We can create positive associations with cleaning up so our family will enjoy doing it
Everyone’s home, which means that everyone’s making a mess. Food is being prepared and eaten. People are working and playing all day in a place that used to be, for the most part, empty until evening. In order for the environment to remain orderly and livable, everybody has to get good at cleaning up.
Some kids like to keep things tidy. They may regularly organize their rooms, making sure that there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. Interestingly, the ultra-tidy room of one child may be right next to the cluttered catastrophe belonging to a sibling.
Untidy kids like to take things out and use them ⸺ clothes, toys, papers, books ⸺ but have less interest in putting them back. Objects stay wherever they last were: on the floor, on the bed, on the desk or dresser. To an onlooker, these rooms look chaotic, but to the child, it is “home,” a place where “I have my things” (and no one is allowed to move them!).
Then there are the shared spaces ⸺ the rooms where family members congregate. These areas need to be kept clean and functional. When they’re not, the home can feel overwhelming and chaotic to its inhabitants and visitors alike.
Many people who previously relied on hired help to maintain the cleanliness and orderliness of their homes have now, due to financial cutbacks and/or health concerns, taken this job upon themselves.
Getting People to Clean Up
With or without outside help, there is simply more to clean up with everyone at home. Ideally, everyone old enough to walk should be involved in the cleaning-up process.
“I’ve always hated housework,” says one woman. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have the patience to fold laundry, organize my papers, or sweep up. I constantly battled with my mother over these things. I remember that she was always mad at me because of my reluctance to help. Now, I still lack the right skills and the patience, but with five young children here, my own home is a disaster zone. It’s really depressing. Even worse, my husband is constantly on my case just like my mother used to be. I know he’s really frustrated and disappointed. It’s the one thing we fight about.”
Many mental health disorders can contribute to difficulties in cleaning up, including ADHD, OCPD, depression, anxiety, OCD, and others. However, many otherwise healthy children can acquire “clean-up trauma” from parents who were unpleasant about this side of life.
“My mother made everything about chores miserable,” says another woman. “She was bossy, demanding, and critical. Nothing was ever done well enough for her.”
“My mother hated doing housework, so she made us kids do it all. My friends would be out playing while I was washing dishes and ironing. I resent my mother for this tremendously. Now it’s very hard for me to ‘inspire’ my kids with the right attitude, even though I know how important it is to teach them organization skills,” says another.
Developing a dislike of housework is a handicapping condition in adulthood. Housework, like bathing and brushing one’s teeth, is simply a necessary part of healthy living. To help make it easy and pleasant for kids to put their own things away and participate happily in family chores, and to lay down the groundwork for healthy adult functioning, parents need guidelines. They need to use a pleasant tone of voice and SMILE when asking for help. They need to offer generous praise and appreciation when help is given, carefully refraining from criticizing and complaining.
It’s important not to call children away from what they’re doing to suddenly do a chore; assigning a time for chores is more respectful. Older teens and adult children should have more significant designated responsibilities both to develop confidence and competence in homemaking, but also to be fair: They’re no longer helpless children in highchairs who need Mommy to do everything for them. They’re more like adult roommates who need to share responsibilities.
Children under 16 should simply have a couple of regular, small assignments in addition to keeping their own rooms clean. Most importantly, doing chores with children ⸺ singing, joking, and chatting ⸺ brings warm and positive associations with everything domestic. This allows children to develop into adults who actually feel good when engaged in housework and who can pass this positive attitude on to their own children.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 693)
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