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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Getting children to clean...or not

I've been taking part in a few forums and parenting advice columns over the past months, and I thought I would post some of my answers as blog posts.

My six year old refuses to pick up after herself and its turned into a battle of wills. What can I do? I’ve tried to coax her and even punish her by taking toys away if she doesn’t clean them up, but nothing works. It feels awful. What will work?

Short reply, nothing will work. Sorry, not what you expected right? The truth of the matter is your child is expressing her own individual opinions and experience and to force her to stray from that purpose, will never feel good.
Now that doesn’t mean she will never pick up her stuff and it doesn’t mean that she’ll need you to trail behind her picking up stuff for the rest of your life. You have to make this a momentary thing in your mind, without resentment, anger or frustration. You’ve said acting with force feels awful, well choose to feel better no matter what and do what feels good. When you are looking at your child, see what brings you joy and step away from the temptation to constantly tell yourself you’re the victim of a slob. Distract yourself from the situation, and appreciate your life. Feel better and then deal with it.
No one likes to pick up or clean, so really neither will your child. I know mine don’t, however I also know that I have a tendency to rush around cleaning and get rather stressed doing it. I notice a big difference with my children if I am making it fun with music blasting and with a little more of a laid back attitude. But often the pick up time becomes a battle of wills between you and them and at a certain point you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth the peace of your house and the happiness of everyone in it.
Now, it doesn’t mean you offer it as a choice, “to clean or not to clean” rather you take the sting out of the question so that the rebel can have a break from rebelling.
Therefore, this is what I find helps.
Stop asking for any help for at least a week. Clean everything up really well on one day, and store away the stuff that doesn’t get played with or drives you crazy to clean up. Make your child’s space really clean. She will notice most likely and really appreciate how easy it is to find everything. Mention to her that you would really appreciate it if she could try to keep it looking like that, as you’ve worked hard and it’s a waste of time if it got messy all at once, especially as it looks so much better now. Than do a general pick up every day just to keep it neat. When the week is done, do a good clean again. Your child might get bored with you doing all this work with no time to play or explore with her, so start making suggestions such as “Why don’t you take this cloth and clean your table, it will make my job faster so we can play after.” When she’s done, ask her to dust or clean something else. I’ve gotten into the habit of making a pile of toys to be taken upstairs and asking my daughters to take them up. They do this without objection as it’s a simple job, they feel good doing it, but it’s also done quickly. When the jobs are done, praise and thank your child, telling her you really appreciate her help and she made your job so much easier.
No matter what it feels good to feel good, and soon your child will find she likes the sense of responsibility helping out offers her. If she flatly refuses to help, than says it’s alright (and mean it, we’re not manipulating here) and clean away. However, don’t mind throwing out stuff, or getting rid of papers and things from her room. Don’t throw out anything you know for certain in important, just clean it to your specifications, but hers. This is simply a consequence for not lending a hand and many a time I’ve accidentally thrown out a memento or note of my daughter’s much to her disappointment. Soon, they will realize that they can protect their stuff better if they simply put it away.
A good thing to remember in all of this is that children like specifics and clarity. Therefore, rather than using a general statement like “can you clean up your room?” Try asking if she can “pick up her blocks.” Or “pick up her puzzles.” When one simple job is done, you can ask another. It simply takes a bit of brainwork on your part to come up with the little jobs which we, experienced cleaners, take for granted and see the bigger job all at once. When your child gets fed up of helping, don’t make her feel bad for not wanting to continue, simply thank her for what she did and let her go off to play alone.
We are setting up life long thinking habits in our children. If cleaning and work become about struggle, misery and fighting, then naturally they are going to grow up avoiding them. However, if we can make it pleasurable, easy and stress free, than that will spread to all corners of their lives. Who knows, maybe after awhile, you will have a passionate little helper and your only complaint will be that she won’t let you do the dishes because she loves to do them!

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