you’re dilly-dallying around and we have to leave the house to get out of here to go to school. I’m going to set the timer on the microwave.’ That basically means she has to go as fast as she can. She doesn’t understand pacing, because she doesn’t understand what two minutes is, or five minutes exactly.”
    In her book Laying Down the Law, Ruth Peters, PhD, a clinical psychologist and parenting expert practicing in Clearwater, Fla., suggests using two timers when a kid is going to be doing the required chore in another part of the house. Hand one to the kid and keep one for yourself. “This takes the ambiguity out of parenting,” she writes. “The task is either completed on time or it isn’t and children very quickly learn that there’s no percentage in arguing the point -- their folks have already moved on!”
  • Give everyone their own chores. As kids get older, Brott recommends breaking up house cleaning duties so every member of the family has specific jobs to do. “It’s perfectly fine to have one kid set the table and one kid have the job of unloading the silverware from the dishwasher. Kids who are around 6 years old can do a pretty serviceable job of cleaning the litter box, and feeding the fish.” And be sure to remind them that, daddy and mommy have their own chores and will be doing their work, too.
  • Change chores over time. Giving kids more advanced duties as they get older is also important, Brott tells WebMD. Giving children chores that only a kid their age could do -- and little kids can’t -- helps older children feel proud of themselves. If kids get tired of their duties, families might have a meeting to discuss changing duties. Brott recalls sitting down with his older kids and determining the time certain chores took -- seven minutes to empty the dishwasher; a minute and a half to take the garbage out. “We said, ‘OK, there’s a total of 25 minutes worth of stuff and five of us and so each one of us essentially has five minutes, which chore(s) do you want to do?’”

Older kids will probably need increasingly sophisticated motivation to keep them interested in helping out. “There are various things you can set up as rewards,” Brott says. For example, “at the next family meeting, whoever’s done their job the best -- however you figure out who that is -- that person will have the first pick when we redo the chore chart next month.”

“Most kids are less than thrilled with completing their homework, and they'd much rather watch cartoons or even MTV than plow through their math problems,” Peters writes. “And, that's where you, the parent, come in.” If your child knows that there's no TV until homework is completed or the kitchen is cleaned, your child is more likely to comply. “Allowances, privileges, bed time, electronics (anything that plugs into the wall or uses batteries) are excellent consequences that will definitely motivate your kid to get moving,” Peters says.

“I think it’s also good to have some chores on the list that are above and beyond the basic things that are expected so that there can be some extra credit chores or something to earn a little bit of money or to earn some additional privileges or a treat of some kind,” Brott says.

Not every chore deserves a reward, though. “I think there is a line,” Brott says. “Everybody has to do certain things for the good of the family, and those things are not going to be rewarded. Your reward is that you get clean clothes; your reward is that you have toys to play with.”