After posting a guide to cleaning with kids last week, I got to thinking that it might be helpful to share a quick idea that was given to me several years ago and that has been very helpful for our family.

Our pastor’s wife shared with me when my oldest son was a toddler that little ones must be instructed on how to do the right things. So if we are teaching our children to respond the right way when they are told “no,” for example, it helps to act it out. I would tell Aidan, “Okay, You ask me for a cookie, and I’m going to say no. Then you respond the wrong way!” He would happily comply and would whine and pout when I told him no. Then, I would tell him that we were going to act it out again and do it the right way this time. He would ask for a cookie, and I would tell him no, and he would practice saying “Yes, mom” in a pleasant voice. It really helps to do this as an instructional time rather than trying to instruct in the moment when they want a cookie and can’t have one.

Last year I put the same principle to work when we put our house up for sale. At the time, we had an 8 year old, a 5 year old, a 2 1/2 year old, and a two month old baby. It seemed like a crazy time to sell our house, but the market was right and we badly needed the space. I knew I was going to have to get organized with showings, or else go crazy! (And if you look at my blog archives from last spring, you’ll see that I posted very little for several months – keeping the house clean was a full-time job.)

Aidan was already proficient in picking up toys by this point (age 8), but the two middle boys learned how things should look for a showing with the “clean up game.”

Here’s how the clean-up game works:

Step 1: Show your kids what you expect of them. We re-visited this game again this week with the middle boys’ bedroom. First, we cleaned the room together. Then I took them (mainly Owen – age 3) on a guided tour of the clean room. “See, the shoes should be lined up on the shelf, not put on the shelf in a pile. There should not be clothes hanging out of the dresser drawer. See how clean it is under the bed? Toys and socks and books should not be under the bed.”

Step 2: Mess up the room while the kids hide their eyes in another room. Don’t make a big mess, just pull out a few things that they usually overlook.

For Owen, I left socks on the floor, magazines on the floor, and left the night stand drawer open. (They leave it this way all the time and it drives me crazy because it’s cheap furniture and that drawer is going to break!)

Teach little ones what clean looks like with a simple game

I also left clothes hanging out of his dresser drawer – another “hot zone” for the boys!

Teach little ones what clean looks like with a simple game

Step 3: Have the kids find all of the things that are out of place and fix them!

Owen picked up the socks and the magazines, but he was happy to stick one sock in the drawer of the night stand and then close it, and he missed the clothes hanging out of the dresser altogether, even when I told him that the last problem had to do with the dresser. It was a good reminder to me that kids do not see things the same way adults do! Sometimes that is simply the result of laziness, but Owen was really trying to “win” this game, and still didn’t notice all of the things he should be cleaning up. I need to do more “practice” with him before I expect him to clean up on his own (and then get frustrated at the results)!

A few thoughts:

  • Don’t stay in the training phase forever! Once kids clearly understand and can carry out what is expected of them, then they need to do it. Our older boys lose money from their allowance (25 cents per infraction) if they do not make their beds and put their pajamas away. They have the ability to remember and do those things.
  • It’s not about the house being perfectly clean. Here is what what going on while I was working on the room cleaning game with Owen:

Teach young kids what clean looks like with a simple game

We have a 1 year old and a 3 year old. Our house is far from spotless! The two of them make messes as fast as I can clean them up, so the whole house is never really clean. Training children to clean up is not about having a perfect house – it’s about character. I don’t want my boys to think that a spotless house is the most important thing, but I do want them to do the jobs that they are asked to do and do them well.

For more help with chores:

Check out my guide to cleaning with kids – it has a list of chores broken down by room and by age.

We had a lot of trouble with jackets all over the place this winter, so I came up with a simple rule for items left out. This type of thing can be helpful short term to help with bad habits.

Everyone does chores and allowance money differently – you can find our plan for paid chores here.

And I love this idea for scratch-off chore cards from Toddler Approved! Those would certainly make cleaning time more fun!


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  1. Eddie - The Usual Mayhem Feb 18, 2013

    Great post, Sarah! What is it with kids and leaving drawers open? And while we're on the subject, why can they never close cupboard doors, either? I'm amazed nobody in our house has brained themselves on an open closet or kitchen cupboard yet.

  2. Caroline -De tout et de rien- Feb 18, 2013

    Oh! I am in LOVE with your game! This is a great game to learn them clean up! I love it and I am 100% sure my 2 yo daughter will adore this game. Knowing her, she will probably sing the clean up song ;)

  3. Natasha Mar 26, 2013

    Great post. I'm going to introduce this with my children. Thanks x


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