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We Santos’ are not a naturally tidy bunch. Not one of us is of that rare breed that cleans up after themselves without thinking. If I am drinking a cup of tea in the living room, more often than not, that tea cup will stay where I left it until I consciously choose to tidy up the living room. Currently, there are shoes, socks, hair clips, books, stuffed toys, a few coloring pages and a rock on my living room floor – it’s a light day!

Of course, I have yet to meet a kid who naturally loves to clean up after themselves. Certainly none of my children so far. I have met a few who tolerate it well enough, and are happy to get the work done (again, none of my children, so far). Several have gone through a helpful phase, here and there, where they don’t mind bit of housework, as long it’s the chore they have in mind – generally, this is not cleaning up after themselves. Ah well, motherhood is a mixed bag.

But chores and tidying up doesn’t have to be an endless, frustrating tug of war. We’ve sort of settled into a decent routine around here, and the complaining is down to a minimum. I reserve the right to be completely frustrated by a lack of co-operation at any point in the future, but for right now things are going well, so I feel like a winner and an expert.

And a winner is always eager to share their “wisdom” with you. Hence this post. 🙂

Obviously, we have to begin at the beginning, with our own attitudes about housework. I talked about why chores and work are good for us in my first post about chores here. Before we can expect any joyful help from our kids we ourselves need to be convinced that housework is more than just frustrating drudgery, but rather a way to show gratitude and love to God and others. We must demonstrate a healthy attitude ourselves, and invite them to come alongside us. As J.M. Barrie said,

“The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes, but liking what one has to do.”

Setting a positive example is a worthy aim, but I know my kids and that they would be happy to have a cheerful mother who loved cleaning up after them while they went on their merry way, strewing things throughout the house. All in an effort to increase my joy by giving me the opportunity to clean up after them, of course.

So, despite our hard-won happy disposition while folding the fifth load of laundry that day, they still might not actually do anything without being asked and required to. We might explain all the benefits of doing chores, but they may (will) still balk at the task at hand, or procrastinate or find a million other excuses to avoid the work.

Never fear! I’ve come up with 6 strategies to get kids working around the house, limit the whining and get them to do a decent job to boot!


unloading the dishwasher


1. Make it a Regular Requirement


Cindy Rollins wrote some wise words about homeschooling and writing that I think applies:

“Many boys will not love this time of writing, but it absolutely essential that it be given, no-questions-asked, each day…it must be done daily. If you want to spend the rest of your school days fighting with your child over writing, make this exercise infrequent and optional.” (Mere Motherhood, 151)

If have found this advice to be true for writing, but also for a great many other things. If you want to spend your days fighting with your child about chores, make them infrequent and optional!

On the other hand, if taking care of one’s own belongings, and completing a couple of tasks that benefit the whole household is a regular requirement they will (eventually) stop complaining because their complaints fall on deaf ears. We must be consistent in this. Give them a free pass because the sun is shining, or they stubbed their toe and you will have to re-establish that expectation from the beginning. Sometimes that is inevitable, but avoid it if you can.

Every day in our house we have “Happy Hour” (named to trick my kids into thinking it would be fun). About an hour before dinner they all work together to tidy up the entire main floor of the house. All the school mess is put away, all toys, dirty socks, shoes and whatever other random bits have been left out of place are taken care of. The table is set for dinner, then I inspect their work. When it is done to my satisfaction they can play outside or watch TV until dinner is ready.

Before our “Happy Hour” existed the time to tidy up was random and inconsistent, it often inspired whining from the kids and yelling from me. Making it a part of the routine, with a simple, natural reward at the end, has taken care of a lot of that.


2. Use Natural Rewards and Consequences

I HATE using carrots and sticks (ie. rewards and punishments) with my kids. They often feel forced and unfair, especially when their failure to do something is possibly a result of my poor communication and/or their immaturity rather than actual defiance.

Instead, I try to use natural, common-sense rewards and punishments. This isn’t a new idea but I find it very helpful in motivating our kids to complete their chores, to the best of their ability, in a timely fashion. (see Parenting with Love and Logic, and Loving our Kids on Purpose for a more in-depth discussion)

Usually, it’s a simple matter of when/then. For example,

“When you have cleaned your room, then you may play video games,”
“When you’ve emptied the dishwasher then you may go outside and play with the neighbor.”

Of course, the converse is also true:

“If you do not empty the dishwasher you may not play with your friend or do anything else fun until it is finished.”

Other options:

“If cleaning up the Legos is too difficult then I will help you, and we will put them away for a few weeks.”

I like not having to invent random punishments for not listening, and making the rewards and consequences clear from the beginning. It feels fair, not forced.

cleaning the window


3. Be Specific

Have you ever had a boss who did not communicate well? I have.

I worked at a bookstore when I was first married. The manager would often leave a task for me to do, such as “re-do the giftware displays,” on a day when he wasn’t there. I would spend my whole shift re-merchandising only to have him tell me the next day that it wasn’t at all what he had in mind – as if I was supposed to read his mind! It was supremely frustrating.

I sometimes think I do the same thing to my kids though. I tell them to “clean their room,” which to them means clearing up the floor a bit; to me, it means beds made, everything in its place, every tissue and tiny scrap of paper in the garbage. Oh, and by everything I mean EVERY. SINGLE. THING.

But they don’t understand my expectations. Instead, they get frustrated when I point out all that remains undone. On the other hand, my irritation is rising because I don’t want to spend my day nagging them about every little step. We are not in a good place.

It has taken me some time to learn this lesson. I thought that by helping them clean their room once they would understand my expectations. I thought that by patiently guiding them through what a thoroughly tidied main floor looked like they would “get it” the next time. It turns out that they need me to give them clear, specific instructions EVERY TIME!

Practically this takes a few forms.


For the little ones, this means giving them single step directions. “Put your shoes in the closet,” or “put the blocks back in their crate”. This is better than telling them to clean up their toys or all their outdoor things. One at a time at first, then two, then three. If they struggle, go back to simpler instructions. Some of my children have been in this stage for a long time (6-7?). It’s maddening, but it’s less maddening than yelling because they are overwhelmed by your instructions and doing nothing at all.

For the older ones, I can give them a chain of tasks. “Clear everything but the napkin holder off the table, pack the leftovers into plastic containers and put all the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.” When those three tasks are complete I may follow up with, “wipe down the table and sweep the floor.” They can handle more, but it still needs to be precise. If I simply told them to clear off the table inevitably there would be a water glass or two, trivets and dirty napkins left behind. Eventually, they’ll catch on to what ought to be done after a meal (I hope), but for now, I make sure to make my expectations VERY clear. We’re all happy when we’re on the same page.

Clean Your Room LIke a Ninja Checklist

(Psst! At the end of this post there’s a free download of my printable Clean Your Room Like a Ninja List!)

Lists, Notes, and Pictures

Posting lists of chores and responsibilities that need to be completed regularly (our “morning list”, for example) has been a great way to remind the kids, without nagging, of what needs to be done and to keep those expectations consistent. If it’s not written down both the kids and I are likely to let standards slide. There’s also a sense of authority when it’s posted on the wall – like the list has the final say. Did you complete it? Yes or no? no debate.

Notes are more temporary. “Turn off the lights” beside the light switch, and “Flush” in four different places in the bathroom (it was an epidemic for a while). Also, labels for where things belong in cupboards, and arrows on the washing machine to show the proper settings.

washing machine

And then there’s my new favorite, pictures!

I’ve posted pictures of what their rooms should look like when they’re clean, and how the mixing bowls should be placed in the cupboard (I admit it’s a bit of jigsaw puzzle). I’m debating posting a picture of an efficiently loaded dishwasher, an acceptably tidy shoe closet, and properly sorted recycling bins. Guests may think I’m weird. I think it’s genius!

properly put away mixing bowls


4. Set a Time Limit

Children dawdle. It doesn’t seem to matter what the reward for completing their work is – if they can put off the task they will! My children could spend all day doing something that would take 20 minutes if they just applied themselves to the task. But I really don’t want them to spend their whole day cleaning their room – they have other things to do.

I absolutely cannot stand when we get into the habit to telling the kids to hurry up all the time. A few of my kids get flustered when they feel time pressure, which just compounds the problem, so I try to always give them ample time to complete a task. At the same time, however, they need to understand that sometimes urgency is required and tasks need to be completed in a timely manner.

I’ve tried a few different ways to help my kids understand finishing their chores in a timely manner. The younger they are, the harder it is to instill this. Much patience is required, but it pays off in the long run.

1- Complete this task before…

Works great when there’s something happening soon, and there’s a quick and simple job to do.
“Please be dressed with teeth brushed before breakfast. You have about 5 minutes”
“I’m boiling the kettle, please start a load of laundry before it beeps, then we’ll have reading time.”

2- The Race

This worked really well with my ADHD child when I would race him. He did NOT like racing against his siblings – probably because I usually let him win. 😉

“Here are your clothes, I still have to pick mine out. Can you get dressed before me?”
“Can you guys clean up the toys in the living room before I can wash the dishes?”
“Whoever cleans their room first chooses the movie for Family Movie Night”

3- The Timely Reward

Sometimes I’ll tie the when/then natural reward to a time limit.

“If you can unload the dishwasher in 5 minutes then you may go outside with the neighbor.”
“You can have a cup of tea if you’re school work is neatly put away before the kettle boils.”

4- Timer

Simple. Better for older kids.

“This job should take you no more than 20 minutes. I’m setting the timer and would like you to be ready for inspection (see below) when it rings.”
“Work really hard for the next 5 minutes and let’s see how much you can get done”

Another homeschool mom recommended the Time Timer app. It’s sort of a disappearing pie as the timer runs down, which is a more powerful visual than just numbers counting down. I’m downloading it today to try and will update this post with whether I found it useful or not.

Another non-timer “timer” option is to play a song and see if the job can be completed before its over.

“Can we all put our laundry away before the end of American Pie?” (10 minutes!)
“Can you gather up all the books before the end of the Lego Movie theme?” (about 90 seconds)

I usually cycle through these different ideas in different seasons. Sometimes one is more effective than another. Occasionally nothing but constant reminders to stay on task seem to work (sorry!). Once in a while a child will just jump up and do what needs to be done without any further prodding from me when that happens? Oh, Happy Day!

5. Reasonable and Challenging

I don’t want to frustrate my kids by giving them a job that’s too hard. I don’t ask my six-year-old to take out the garbage because he cannot lift the bags. I don’t ask a four-year-old to put away dishes in a high cupboard. Along the same lines as step-by-step instructions, I also make sure the task isn’t too complex.

If tidying the bathroom requires finding the bottle of cleaner and a rag, spraying and wiping the counter and sink, and swishing the toilet bowl – well, while a young child could theoretically do each of those things, there’s too many steps and they might be distracted at any point. I don’t have the time for babysitting them through the process, so that job goes to older kids for whom it’s a small challenge to complete everything without getting sidetracked.

A younger, or more distractible child, on the other hand, can tidy the living room by putting the blankets in the basket, the throw pillows back on the couch and the baby’s toys back into his bucket. That’s three steps. For my child with ADHD, remembering and completing all three is a big deal! And he will be praised greatly if he can do all that without a reminder.

I want to constantly be challenging my children to do something just a little harder than before. It shows they’re growing in responsibility, it’s great for their brain development, but even more importantly gives them a feeling of pride and accomplishment.

I definitely go by the motto, “Never do for a child what they can do for themselves.” (Rudolf Dreikurs). If they are old enough to cut their food, clear their dish or put away their own dirty laundry I expect them to. At times I may help them clean their room, but they must work with me. I can count on one hand the times I’ve cleaned a playroom by myself in the last ten years.

One of my children has been doing laundry since she was six. Recently, my four-year-old discovered he could put away his folded laundry by himself! Of course, I gave him all kinds of extravagant praise for being such a big boy, which also motivated his older brother to out his laundry away too. I see no downside to our motto, they are learning independence, responsibility and certainly not entitlement.

6. Inspect the work

“They don’t respect what you don’t inspect.” It’s trite and it’s true.

I must confess that this final tip is the one that trips me up the most. The last thing I want to do when I’m in the middle of something is stopping to check that a job is done properly. My kids love to get away with doing a job a little less than completely. They may take out the garbage, but fail to put a new bag in the garbage can; unload the dishwasher, but forget to re-load the dirty cups on the counter; get ready for the day but leave their pajamas on the floor. What I let slide today quickly becomes a habit of not finishing their work well.

tidied and inspected bookshelf

One tip I picked up somewhere to make this more tolerable is to ask them to complete a job then come give me a high-five or hug when they are done. Another is to keep working myself. Have you ever tried to clean this house while someone else was lounging around? It’s not easy, and especially not easy to keep a good attitude. If I’m up, taking care of my own responsibilities, the children are more motivated to keep to their tasks, plus it’s easier for me to check their work if I’m already up, then if I’ve sat down with a book or other stationary work.

And that’s just about all the wisdom I can muster on the subject. By consistently putting these principles into practice we can not only help our children become responsible, and to work with a good (or at least better?) attitude, but ultimately, hopefully, they will see that all their work has value and is part of their worship and calling.

If you have a helpful suggestion to add to this list I would LOVE to hear it! We can always be improving in this area, and a system that works today will need tweaking tomorrow. That’s a guarantee!

Happy Choring!



Click Here for the free printable Clean Your Room Like a Ninja Checklist


PS – Full disclosure? Ironically, while I worked away at this post, I let the kids get away with going to bed without tidying the living room. The baby found the tissue box, I’m too tired to care.


Hi, I'm Sara. Pastor's wife, mom to 5 rowdy homeschooled kids, and passionate about the Gospel. Welcome!

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