How to Teach Kids to Clean

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
March 02, 2015

Kids who help clean up do better socially and in school. Here’s how to teach your kids to clean and be helpful around the house.

At age 6, Sierra Paolicchi had learned to bring her dirty plate to the sink after a meal, and put her dirty clothes in the hamper. At seven, she began putting her toys away. A year later, she and her little brother, Leo, were helping their mother do the laundry: sorting colors, adding the detergent, and pressing the buttons. “They think it’s pretty fun,” says Nashville Mom Scarlet Paolicchi, founder of “Family Focus Blog.”

Although 82 percent of Americans did chores growing up, only 28 percent regularly assign chores to their own kids, according to a Braun Research poll commissioned by appliance-maker Whirlpool. That’s a big mistake, says developmental psychologist Richard Rende, who reviewed the published research about chores for Whirlpool. Kids with significant chores do better socially and in school through their teen years, studies suggest — and become happier, more successful adults. Parents may have lost sight of the value of chores because of the many pressures on children and the increasingly hectic American lifestyle, he argues. When overburdened parents let kids see how much they hate housekeeping, kids tend to resist chores as well.

“More family time and conversations that focus on ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ can change the tone,” Rende writes. Build on the natural desire to help. “There are elegant studies showing that kids – even toddlers – are natural helpers. They don't need prompting to pitch in when they see that an adult needs help with something.”  

Are some children more helpful than others? Yes — studies with twins suggest that a quarter to more than half of the giving impulse is inherited. But there’s plenty of room for parents to make a difference. Encourage your children to see themselves as “helpers.” In fact, using the word “helper” may be key for younger children. In one study, asking 3 to 6 year olds to “be a helper” worked better than inviting them to “help.”

However, the children weren’t praised as “good” helpers, notes study co-author Alison Master, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington: “There's a lot of research about how praising children for traits can have negative motivational consequences,” she says.

When kids go wrong, the consensus is also against a certain kind of scolding. Getting angry, withdrawing love, and threats or punishment induce shame, which doesn’t lead to improvement. Instead, parents can express disappointment, some research shows, explaining how the action affects others and how the child can fix things.

Roberta Golinkoff, professor of child development at the University of Delaware, suggests making clean-up time fun or an opportunity to talk.

With kids past the toddler stage, you might try inventing games: Set a timer to see who can pick up the most in a minute, or give your kids different tasks and have them compete to finish first. Put on music or pretend that toys are fighting back and have to be wrestled into their spots.

“Raising tidy kids is an ongoing process, and you can keep adding in new bits as they get older and more capable,” says Paolicchi. “The important thing to remember is that they need to be shown how to clean, and they need you to clean with them at least a few times to establish a routine and expectations.”

She can point to some success: Sierra, now 10, and Leo, 8, put their clothes away after the wash; Sierra even helps Mom fold. Leo has been learning his chores at a younger age because he likes to keep up with his sister. Paolicchi recalls that she wouldn’t let Leo carry his dirty dinner plate until she was sure he wouldn’t drop it. He’s now so used to tidying up, she often finds dirty clothes he’s put in the drawers by mistake. “He says, ‘I didn't know that was dirty!’” It took the Paolicchi siblings each about a month to learn to do each chore without reminders. “Mostly they remind each other,” she says.

Don’t assume that pursuing demanding hobbies is more important for future success. Helpful people flourish, argues Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.” The youngest full professor at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, he is a superstar among management experts — and presumably a helpful fellow.


February 19, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN