How to Get Your Children to Clean without Resorting to Violence
by Emily S. Jorgensen
grew up as the oldest of six children. As such, it occasionally fell
to me to get my younger siblings to do their chores, or at least to
keep them busy so I could get mine done.
I discovered two very
important principles early on that not only helped me manage my
four-year-old ADHD brother, but also my own children.
that if you ask a child to do something that is obviously work and
not fun, the answer is inevitably, "No." However, do a
Mary-Poppins things and make it fun, and the answer is, "When
can I do that again?"
just how does a chore become fun?
Rarely, if you are lucky
enough to have a really sweet child like my second daughter, it can
be through imagination. She went through a phase when she was three
when she wanted to be Cinderella so badly that she asked me to be her
evil stepmother and give her chores. She would then happily do them
for about twenty to thirty minutes until she declared it was time for
the Ball. Of course, then I had to pay my dues by dancing with her at
the Ball, but it was worth it, I tell you.
But, this is not
the universal answer. And no, the answer is not in bribery or
cajoling. Rather, the first principle I have learned lies in
something that appeals to nearly all children — novelty. The
same reason why your next-door-neighbor's toys are so
much more interesting than the boring old same ones in your
playroom is the reason children will jump to help you in a chore.
they have never mopped the floor, or do so rarely, they will love it.
If they have never wiped down walls, they will do it with glee. If
they are finally deemed old enough to operate the Windex spray bottle
themselves, this will be thrilling.
Of course many of our
daily chores are monotonous and boring — and they still have to
get done. For these, in our home we have a designated "10-minute
tidy time." Even my three-year-old son realizes this won't take
long, and picks up his room so he can play again. There are no real
arguments when it is a regular part of the routine.
special, big jobs can be really fun if they are new and novel —
and (and this is a big “and”)
if we parents will let them do it imperfectly. It can be hard to see
them taking five years to do a job that would take us five minutes,
but then they learn they can do it, and that you trust them to do it,
and that it is part of being in a family that we do this type of work
together. I have to have faith this will pay off later.
I have seen it start to pay off already, as my 7- and 9-year-olds can
now be set on a chore and I can leave the room and know it will get
done — maybe not as efficiently or perfectly as I would do it,
but it gets done.
The second principle I have learned works
well when the child cannot be fooled into thinking that doing chores
is fun. I have learned that when a child thinks the choice is
between doing a chore and not doing a chore, of course, the answer is
when the choice is between doing one chore or another chore, then
there is a paradigm shift and you can usually count on getting one of
those choices done.
I attribute this phenomenon to the child's
innate insatiable desire to make as many choices for himself as
possible. Children love knowing they have control in their lives, and
we Mormons have a fantastic explanation for this. It is called the
Plan of Salvation.
deep inside their little consciousness, is this knowledge that the
whole reason they came to this planet was to learn to use their
agency wisely. Then why wouldn't they grasp at any chance we give
them to practice that?
So, if a child really doesn't want
to help sweep the kitchen floor, I give him a choice. It is not a
punishment, but a real choice. He can sweep the floor or fold the
load of towels that are in the dryer. Given a choice that is A or B
instead of A or not A works almost every time.
Oh ho, you say.
My kid is too smart for that. He knows choice C is "none of
the above." Well, if I come across this attitude, I smile
sweetly and list three other, progressively worse chores they could
do instead — clean out the toilets or scrub mildew out of the
shower stall, or whatever I can think of that I know is the least
pleasant work that needs to get done in the house at the time. As
their available choices become less and less appealing, this usually
does the trick, even if they throw in an eye roll as they accept
responsibility for the least icky job.
There are, of course,
times when a battle is inevitable. However, I have found that
appealing to their sense of novelty and their sense of autonomy
avoids many more such battles than if I just took the attitude,
"because I said so."
Emily S. Jorgensen is an independent music teacher in the Provo/Orem, Utah, area. She is an
active adjudicator and lecturer across the Wasatch front. She has held several positions in the
Utah Music Teachers Association. She has three children and is expecting her fourth soon.
Emily grew up in Tacoma, Washington, earning her International Baccalaureate diploma in high
school. She was awarded a Trustees Scholarship at BYU, and was graduated from BYU with a
Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance and a Masters of Arts in Elementary Music Education.
She taught group piano classes at BYU, and has operated a private studio for 16 years, where she
has taught private and group music lessons for ages 2 through adult.
Emily currently serves as Primary president in her LDS ward, and is still married to her high school