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Cleaning with Kids: Fun Strategies to Engage Their Help

October 8, 2018

Cleaning with kids isn't easy---sometimes it seems like all they want to do is play! One day, though, everything changed in how I viewed the process. Suddenly, life got a whole lot easier.

I was in the kitchen making homemade almond butter (yum!). My five-year-old walked in with her cup of water and announced, "Mommy, let's pretend you're working in a bakery!" That sounds about right, considering how much time I spend cooking.

She added, "I've brought my cup of water for any of your customers who want it!"

As she started towards me, water still in hand, her steps turned into bunny hops. (I love how kids do that.) However, as she quickly learned, hopping with an open cup of water quickly makes for a wet bunny-child and slippery floor.

I reminded her that we keep rags in the drawer near where she was standing. Usually, reminding her where the cleaning supplies live (or where things go) works much better than a direct request to clean.

Example of what doesn't fly in our house: "Please put away your shoes."

What usually works better: "Shoes live in the utility room."

This time, however, when I reminded her where we keep the rags, she responded with a happy and factual tone, "That's not my job." That's right--she just had me working in a bakery, so she must do something else for a living. A five-year-old has to earn her keep somehow, right?

Ahem. New strategy required. Fortunately, I've read some amazing books that address situations like these, including cleaning with kids. My favorites are this one and this one (afflinks) and they've inspired much of how we live.

That aside, knowing that Dictator Mommy--the part of me that's sometimes tempted to tell her what to do--usually (and rightfully) gets overthrown, I realized that playing along was my best bet.

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Cleaning with Kids Strategy 1: Play Along

"Oh," I informed her, "This is what's called a cooperative bakery! Instead of paying money, all the customers who come in pay for their donuts by doing a specific job when they get here." I held up my imaginary donut. "Today, you get to help me wipe up the bakery floor!"

"Ooh," she responded, wide-eyed and ready, "Okay!" Off she went, and within seconds, she'd wiped up the spill. I handed her a delicious piece of air, which she happily pretended to gobble up.

It's not always that easy, of course.

Truth be told, I'd always rather play than clean, so how can I blame her? Happily, we do find ways to make it easy sometimes.

Strategy 2: Bring Objects to Life 

Another day, we had to clean the hardwood floors, but she really didn't want to. She wanted me to play with her. I heard her out, empathized, and agreed that playing with her would be more fun. Still, sometimes "no" has to happen with a loving limit. I reassured her that we'd play again as soon as the floors were done.

I got out our floor mop along with its colorful and eco-friendly reusable pads. Much to our surprise, however, the crazy yellow pad didn't want to go on the mop! I pretended it was trying to--really?--give me a haircut! I was shocked and appalled. There was NO WAY I'd allow it to touch my head. Once I finally convinced it to stay on the floor, it managed to pull me all over the place in directions I didn't want to go. Cheeky mop!

Within moments, my daughter needed a turn. And do you know what? That crazy Yellow Fellow (as we dubbed him) pulled her all through the living room and down the hallway. It even pulled her into the bathroom. Such nerve it had pulling her around like that! I made sure she knew all the while how "broken" the Yellow Fellow was. For awhile, she even traded it for her own cleaning tools. She thought it was hilarious, even if she knew full well that she was the one "driving" them. And she cleaned the floor thoroughly because, on some level, she knew exactly what the tools were supposed to do.

Strategy 3: Play the "Whatever You Do" Game

Sometimes, we play the "Whatever You Do" game, in which I dramatically say things like, "Whatever you do, do NOT unload the silverware from the dishwasher. That would be SO TERRIBLE! I couldn't bear to watch!" She knows by the smile in my eyes that I'm joking. And then I feign horror as she tortures me with her work. As an aside, this one translates well to a whole host of situations. I started saying it when she was about three (along with explaining how the game worked the first time I tried it). It's worked like magic ever since.

Cleaning with Kids Strategy 4: Solve Problems Together, Using Kids' Terms

When the toys, art supplies, or whatever-it-is get out of control, sometimes it's simply a safety issue. In this case, I'll present it accurately as my own problem, as in, "I'm worried someone will trip on all of this. Let's find a safe place to put this doll / this ball / this whatever-it-is. Where can we put it to keep everyone safe?" I choose one item at a time to avoid overwhelming her with the enormity of the task. It may look like a quick and easy job to my adult eyes, but her eyes--and her brain--see things differently.

And for whatever reason, speaking in her terms and "putting things to bed" really resonates with her. We pick up her toys and put them all to bed, even if they're things like cars or tractors. This strategy has worked quite effectively since she was about two. Sometimes we do a variation of it and find "parking places" for things, but all sorts of toys and books simply need their shuteye. If she pushes back, empathizing and reminding her that they'll wake up again in the morning usually helps.

Strategy 5: Model What I Want to See, Including Connection

Most importantly, I respect that if someone asked me to clean spur of the moment, I might push back, too (especially if I were in the middle of doing something else). Cleaning with kids is no different. If she simply won't help some days, that's okay. I let it go and don't force it. I respond sincerely, "I trust you'll help me next time." More often than not, she does help the next time. A single power struggle just isn't worth her resisting in the future if she starts to see cleaning as a control issue.

She loves it when I offer to help her. Like all kids, she craves connection and togetherness more than just about anything else. Knowing I'll be with her while we work helps accomplish that for her. In fact, she often says, "Oh good--we get to spend more time together if we clean!" (Yeah, I raised an eyebrow the first time she said it, but it's true.) And now, she's sometimes quite proactive when she sees a mess that needs cleaning, with or without my help. She didn't learn by being told what to do. She learned by observing and by being invited.

Strategy 6: Manage My Expectations 

Reminding myself what's appropriate for her age really helps, too. Just like I don't expect her to take the car in for an oil change, I also understand that some tasks are simply beyond her ability. And her ability might not look the same every day, depending on all sorts of variables. Picking up all the Legos while her favorite TV show is on might, sometimes, legitimately be too overwhelming or distracting for her developing brain.

Is my house perfect? Heck no. It's nowhere near what it used to be before I had a child, and I really appreciate a heads up before friends stop over. Rather than lowering the bar entirely, though (hey, that'd just be one more thing to trip over), we've found ways to work together. We've created a low-pressure household where we all help each other by choice rather than by mandate. We don't call cleaning "chores" or attach a financial or other physical rewards to our work. In truth, I don't "get" her to do anything. We just agree to help each other without forcing it. It works surprisingly well.

I dare say cleaning with kids can sometimes be incredibly fun.

Disclaimer:  All advice and guidance offered on this site is not medical guidance and should not be interpreted as such, and the owner of this site is not responsible for individual outcomes.

I am not a physician, psychologist, or counselor, nor am I licensed to offer therapy or medical advice of any kind. I am a certified conscious parenting coach and my courses, blog posts, and all other guidance are based on my training and experience. If you are having an emergency or are in crisis please call 911, or the National Suicide Prevention Line (800-273-8255), or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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