A version of this blog post was originally published under the title “How Do I Get My Child To Help Around The House?” on the Nurture Network blog on 8th June 2021.
Something that comes up a lot when working with parents is the question of how to get children to help around the house. Parents often ask, “how can I make my child clean their room?” or “how do I get my child to tidy up their toys?”. It seems that children helping with housework is a common source of frustration in families. And no wonder; it’s well-documented how much time adults spend doing unpaid work around the home. Is it such a bad thing to want our toddlers to put their cuddly toys in a basket, our eight-year-olds to make the bed, or our teens to run the vacuum around and make dinner?
Absolutely not, but we need to be mindful of how we ask children to participate in tasks in the first place. Language like “how do I get them to…” or “how to I make them…” suggests that what the parents actually want is compliance, not assistance. I don’t think that parents should be trying to “make” children do anything; be that housework, homework or anything else.
Is Compliance So Bad?
Wanting compliance from our children falls into the arena of authoritative parenting. It’s probably what you experienced growing up – being told to do something and being punished (or rewarded) accordingly.
Having a compliant child probably would make for an easier life as a parent, but it’s not what is best for the child. We’re teaching our child to do as they are told, unquestioningly. Is this really what you want them to do as they start to navigate life independently? Think of the friends, the partners, the co-workers that could take advantage of this as they grow older.
Now, I know that the leap from “making” our children to tidy their bedroom to being taken advantage of by a co-worker in adulthood is a big leap, but stay with me! We are modelling human relationships for our children from the day they are born. When we teach our child that their needs and feelings aren’t as important as someone else’s needs and feelings, we are potentially starting a lifelong pattern that they will find difficult to break.
So… No Help With The Housework?!
I am absolutely not suggesting that our children shouldn’t help around the house. Neither am I suggesting that the child’s needs and feelings come first either (that would be permissive parenting).
What Peaceful Parenting models is that the needs and feelings of everyone in the family need to come into play. As with other aspects of Peaceful Parenting, this will take some practise because you’re most likely breaking the patterns of your own childhood too! Ideally, what we want to achieve is harmony in the household – a situation where household tasks are shared out amongst family members with no need for punishments or bribery.
I promise you that this is not too good to be true, but it does take time and patience. Particularly if something like housework has become an issue in your family already.
What Is Tidy?
The first thing I think parents need to bear in mind is that “tidy” is arbitrary. What you consider to be tidy, other members of your household may not, so first work out if that is the source of your frustration. Maybe you need all of the toys to be out of sight by bedtime, but your child is quite happy to be surrounded by the debris of a busy day playing?
Also remember that our children are growing up in environments that they have had no say over. As adults we decorate as we wish and we buy the items we want to be surrounded by, even for our children’s bedrooms sometimes! Is it really fair to be imposing our standards on what our homes should look like on our children?
After giving this a lot of thought myself, in our house the living room is a toy-free zone but the connected dining room and playroom often have things left out and half-finished. It’s a compromise I’m happy to make to keep harmony and at night I get to relax in a peaceful and tidy living room. Similarly, the art table (in the kitchen) is often left covered in stuff and if my daughters are midway through a game, their toys are sometimes left overnight in their bedroom until they’re finished with them.
Maybe that approach would work for you, maybe it wouldn’t, but the way I see it is that if the girls are partway through something we’re respecting that until they’re finished with it and ready to tidy it away. They’re also learning respect for my views on having some rooms of the house that are kept in order.
Keep It Manageable
Children’s bedrooms are often the focus of parental frustration. Admit it, when you saw the title of this post you probably had your child’s bedroom in mind! Often our children seem to get out every single thing they own, hardly playing with something before moving onto the next thing. The result is every parent’s nightmare because we know it will take a long time to tidy again. I have a few suggestions here to help:
Declare an amnesty
Set aside at least a couple of hours of completely uninterrupted time with your child to tackle the bedroom together. Don’t build up the tension (and make it feel like a punishment) by telling them all week “this Saturday we’re tidying your room!”. Simply take them into the room and give them a choice “would you like to put the cuddly toys in the basket or try making your bed? I’m going to help!”. Then move onto the next task and so on.
Connect with your child
Connection is the bedrock of Peaceful Parenting and you’re already doing that by being part of the tidying process. Take a step further by acknowledging your child’s feelings about tidying as they arise: “I know, tidying all this stuff is overwhelming and you’re scared I’m going to shout again. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings about your bedroom.” Use play and silliness to dissolve any stress.
Gamification for the win!
Put on some music your child likes, dance around and be silly, tell jokes, make a game of throwing things into baskets, tidy up wearing fancy dress and stay in character – whatever your child would enjoy. Why should tidying up be boring?
Less Is More
If the mess often gets out of control because your child has too much stuff, consider limiting what they have available. Toy rotation is a great way of doing this and it keeps toys fresh and interesting.
Honour your child’s feelings, and your own
If your child is distressed, nothing constructive is going to happen and you’re likely to feel frustrated. If that happens, take a step back, centre yourself and tackle it another time. It might take a few attempts to get their bedroom tidy, but in the grand scheme of things does that really matter? Our ultimate goal here isn’t really a tidy room, it’s a child wanting to take part. If they just do one little thing a day that’s still a positive thing.
Be A Team!
Have you ever communicated to your children why it’s important to you to have a clean and tidy house? It’s an important part of making sure you’re all on the same team. It’s also ok to communicate to them how you feel about doing everything without their help, without guilting or shaming them. You could say, “We all feel so much better when the house is uncluttered and we can find what we’re looking for, but I’m struggling to achieve that all by myself. When I spend all day on Saturday tidying up, it means I have less time to have fun with you.”
It’s also a good thing to use these “I statements” to set your expectations for your children too. “After breakfast tomorrow morning, we’re all going to tidy our own spaces. I’ll help by folding your laundry for you”. If disappointment and frustration is expressed, listen to it without dismissal. Let them negotiate as long as everyone’s needs are still met. Try listing the tasks that really do need completing that morning. Share them out before making a plan to go and do something fun together.
I would love to know how putting these ideas into practise works for your family, so please do get in touch with me via Instagram or here. For families that would like to delve into this deeper, I am available for one to one coaching via Zoom.