Ask Unclutterer: Encouraging kids to help out at home

Reader Sonja submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

How do you get your family to want to help with a cluttered house? I have four children.

Unfortunately, Sonja, I have some bad news. If your family doesn’t want to help unclutter your home, there aren’t any methods to make them want to help. Fortunately, though, you’re the mom and there are numerous strategies you can implement so they will help you — regardless of if they want an uncluttered home.

The first thing to remember is that children are led by example. If you’re cheerful, excited, and energetic about getting the clutter out of your house, they’ll see this enthusiasm. On the flip side, if you complain, whine, and drag your feet, your children will see and mirror this negative attitude. Maintain an eager and positive attitude, and they’re more likely to get on board with your efforts.

Be explicit about what you want completed, when, how to do the activity, and why. A chore chart (like one that was discussed on Wednesday) helps children to know exactly what actions you expect of them. Telling your kids to “pick up the family room” is vague, they need specific directions such as “return your shoes to the shoe bin in your closet, bring all dirty plates to the kitchen and load them into the dishwasher.” Additionally, let them know how long a task should usually take and when you would like for it to be done (take out kitchen trash, 3 minutes, immediately after dinner). A training session might also be in order to demonstrate exactly how you want an activity to be completed (don’t be condescending, just give them good directions). Even with a demonstration, younger children might also need to be supervised when they do tasks. Finally, be direct about why you want them to help with the uncluttering efforts. “Because I said so,” is not a reason that will motivate your children to help you, but explaining to them the life you want to lead can make an impression — “I want us to spend less time on chores and work around the house so we can spend more time having fun together as a family.” Have a conversation with them and let them share their opinions on how they want the house to look and how they want their home life to function.

Next, take some time to think about what it is that made you happy as a kid and what makes your kids happy now. If your children love games and puzzles, create an incentive structure based on these activities. For each five minutes of uncluttering completed, let them choose a letter on a game of hangman. If your kids are older, do a minute-for-minute video game tradeoff — 15 minutes of uncluttering becomes 15 minutes extra of video game playing later (or reading or bike riding or staying up late on a weekend). Kids can earn allowances with bonus dollars if they don’t have to be reminded to do their uncluttering tasks. They could bank time toward a slumber party or a trip to their favorite park. Put incentives in place that they really want and that you think are deserved for their efforts.

Also, make the uncluttering process fun — play upbeat music while everyone works, have snacks available, tell goofy jokes, and dance while you work. Race to see who can fold their stack of laundry the fastest or find all the toys in the house they haven’t played with in months and can be donated to charity. Work together and enjoy your time uncluttering as a family.

When your children help you with uncluttering efforts, be sure to thank them for their work and acknowledge that you appreciate their contribution to keeping the family home running smoothly. Consider handing out silly awards (King of Loading the Washing Machine!). It feels good to receive praise, no matter what age you are.

Finally, listen to what your kids are saying throughout this process. They might want different incentives than what you’ve put in place, so be flexible and willing to change. Your children might figure out a better way for them to complete tasks, so let them take the lead. If you really want your children to help you unclutter, respect what they have to lend to the project. Most importantly, don’t nag — nagging is a sign of disrespect — but feel welcome to pass along a gentle reminder at different points during the day: “After school today, you’ll have trumpet lessons, probably an hour of homework, 30 minutes of helping around the house, dinner, and then it’s family movie night. What movie did you decide we should watch?”

Thank you, Sonja, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck getting your children to help out with uncluttering efforts in your home. It might take a few months to master their involvement, but with guidance you’ll help your children establish good habits that will stay with them into adulthood.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

13 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Encouraging kids to help out at home”

  1. posted by Desiree on

    thanks for these tips! i have a teenager who is not bad about helping but definitely procrastinates. i like the idea of bonus dollars for not needing reminders, particularly.

  2. posted by Dorothy on

    Great topic. I’d like to share a story that’s pretty serious and may encourage parents to incorporate their children more fully into uncluttering efforts and routine chores.

    When I was in college my boyfriend’s 13 year old sister ran away from home. There was no abuse at home (although her adventures on the road for the several days she was gone had some dire consequences).

    Subsequently, the family participated in therapy. The therapist told the parents that the reason she had run away is that she felt wholly alienated from the family — she felt no connection to them. He said that (among other things) regular chores helped integrate children — made them feel a necessary, important part of the family. The message, he said, should be, “We all need to do our important part to keep the family running well.”

    Kudos to Sonja for starting a chapter of the Junior Unclutterers’ International in her home, and good luck!

  3. posted by Michele on

    I must be a dragon-lady mom because as far as my household is concerned, “because I said so” is a perfectly good reason for my daughter to do something I ask her to do.

    I mean, usually I follow up with a brief explanation (dinner will be ready sooner if you empty the dishwasher for me; we can leave the house sooner if you help me do the laundry; etc.). But I don’t think I should explain to her the whys and wherefores of every request or job or responsibility I give her.

    I’ve found two big motivations for my daughter. One is when I tell her how helpful it is for me when she does something I ask her to do — I’m a single mom with half-time custody, and it’s a huge drag to be the only adult around to do the housework. Another is to tell her how nice an area will look when she’s done or how pleasant it’s turned out afterward.

    I like putting it in terms of “Team Mom and E–,” which I think gives her a stake in living in a neat, organized, clean home.

  4. posted by henave on

    I’ve found that for a project like a closet clean-out or under the bed excavation, I need to be in there to help my kids make the decisions about what to do with the stuff (they are 9 and 12). The 12 yr old is almost independent on big projects, but still needs guidance and reminders about how long it has been since he has used something. I mostly keep things moving so they don’t get bogged down and quit from frustration.

    It also helps when they actually go to Goodwill or the recycling center to donate the items.

    We have a toy buy-back program that I use as I am not willing to have a yard sale. I give them the prices they might expect to get at a yard sale for donated toys in good condition (very low amount!). This is a very popular program. We suffer from over-indulgent-grandparent-syndrome, so extreme measures are required.

    Watching shows like Clean House also is very motivating for them!

  5. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    Ah – leading by example. That’s good, but then I’d have to finally get organized and purge my home office.

    For my son’s toys we tend to go by the “put that away before you take out another” rule. It doesn’t always work, but it usually does.

  6. posted by Lee on

    My children were adults by the time I found some good ideas, but if it had to do it over again, I would…..

    Limit what comes into the house that makes the house cluttered. I’d limit the number of toys that we purchased. I’d have serious talks with realtives who generally gave them gifts about our steps we’re taking to reduce what we have in the house and bring in only things we need, then give them suggestions, including contributions to college funds for over doting grandparents. I’d try not to word it as “your gifts make our house cluttered”. I’d preferably make birthday parties with child guests “no gifts” (however Miss Manners would let you say that without looking like you expect gifts) or “bring a gift to be given to charity”. Let the guests sign the matt board that will be put with a to be taken and framed group picture as a memory of the event.

    Store much (especially toys) and rotate things in and out as you reduce what you bring in. They may not be able to handle going from “lots” to “very little” in a day if it’s not necessary.

    Put something away, THEN get someting else out.

    Follow the “one in, one out” practice. Help them donate or sell what they’re getting rid of. Teach them generosity. Have a convenient place for unused things and get them out of the house asap. Be a good example – “This is ‘make sure we can wear it’ day” for parents and kids.

    Go through clothes each season, more often if they’re in a growth spurt.

    Read Peter Walsh’s book, “It’s all too much”. He can lead you through deciding what activities should be done in each room. This lets them know where they can and cannot play and limits the rooms that they will have to pick up. It also helps you make sure that everyone in the family has adequate space to do things they need to do – study, pay bills, etc.

    Provide adequate, easy to use, well labeled storage.

    Provide easy to use, well labeled dirty laundry bins (or personal bins if they do their own laundry).

    Create landing strips for backpacks, a place for school notes for you to read or for them to return to school, message boards, reminder boards, a family calendar, stuff we need (grocery store, hardware store, craft store…( – plus whatever else you need lists to make their and your lives go smoothly. Once a week, go over the calendar together.

    (FlyLady makes a great calendar with a big area for each day, Aug 2010 – Dec 2011 is available now), Paper Source sells a 4 pack of self stick but easy to remove black write on sheets – love them)

    Have a short “everyone jumps in and straightens the house” once a day.

    Plan a short “pick up your room” time at the beginning of the going to bed routine, before snack, bath, read, whatever.

    Be a good example. It’s hard to spot your own stuff in the middle of a mess.

    FlyLady has some great ideas plus Pam’s “House Fairy” on her website.

    Give them experiences and your time in place of stuff. Make memories.

    Be positive. Let them know that taking care of their possessions is part of life, not drudgery. Realize that change and learning new habits takes time. Have consequences and be consistent with them if you need to.

    Enjoy your kids. Some day your nest will be an empty nest. Help them learn helpful habits, not do dreaded chores. Don’t despair. Mine were raised in a mess (which I very much regret) and quite messy like me and today they are extremely neat and well organized, as are their homes. Maybe they decided not to live the way we did, but they’re happy and still love us.

  7. posted by Amandine on

    Great tips, Erin. I find that a sincere, heartfelt thank-you means a great deal to my kids. I haven’t found it necessary to explain the rationale behind each chore; rather, my kids rely on me to know what needs to be done and why. I have explained to both of them what a great help they are to me, and how much I genuinely appreciate their help, and that’s all the motivation they seem to need.

    We do give them some extra money for helping with some of the really big jobs, like leaf-raking in the fall, and washing windows in the spring. Otherwise they know they are just expected to help because they are able-bodied members of the family.

  8. posted by momofthree on

    As a mom of three, I started each of them young in learning every chore in/out of the house. There isn’t a single chore that my kids don’t know how or what to do.

  9. posted by [email protected] on

    I had a post on this a couple of months back – the main point for me is that a house runs well when everyone helps, and these are skills they need to know.


  10. posted by Michelle Smyth on

    Great tips. I would suggest only one thing more…remember that what worked today may not work tomorrow. I find I have to switch up the incentives on a regular basis, to keep my kids motivated.

  11. posted by Melissa on

    For older children (and many adults), you can participate in Chore Wars. It’s a lot of fun and you can tailor it to fit your family’s needs.

  12. posted by KeithTax on

    I agree with you on the difficulties in uncluttering in a family with children. It is possible, I think, but a full time challenge.

    I also manage a tax office and adults can be worse than kids when it comes to clutter. Your advice is solid and dead on. I have to be firm and explicit or it does not get done.

  13. posted by usedcardboardboxes on

    I think that the average kid will be happy to help unclutter and help keep the home organized, granted that their help and their intelligence is respected, as the article stated. Sometimes, organizing and keeping away the clutter can be a very simple process, almost too simple for any adults to think of. By having your kid come back to you and give you a better tip than you originally provided, you can not only engage your child in helping to keep things organized, but you also show your child that he or she is important and that his or her thoughts do count. Great article. Love your posts.

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