Teaching Our Children the Meaning of Clean

Key Takeaways

  • Children do well when they can.
  • “Cleanliness is not self-evident; show them what you mean by “clean.”
  • Doing chores together is good for the relationship.
  • “Criticizing” a child for sloppiness is not the same as teaching them to be clean.

It’s been about 3.5 years since we adopted an unconventional approach to maintaining cleanliness in our home. I can recall observing two primary approaches to home cleanliness: 1. Let the mess be until it gets in the way of life and then do an entire morning or day of whole-family cleanup. This approach is normally accompanied by many complaints on the part of parents and children. 2. Manage the mess as it happens. The rules around what toys can be played with are often quite strong. This method is normally accompanied by a lot of nagging and/or exasperated parents and children.

You might guess that neither approach was particularly appealing to us. They both have their positives and negatives but neither felt very empowering to the children or the parents. We decided that if cleanliness means a lot to us then we should be willing to help and even do it entirely. If our kids weren’t willing to help then that meant they did not see the purpose of cleanliness yet. Since trying to make them clean could have detrimental effects on our relationships and on their perception of cleanliness then we decided that keeping the number of toys available should be kept in check.

Some nights are incredibly easy and other nights there is little help offered. It’s a constant process because they’re people. I don’t think we’ll ever say, “we figured out how to get them to put away toys,” because there are even times I don’t feel like putting something away and I’m an adult.

This isn’t a post about how to get your kid to put toys away. The main thing I want to highlight is the attitude around putting toys away. The attitude around cleanup in our home is incredibly peaceful. There are very few times the kids get upset and it’s normally not even about the toys, at least not putting them up. 

How is this possible? Child chores seem to be one of the biggest frustrations that parents share. Have we cracked some impossible code? Hardly! Don’t get me wrong; I’m both encouraged and excited about the way things are going, but I can’t claim that the exact same method would work for others.

All I can say is what we’ve tried to do. I think I can wrap it up into three principles: Say what you mean, mean what you say, without being mean.

Say What You Mean

Be honest with yourself first about what you want and why you want it. We’ve discovered at least two areas that are pretty important to us: The toys are picked up at night time and kitchen is cleaned every night. But did we say to our kids, “Won’t you help us pick up please, it’s really important to us?” No. We just said, “We’re going to put toys away before bed,” or “I’m going to take your plate since you’re done.” 

We try to be clear about what we’re trying to accomplish. Since our oldest was only 18-months-old when we started we didn’t really explain much. If he has asked why we put toys away each night we’ve just told him that we want him to be able to find what he’s looking for the next day. If we don’t put it away then he might not be able to find it. If there are bigger consequences for something then we tell them. 

So, if dishes sit too long they take longer to clean and can have bacteria build up if not cleaned properly. That bacteria can make us sick. These are big consequences. They may not understand those consequences completely but they can always ask more questions to try and understand.

Mean What You Say

If you say, “I want your room to be picked up before dinner,” are you ready to back that up? Do you mean it? To what extent do you mean it? Because we’ve found that it’s important. How do our kids know that we mean what we say? Because we’ll even make sacrifices to carry those things out. We’ve told our kids that the toys will be picked up every night before bed time. Every night we help them do it. It’s important enough to us that we’re willing to help. I discovered as I was writing this that us helping shows them what we mean by “clean” or “pick up.” We are literally helping them form a definition of what clean means. This same night I’m writing this I spent a few moments watching our middle child pick up the magnets off the floor and put them on the door one by one. Her demeanor about the chore? This is just what we do? I can remember being young and just whining and complaining about clean up. I can remember looking at my room thinking, “How do I clean this? It seems clean to me.” My kids know exactly what we mean by clean because they see it every day.

Eventually they’ll pay more attention to how we organize our own spaces like the garage and basement. These areas are not clean in the same way. That’s something I really want to improve on.

Without Being Mean

This last one means that you are not trying purposefully to hurt them emotionally or physically to get your point across. This does not mean to make sure they’re happy. They will likely feel upset when you practice these principles. Because it hurts sometimes to not get what we want. That doesn’t mean we should belittle them for wanting it. Those are the moments they can learn to trust us even more, knowing that their emotional distress does not change our minds. 

Perceived meanness is probably the most common reason that trust is eroded in a parent-child relationship. You’ll often justify the tone you take with your children or the things you say about them but mean is mean is mean. It won’t matter if you’re right. If you are hurting their feelings and they feel it is intentional, you’ll start losing them. At least that’s the way I approach things with my kids. I prioritize a trusting relationship more than anything else. I want my kids to ask for my advice throughout their lives; if I don’t earn their trust then I know it’s not likely to happen.

What do I mean by “mean?”

William Glasser identified 7 deadly habits that are often perceived as meanness or control: Criticism, punishment, rewarding to control, complaining, nagging, threatening, and blaming. If you are doing these things then you are most likely being mean. I wish I could say that there was a quick way to just change all that behavior but there really isn’t. But it helps to be aware of them. Slowly you’ll learn to replace these behaviors with Glasser’s connecting habits: Listening, encouraging, accepting, negotiating differences, trusting, respecting, and supporting. I’ll be writing another post that goes into more detail about how I use these connecting habits.

But, there is one question that if you pause to ask yourself it may help: Would what you are going to say or do draw you closer to a person or push you further away if it was said to you?

Like I wrote earlier, this isn’t a magic formula. But, if your children start to clean up on their own or help you, you can be assured that they’re doing it because the see the value in the task and not because they are afraid of a punishment or of disappointing you or because they want some kind of a treat. That’s a good foundation for a healthy lifelong habit.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

View all posts

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *