The Heart of Housework
Giving kids household chores can result in more than just a clean home
By Teri Brown
I can see it so clearly. I'm just clearing the last of the dinner dishes and the kids are getting ready for bed. But as I make my way out of the kitchen, I trip over three pairs of shoes, two stuffed animals, and a toy race car that went missing days ago. Exhausted at the very thought of having to spend the rest of my night picking up after everyone else, I climb on top of the table and yell, "I just want someone else to help clean up the house once in a while!"
Okay, so far I've refrained from actually climbing on top of my table, and I rarely yell at my children, but trust me, I used to feel like shouting those words almost every day. Every mom knows that keeping your house reasonably clean can be a monumental task when you have kids. Not only are they major mess makers, but getting kids to help clean up can be more effort than it's worth.
Motivating children to help with the housework is a challenge that has defeated many a fine mom. But I'll let you in on a secret: It can be done, and without screaming, bribery, or tears. And having your children take on some of the household chores does more than lighten your load. Housework actually provides opportunities to teach your children profound lessons about life and faith.
I recently spoke to writer and cleaning maven Marla Cilley, also known as the Fly Lady from Flylady.net, a much-loved cleaning and organizing Web site that has helped thousands of women clean up their act, so to speak. Her ideas can get you on the road to a cleaner house. Marla also encourages parents to use clean-up time to instill a deeper sense of love and responsibility between family members. Here are ten of Marla's best housework helpers to hang on your refrigerator—that is until your child takes them off to clean the door:
1 Develop a new attitude toward housework.
Help yourself and your child by adopting a godly attitude of service. You're not just cleaning up the house; you are blessing your family. Discuss with your kids the benefits of a clean house, like how easy it is to find things when everything is organized, or that clean floors feel better on bare feet. Remind them of Ecclesiastes 5:19, which says, "When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God." In other words, it's a gift to have a home to take care of and we can and should take joy in what God has provided for us.
"Looking at housework as a blessing changes it from being a chore, which has negative connotations, to something more positive," says Marla. "The thought of actually blessing your family by sweeping the floor is powerful."
2 Establish a routine.
When you encourage a child to do the same things morning and night, you're helping her learn to be dependable and trustworthy. Routines don't have to be complicated, just age appropriate. For example, your 5-year-old can make her bed every morning and put her dirty clothes in the hamper every night. Add new routines gradually as your child matures.
Marla believes that "good habits start with baby steps and develop into full routines. Routines don't happen overnight." Your children will have more ownership of this if you have them assist you in developing their routines. Be diligent in making sure they are doing their routines and soon the work will be automatic. Hint: Pray daily while your children are getting into their routines—you're going to need the patience!
3 Start them young.
"Even the very young can learn to pick up toys before bed, pick out their clothes for the morning, and brush their teeth," says Marla. Young children love to feel helpful. They like knowing that they are a necessary part of the family. Simple responsibilities can give them a real boost of self-esteem. Marla also notes that the sooner children begin establishing morning and evening routines the less likely they'll resist helping out down the road.
4 Set the proper example.
You can't tell your kids to keep their rooms clean if yours is trashed. If they see Mom and Dad working, it's easier for them to work as well.
5 Cull their toys.
Children, like many adults, become overwhelmed when they have too much stuff to put away. Those who have ADD or ADHD have an especially hard time with this. With less stuff, your child will find it much easier to keep his room tidy.
Use the three-box approach and sort through your child's stuff with him. Label one box "throw away," one "give away," one "put away," and sort accordingly.
Make this a fun time for both you and your child by noticing how carefully he's kept track of his puzzle pieces, or remembering the day you bought his first G.I Joe. Let your child help you decide what to do with good toys he no longer uses. Suggest a children's charity or hospital and let him go with you to drop off your donation. Seeing how much his "old" toys mean to other children might inspire him to find more ways to share God's love.
6 Cull your toys.
Your turn! Look at what you have and get rid of everything you don't use and don't need. Both you and your child will have an easier time dusting without all those knick-knacks sitting around. Sweeping is simpler without lots of excess furniture.
Downsize where you can: That awesome stereo system you and your husband loved in your 20s might be replaced with one of the new portable stereos. Most sound better and cost less than a stereo system, and think of the amount of dust all those old components attract!
Donate items you truly don't use and resist buying new things you don't need. Show your children that joy and contentment come from God and his goodness, not material possessions.
7 Keep it fun and simple.
Give your children the chores that are the most fun and try to turn the ones that aren't into a game. Do your work as different cartoon characters or using different accents. No, not all housework is going to be fun—I've never figured out how to make a game out of cleaning the toilet. But by turning housework into both a game and a blessing, you take away the drudgery and allow your child's imagination to turn work into something more enjoyable. The result is a child who brings a positive, willing attitude to any project that comes her way.
8 Remember that even imperfect housework blesses your family.
It is difficult for many parents to watch their children clean. We want to step in and correct them, which often leads to us doing it for them. If the floor isn't mopped to your expectations, praise your child and walk away. I can't begin to count the number of times I inadvertently discouraged one of my children from helping because I was too picky about how the job was done. When children know that their contributions are appreciated, they'll be eager to help in the future.
9 Let your kids help with meals.
We all know that cooking and cleaning up is much faster without children under foot, but teaching them to help can ease your load down the road. Find simple projects for them to do; toss the salad, fold the napkins, or put cut up veggies on a plate.
Best of all, the time spent cooking, setting the table, and cleaning up is a wonderful opportunity to talk to your children. Use this time to find out what's going on in your child's life, or simply work quietly side by side. Not only will your mealtime work be easier, you'll build a stronger relationship with your child as well.
10 Create a home blessing hour.
Marla suggests that working together as a family can help your children realize that they are a part of a team with the same goal. "One family I know of has a weekly home blessing on Friday nights," she says. "After cleaning up the dinner mess they work together to clean the rest of their home. After about an hour, they have family game time playing Monopoly or Scrabble. Everyone looks forward to this time so the hour of work passes quickly."
Reserve a time that works for your family and make an event out of caring for your home. Include snacks, prayer, and an activity your kids enjoy and they might even start asking when they can help clean the house!
It is never too late to get your family in the habit of keeping your house clean. Not only will you save your sanity, but getting your children involved in the housework will teach them how to run a home—a skill they'll need no matter their gender. Most importantly, you'll be developing godly character traits in your children that will serve them well long after they've got homes of their own.
Teri Brown and her family live in a pretty clean house in Oregon.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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Fall 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1, Page 54