Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First Steps to a Tidy Home / Children & Chores

First Steps to a Tidy Home / Children & Chores      

Dear friends,

I'd like to share two excerpts from my book The Real Life Home School Mom: It's a Life in ReVision.   You can read the whole book on-line or download it for free -- just look for the link in the sidebar on my blogs,, and  I also have regular print copies available for $20 plus shipping -- e-mail me if you are interested!

I picked these two sections because I'm in the middle of trying to organize our home on a week off from home school.  We're tackling the kids' bedrooms this morning, before we go to P.E. class at the YMCA and then bring my baby grandson home for the afternoon!   I've already pulled out all of the winter clothes that were crammed in their drawers, folded what was left, had one of the kids clean out under the bed, and taken a stab at getting the major tripping hazards out of the way.  I wrote out a whole list of things we still need to do, like sort through bins and shelves of their personal junk, wipe down the walls, organize shoes, etc. With tidiness, I am trying to avoid two extremes -- being so lax that the bedrooms turn into filthy pigpens or getting neurotic about them that everyone is always uptight and stressed out.  There is a healthy balance.  We just need to get there!  

I have several children still living at home, so if we each do our part, it's not so hard.  But that's a big if isn't it?  Motivation is always the challenge!  But I think just plain habit really plays into that.  We're working on it...

First Steps to a Tidy Home

           Since I am a recovering messy, learning to keep my house organized and clean has been quite a challenge for me!  You see, when I was a little girl, my bedroom was piled so deep in junk that I could have hidden an elephant in there.  Mom had to turn off my light at night because I didn't dare walk across my room in the dark.  Yes, I was bad, and I didn't get any better until I had roommates, then a tidy husband, and then a bunch of children.  If I didn't do something, I was going to drown!  Here's a sample of what I have learned from books, the example of others, and personal trial-and-error.

            Get a vision for “kosmos” in your home.  My boys and I once read the book Archimedes and the Door of Science by Jeanne Bendick.  She mentioned that the word cosmos, which we think of as universe, is from the Greek word kosmos, which means an orderly and harmonious arrangement.  This is something the Greeks highly valued; they were so pleased that the heavens exhibited this quality.  In my life, this inspires me to pursue kosmos at home.  I try to stoke this vision by reading home organization books by such experts as Don Aslett, Sandra Felton, and Emilie Barnes. 

            View cleaning up as a form of art.  Imagine how beautiful your home will be if you stay on top of it all.  Picture clear counters, glistening appliances, neatly folded laundry in the drawers, smooth carpets, and shiny tile.

            Give a room a facelift just by removing clutter and tidying things up.  Be ruthless! Give away what you don't need or that distract you from important priorities.  Apply the Philippians 4:4‑8 test.  If it's not good, noble, true, and pure, out it goes!
            If you have a bunch of active, curious children, don't expect an immaculate house!  Young children can make a new mess every time you turn around.  Tackle the germs and the obvious clutter first, and don't get hyper about every speck of dust on the furniture or hand print on the wall.  You don't have to have “House Beautiful,” just a home full of living, loving, and learning.

            Invest in household equipment, tools, and supplies to get the job done right and save your precious time and energy.   Also, be sure you have proper household storage such as shelving, plastic bins, sports equipment racks, and organizers for musical and computer media.

            A place for everything and everything in its place! Assign consistent “addresses” to all items close to where they are used.  Teach all family members where things belong.  When you find something out of place, reinforce its correct address: “These markers go in the blue box up on the shelf, not in my pencil holder!”  There are also proper places to do different activities.  For example, we have a rule that you can’t eat, drink, or do messy projects in carpeted areas.   Of course, the rule is often ignored, but it helps somewhat, especially with the younger children.  I don’t want glue stuck on my carpet or on the couch, nor do I want to have to retrieve dirty cereal bowls from bedrooms!   (We have cockroaches in Florida, after all!)

Children and Chores

            You can’t do it all yourself!  That’s the first rule of housework, in my opinion.  Get those children busy, and watch the work melt away.

            What happens when parents fail to train children in everyday responsibility?  Picture Tommy Tornado.  He dawdles through his school work finding every excuse for distraction.  He still hasn't finished his math page by the afternoon, and since it's so B-O-R-I-N-G, he shoves the book aside and retrieves his model airplane kit from the closet.  He has the glue, newspaper, and plastic parts all spread out on the kitchen table when his friend Joe rings the doorbell wanting to play.  Mom asks from the next room if he has done his math yet.  Tommy calls back, “Yeah...”, justifying to himself that he has done some of it.  He runs outside and is soon happily rollerblading down the street.  An hour later, he stumbles back inside, totally exhausted, and plops down in front of the TV with a snack.  Mom nags Tommy to clean up his airplane mess and take out the trash, but he is now comatose on the couch in front of the TV, amid potato chip crumbs and apple cores.  She ends up doing it all herself, still resentful about the jumble of Legos and crayons from this morning.  When Dad gets home, already tired from a long day at work, he nearly runs into the rollerblades left in the driveway.  He is now in no mood for mercy when he steps inside the house to greet his tired wife.  It's going to be a long evening!  Multiply this by a houseful of children, and you have trouble with a capital T.  And as Tommy slides through the teenage years into adulthood, he will face major obstacles in higher education, career, and family life.

            One basic difference between adults and children is that adults tend to think of “duty” things (productivity, safety, health, hygiene, tidiness, thrift, etc.) while children naturally gravitate to “pleasure” pursuits (play, food, friends, relaxation, affection, crafts, etc.)  Sure, adults like these things too, but often have a hard time “cutting loose” when there is so much work to be done.  They run themselves ragged, skimp on meals, get overwhelmed, and start grumbling.  Meanwhile, the children play until they drop (all the while making excess work for Mom and Dad), and then they don't even think about helping out.   What is the solution to overworked parents and lazy offspring?  Train the children to work!  At first, this will just mean cleaning up their messes and taking care of personal hygiene.  Later, they must learn to pitch in on family responsibilities and household chores.  As the children come up to speed and carry their own weight, then the adults are more able to relax and enjoy life with their children.  Everyone wins!  The children become more mature and actually get to spend friendly time with Mom and Dad.  The adults, on the other hand, can cultivate a childlike appreciation of simple pleasures like naps, hugs, games and evening strolls.  True balance comes when all family members learn to intermingle duty and pleasure by adding adventure to their tasks, alternating periods of work and rest, and laboring together in a spirit of comradeship.  Rather than being pitted against each other, the parents and children are blended into a team!   Here are a few tips to help along the way:
            Insist that tidying up is a necessary part of every project.  Don't let your children go on to the next activity until the last one is cleaned up.  If they don't have time to clean it up, they don't have time to do the project!  To be honest, our younger children have yet to learn this, and it’s a constant source of frustration.  I don’t like to have to play detective later on to figure out who made the mess.

            Schedule regular tidy-up times.  Have a “Power Hour” before Dad comes home in the evening or, better yet, before they go out to play in the afternoon.  Ask each person to pick up 10 items or play “Beat the Clock.”  Make it fun!  Think of how Cinderella danced with her mop!   Put on some bouncy music and let the children play “clean-up train” together.  Each one chooses to be a different kind of train car -- one for toys, one for clothes, one for papers, etc.  As they toot through the house, they make stops at each room to collect and transport the cargo.  Set the timer and race to clean up the play room in 15 minutes.  When you have a little more time, put the block bucket in the middle of the floor and see how many they can throw in.  Confiscate items which are repeatedly left out.  Some families have a “redemption box.”  The children have to wait until the next redemption day, pay money or do extra chores to get their things back. 

            Make a chore chart.  There are many ways we have done this, and you can come up with the way which works best for your family.  At first, we started with as many index cards as we had children who could do a fair share of housework.  On each card, I wrote a daily mealtime chore at the top and then another chore for each day of the week.  Then I slipped them into a plastic photo page that had four segments labeled with my children’s names.   I attached this to the refrigerator door, and rotated the cards each week.  One card might have looked like this:

      Meals:  Load dishes.
      Mon:  Vacuum and dust living room.
      Tue:    Organize your bedroom.   
      Wed:   Vacuum your bedroom.
      Thu:   Vacuum and dust living room.
      Fri:     Gather trash from around the house.

            After a few years, I decided to design a computer spreadsheet to produce weekly chart pages.  Children’s names went across the top, and days of the week went down the side.  Using the cut-and-paste function, I created three different pages, shifting the columns of chores around so that the first child got chore set A one week, set B the second week, and set C the third week, and so forth for the other two children who shared those sets of chores.  We changed the page each Sunday.

            Next, after reading more about the subject of chores, I decided to assign my children “permanent” chores in a specific room, without rotating each week.  In other words, instead of assigning one to wipe the table, and another to sweep underneath it or one person to load the dishwasher and another to unload it, I chose one child for each whole area.  The limit on this was that if someone else made a big mess in your area, they had to clean it up.  My oldest daughter asked for the hardest job, kitchen duty, because she truly liked to see it clean and figured she was the best person for the job!  Another daughter was responsible for keeping the bathroom clean every day, another had the dining room, and another the living room.  This set up eliminated confusion about who did what and prevented people from getting in each other’s way or having to wait for each other to do a chore which needs to come before their own (like unloading and loading dishes).

            Now that we have more children available to work, we are back to a chore chart with more specific tasks based on age levels and availability.  For example, one of our little ones sets out the silverware at dinner time and folds all of our cleaning cloths.  Our two oldest sons gather and take out all the trash.   One of our girls cleans the bathroom.  We schedule our teenager’s chores around their class, work, and sports schedules.

            Picking the right job for each child is a matter of knowing what they are physically and mentally ready to do, what they are naturally good at, and what they can learn.  A toddler can put his socks in the hamper and pick up his toys.  A fourth grader could clean the bathroom or vacuum carpets.  A teenager could shop and prepare meals.  Let the organized child tidy closets, the energetic one rake leaves, the creative child make a centerpiece, and the nurturing one entertain younger siblings.  You might find that a job truly is too hard or hazardous for one child.  On the other hand, with a little training, a younger child could become quite capable of a job that you thought was too difficult.

            Provide appropriate tools for your children to help clean house.   Imagine that you had to clean a giant's house with the giant's own tools!  Stretch, pull, stretch, pull!  Provide your children with child-size brooms, dustpan, work gloves, garden tools, aprons, etc.  Keep a whole pile of wipe-up cloths on a low shelf.  Use non-toxic cleaners stowed in a caddie which can be carried from room to room.  Give them plastic bins for easy toy storage.  Make it simple and it will more likely get done!   Eventually, your children will learn which tools or supplies are used for each task.  The narrow vacuum nozzle is used for cleaning the cracks in the couch, while the wide one is used for the floor.  One spray bottle is for cleaning windows, but the other is for disinfecting toilets.  The ability to select an appropriate resource is just one more step on the way to independence.

            Train your children in specific home maintenance skills.  I once handed my young daughter a spray bottle and asked her to clean our toaster.  She honestly didn't know that you aren't supposed to douse the heating elements with chemicals.  On the bright side, I got a new four-slice toaster!  It is not a waste of time to lay aside the worksheets to teach home skills.  Sure, it's faster to do the job yourself, but they have to learn some time; the sooner they learn, the sooner you will be free to do other things.  Teach a little at a time, work with them, and allow them to succeed at small assignments before going on to more complicated ones.  Since children can't read our minds (except when we are thinking of ice cream), we need to clearly and systematically explain and demonstrate the process.  If the task is to sweep, then “show-n-tell” how to get under the edge of the counter or how to shift the dustpan back to catch the last few crumbs.  You could also write a detailed list of steps for “How to Clean the Bathroom” and tape it to the wall for quick reference.  For young children learning to clean their bedrooms, you could make a picture chart or have them learn key words: CLOTHES, BED, PAPERS, TOYS.

            Teach your kids to work together to get the job done. Parents often hear bickering among the children about chore assignments.  If you tell young children to “clean up the living room,” you will almost invariably hear one child complain, “He isn't doing anything, so I'm not going to either!”  It might be better to tell them, “Bob, you pick up the toys while Ann picks up the books.”  With these clearly defined responsibilities, they won't feel obligated to make up for the slacker.  Whichever way you do it, don't allow your children to compare among themselves or boss each other around, because you alone have the bird's eye view of the assignments.
            As they complete household tasks, they will soon learn that timing and sequence are important.  If one child has to wait for another to unload the dishwasher before he can put the dirty dishes in, and Mom has to wait for the dishes to be cleared out of the way before she can make dinner, these “log jams” disrupt efficiency.  I urge my children to think of other people when they are choosing which of their tasks to do first.  If someone else is waiting on you to do a certain job, that one takes priority.  This may seem like a subtle lesson, but when they get out into a career where they must cooperate with their colleagues, they will appreciate your training.

            Children must eventually develop the capacity for truly working together rather than merely alongside one another.  This can start out simple, as in: “Bob, please hold the bag open while Ann dumps the trash in.”  With older children or teenagers, you could say, “The Miller family is coming for dinner on Saturday.  You can figure out a good menu, shop for the ingredients, and fix the meal.”  At this stage, they are not just performing pre-assigned tasks.  They must actually plan the details, check their resources, budget, make decisions, negotiate compromises, and split up the work according to their interests and abilities.  As a mini-committee, they are preparing for life in the “real world.”

            Inspect what you expect. Housekeeping standards vary from family to family, but they must be clearly communicated and checked.  If they don't do it all, or don't do it right, they need to do it over.  Your children should be able to tell when a job is done by certain criteria such as:

   When you tidy up, the whole room should look better at first glance.
   Junk must not be shoved behind doors, in closets, or under beds.
   Toilets and sinks must be sprayed with disinfectant.
   Hard surfaces should not have sticky residue after cleaning.
   If you must pile up books or papers, make the stack neat and steady.
   Putting away the tools and supplies is part of the job!

            As you set and enforce your standards, remember that your child may eventually share living space with a roommate or spouse accustomed to a much tidier lifestyle.

            If you find that the child's work is not up to par, go back over the first seven “essentials” again!  Or consider whether the problem is a matter of attitude... which takes us to our next and most important element!

            Encourage good attitudes toward home responsibilities“Housework?  Isn't that Mom's job?  Does she think I'm a slave or something?”  It is a rare child who gleefully serves at menial chores.  Excellence won't enter their minds until they grasp a sense of ownership over household tasks.  Our children must get the idea that they are vital members of the family team and that we are in dire need of their assistance.  Teach your children to value a clean and tidy house.  Remind them how much more pleasant it is to walk across the floor without tripping, slipping, or sticking!

            A clean house is its own reward, but is that enough?  While a system of rewards can help spur your children to do a good job, they also need to develop the internal motivation of doing a job for what it produces, not just what it pays.  Some families pay cash for all chores, citing that a worker is worth his wages.  Others feel that household work is the price you pay for living in the home, so each one should do his share without extra compensation.  In the middle are those who don't pay for routine chores (laundry, dishes, sweeping, etc.), but offer rewards for doing extra work (yard work, baby sitting, deep cleaning, etc.)   As an alternative to money, children can earn privileges such as outings or private time with parents.  Whatever incentives you choose, a word of appreciation is always appropriate for a job well done, especially if they have cheerfully taken the initiative without being reminded.
            When my husband Thad was about nine, they moved into a Massachusetts ski lodge that his father managed.  Thad worked in the kitchen and dining hall after school.  He had plenty of outdoor fun, but he sure learned to work!  Even now, he can't walk past a sink of dirty dishes without at least rinsing and stacking them.  He must be the most diligent person I know.  He encourages me, “Honey, just train the children to be busy at home!”

            When it comes to dirty dishes, sticky floors, or smelly toilets, children can suddenly develop a sense of squeamishness.  Somehow this never bothered them when they were making mud pies, catching worms, or eating yogurt with their bare hands.  Yucky stuff and germs will be around for the rest of their lives, so the sooner they learn to deal with it, the better off they will be.  Remember your high school or college biology class?  When we had to dissect a rat, my classmates and I were all disgusted.  However, I knew I had to put aside my nausea and do it, so I pounced on the task with morbid glee, o the amazement of my lab partners. (I beg pardon from all of you non-violent animal lovers out there!)  Gross messes don't faze me much now.  Tell your children to roll up those sleeves, plunge in, and then disinfect themselves later.  That's why we have soap, hot water and rubber gloves!  It takes some training, but a child who is willing to follow the “foot washing” example of Jesus and dig in to a dirty job is fit to serve God in the most profound way.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Virginia. I love the title of your blog. I feel refreshed just knowing there is an older mom who cares about those of us who do become so weary at times! I loved what you said about viewing housekeeping as art. In fact, I quoted you on my blog. I appreciate you! :)


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