Family Cleaning Guide: Get the Kids Cleaning During Summer Vacation

Cleaning lays the groundwork for important traits like self-sufficiency and a good work ethic.
Cleaning lays the groundwork for important traits like self-sufficiency and a good work ethic.

It's not, perhaps, a child's favorite activity. For most, it's right up there with dental cleanings, sharing toys and getting to the bottom of a bowl of brussels sprouts.

For many parents, it's easier to just do the cleaning themselves than to set about getting "help" from the little ones. And while it may take some (sometimes intensive) effort to get a child to pick up a broom or dust his or her own dresser, it has marked benefits. First, once the effort succeeds, it can actually cut your cleaning time; but more important, it lays the groundwork for responsibility, self-sufficiency and a work ethic in years to come.

Of course, the "You'll thank me later" approach is more likely to trigger whining than get your kids scrubbing toilets. How, then, to make cleaning up a kid-friendly endeavor?

The first step is to avoid "Because I said so" as long as you can …


Setting the Stage

It's pretty obvious to an adult brain why it's important to keep your home clean. The reasons may not, however, be as clear to a child, who may have no problem whatsoever with dust collecting in corners and a floor so covered with toys and clothing it's not visible.

Many children find unpleasant activities a bit less so if they know why they're being told to do them. So sit down and do a little explaining -- a few minutes will do, lest the explanation become as potentially boring as the deed.

Clean is better than dirty

Why bother cleaning? For one thing, it makes a space look nicer. Doesn't the living room look prettier when the glass-top coffee table gleams? And then there are the practical concerns: How much easier is it to find your favorite shirt when all of your clothing is in the closet instead of in a pile? And of course, an unclean home just isn't healthy. Keep it simple: Germs can cause sickness, and mold and dust can trigger allergies.

This approach may get a positive reaction. Or your kid may have tuned out when he or she realized he does not, in fact, care at all if the coffee table gleams. In either case, you'll do well to explain why you want your child to help with all of this. And it's not, wink wink, because it teaches responsibility. It's because if he or she helps you clean, it will take so much less time -- and because cleaning can be fun when you've got a partner.

And it actually can, especially if you surround it with the trappings of fun-ness …

Making It Appealing

To make cleaning more fun, set up a sort of clean-up concert.
To make cleaning more fun, set up a sort of clean-up concert.

OK, no matter how hard you try, cleaning the house is not going to seem like a trip to Disney World. But it doesn't have to be a day in kid prison, either. Just a few approaches to making cleaning at the very least tolerable and hopefully somewhat entertaining include:

Make a chart

Most kids, especially under the age of 12, love charts. Especially colorful ones that move it some way, like a job wheel, or require the use of crayons or markers, like a bar graph that must be filled in with the completion of a job.

Together, sit down and create a job wheel that your child spins each cleaning day, or a graph your child fills in with the completion of each task or time period (10 minutes of cleaning, for instance, fills in a box). You may find it adds a sense of control (for your child) and excitement to the task at hand.

Make it Fun

If there are any guarantees in childhood, one has got to be the love of all things gamelike. Turn cleaning into a game or a competition, and chances are your kid will be pretty into it. This might mean timing a task and setting a challenge to break the record, or maybe seeing who can fill a bucket with weeds the fastest. You can also set up a sort of clean-up concert and take turns picking some background music for your cleaning session.

Make it Their Own

Being told what to do and how to do it is simply part of being a child; but that doesn't mean children like it. One way to make cleaning more palatable is to let your child set the schedule, deciding the order in which jobs will be done, and picking out his or her own tools. A trip to the store to get the dustpan your child thinks is the nicest will probably go a long way to getting him or her to use it.

Provide Incentives

If your helpers are teens, chances are none of the previously mentioned approaches is going turn that frown upside down. So for 16-year-olds (and 8-year-olds, for that matter), you'll want to give them a totally selfish motivation to mop: rewards.

These can be financial, in the form of an allowance or a pay-by-task system (ideal for teens); they can be special trips to the movies or the park or maybe cooking their favorite meal for dinner that night. There's nothing like good old-fashioned bribery to get a job done without much complaint. Just remember to keep the rewards short-term, especially for little ones. A plan to see a movie three weeks from now probably won't achieve as much as one you're going to see this afternoon.

Keep it Short

Whether your kid is 7 or 17, planning a 10- or 20-minute cleaning session is going to be so much easier on everyone than a one- or two-hour cleaning marathon. Keep it short, and you'll find you get a much better response, and greater effort, from your helpers.

Finally, the most important consideration when putting your kids to work …

Keeping It Safe

Make sure your little one stays safe around slippery surfaces and caustic cleaners.
Make sure your little one stays safe around slippery surfaces and caustic cleaners.

Much as you'd love some help cleaning, the fact is not all cleaning jobs are safe for little ones. If your kids are on the younger side, there are a few things to consider when assigning tasks:

Heights: Any task that requires a ladder or, for kids under 6, even a stepladder, is probably not a great idea.

Chemicals: If it's toxic, caustic or just generally heavy duty, it's not for kids. For instance, a job that requires bleach or soap scum remover is best saved for your own to-do list. Natural cleaners, such as soap, baking soda or vinegar, are great choices for kids.

Other dangers: Before assigning a task, just consider all the possibilities. Will the space be slippery? Leaving a 6-year-old alone in the bathroom with a mop is probably not very smart. Does the job involve an enclosed space? Even cleaning products that don't produce noticeable fumes in the living room might produce headaches in a shower stall.

Hopefully, your efforts to be safe, explain, entertain and reward will pay off, and cleaning will actually be a positive experience for everyone. In the end, though, safety may be the only aspect of cleaning you can fully control. You may find yourself stuck with a tantruming toddler, a whiny first-grader or a mopey teenager -- but at least it'll be a safe and healthy one.

For more information on cleaning, kids and home care, look over the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • Ewer, Cynthia. "Five Tips for Spring Cleaning With Kids." OrganizedHome. (May 10, 2011)
  • Felesky, Leigh. "Hygiene Guide: Getting kids to clean their rooms." Kaboose. (May 10, 2011)
  • Wilder, Shannon. "Every Mom's Germ Fighting Guide: How to Nurture Cleanliness in Your Family." WebMD. (May 10, 2011)