Does your child help around the house? No matter what their age, if a kid can walk, they can help. (And even infants can “practice” things as a game.) Unless you have a maid or a cleaning service, getting help around the house from family members is essential.
However, it’s also easier said than done, as the longtime struggle that inspired last week’s post illustrates.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to teach children how to pitch in and do their part. And trust me: it’s NEVER too early to start. In fact, the easier you can get your kids in the habit of “helping,” the easier your life will be as they get older.
The examples in this post are all things I and/or other mamas have tried over the years. All have worked for us at one time or another. So give them a try, and see what lifetime habits you can help your children build.
Originally published May 8, 2018; last updated April 2021.
21 Hacks to Get Your Child to Help Around the House
1. Start from birth
Babies like to mimic grownups. You can capitalize on that.
Next time your baby hands you something, instead of just smiling, thank them for being so helpful by handing you their toy. Three’s no reason they can’t start to associate “thank you for being so helpful” with a smiling parent from their earliest days.
2. Work “help” into your day
My mother rarely set aside her chores in favor of “playing” with me and my brother when we were infants. And that was fine. She just powered through her housework. In the process, she taught us to help around the house (as well as with the yard and garden), one chore at a time.
One of my earliest memories of “helping” my mama was folding laundry with her when I was maybe 2. So one of the first things my girls “helped” me with is sorting and then folding the laundry. Even when Essie was an infant, two-year-old Kimmie could help collect the dirty laundry, separate her clean clothes from mine, and “fold” cloth diapers in half.
3. Capitalize on “help” with siblings
Little ones LOVE to “help” with a new baby. So let them, as much as possible. When Kimmie was two and Essie was an infant, Kimmie helped a LOT:
- bringing bottles from the kitchen to Mama or Daddy
- bringing me my nursing pillow or stool
- getting Essie’s pacifier or toys when they fell
- handing us a clean diaper
- distracting her sister at changing time
- rocking her sister in her cradle
When kids this little help out, reinforcing it with a smile and a sincere thank-you will, again, set them up for good habits later.
4. Set a “basic standards” example
What are your core “basics” of cleanliness in your house? Making beds every morning? Wiping down the counters at least three times a day? Putting away shoes and coats as soon as you enter the door? Getting clothes into the hamper instead of leaving on the floor? Picking up your “toys” before bed every night? Not leaving projects spread all over the table?
Whatever these standards are, you can’t expect your kids to learn to follow them if YOU don’t.
So make sure you lead from example, at least by the time your child is one. (Yes, I know, that first year can be tough, especially where home tidying is concerned!) It’s hard to get them to do something when they see you NOT doing it regularly,
5. Increase responsibilities with age
If your child is physically large enough to do a job, there’s no reason they can’t “help” with it, if not do it themselves. The bigger they are, the more ways they can help around the house. Increasing responsibilities with age goes hand-in-hand with increasing privileges in other areas.
My girls have been setting the table ever since they could reach the top of it. Now that they’re both old enough for this chore, they take turns doing it every night we’re home. Likewise, making their own beds has been a given for them since they started “big-kid school” (by which time they were old enough to reach the bed).
6. Keep standards attainable
At the same time, expecting a child to make their own bed when they can’t REACH the bed is not very realistic. So start out slow, and keep things age-appropriate. For example,
- A child who can stand and walk could learn to make a toddler bed, or could learn to help pull up covers on a “big kid” bed when all they can reach is the edge of the bedspread hanging down.
- As the child gets taller, they can gradually take over more of the making with less grownup “help.”
- One thing we do to help our girls with this: Their beds are in the corner. Whenever we swap the sheets, we always tuck in the sheet and bedspread all along the wall side. This way they only have to “make” one side, which is easy to do because the other side is tucked in.
7. Exploit toddler/preschooler eagerness
There’s a golden window between infantdom and pre-kindergarten when kids want to “help” with everything, and LOVE imitating grown-ups. Let them!
Find creative ways for them to help. Have them carry utensils over to the table, or help empty the dishwasher. Teach them to dry dishes and sweep the floor.
With some out-of-the-box thinking, a two-year-old can even get an entire load of laundry from the second floor to the basement without help.
Unless you live in an apartment complex with shared washing machines, there’s no reason a child can’t throw dirty clothes down the stairs, a few pieces at a time. My girls still LOVE to get laundry down the stairs this way.
8. Have a soundtrack
Of course, one thing little kids often DON’T like to help with is cleaning up their own toys. Who can blame them? – it signals the end of play time.
There are lots of ways you can make clean-up time easier. For the littlest ones, figure out what clean-up song they hear at preschool or daycare, and sing them the same song when it’s time to put things away. Slightly older kids might enjoy cleaning up to some of their favorite music.
You can also use the song as part of a clean-up time challenge – e.g., “I wonder if we can get all the blocks put away before the end of this song?”
9. Roll the dice
Another strategy I found really useful when my kids were preschool age is playing with numbers as part of cleanup. One strategy that I remember using with the girls when they were three and five was using their ages as a guideline. For every three things that Essie picked up and put away, Kimmie had to pick up five – and Mama had to pick up eight (3+5). AND we each had to try to beat the other two in the process.
Another popular version of this strategy was rolling the dice. We’d each take turns rolling a die. Say Kimmie rolled six; we’d all race to pick up six items. Then Essie would roll a three, and we’d all see who could put away three things the fastest. Then it was Mama’s turn to roll.
Notice that the picking-up and putting-away is still getting done; it’s just getting done in a way that seems less like work and more like play.
10. Beat the clock
Strategic use of timers is also a great way to help kids power through activities they may not want to help out with, whether cleaning up their toys or helping clean the house.
When my kids were first taking turns setting the table, it was hard to tear away the Setter-Of-The-Day from her play. So setting a timer helped. I pointed out that the task really shouldn’t take more than five minutes, and challenged that day’s table-setter to see if she could finish the job even faster. Soon the girls had an ongoing contest to see if they could beat their own best times, and their sister’s average.
(This concept works wonders for grown-ups, too. It’s a variation of the Pomodoro technique. For more on how I’ve used this hack to help myself get things done, read this post.)
11. Focus on consistency, not perfection
Heads-up to all the perfectionists and recovering perfectionists (me!) out there: Your kids will NOT do things “right” the first time. Or the first hundred times.
Being consistent in your expectations of help around the house will get you a lot farther than expecting perfection. In this case, quantity is better than quality – at least while they’re still learning.
If you want your child to help around the house in a specific way – say, clearing their dishes into the dishwasher – then having them do that every day is what matters. Where they put the dishes in the dishwasher, not so much at first.
Once they’re in the habit of doing something regularly, THEN you can make small suggestions for how to do it even better. If they still don’t get the hang of how you want it done, perhaps a few hands-on “refresher courses” on how to do this task are in order.
12. Celebrate “big kid” milestones with new “privileges”
I still remember when Kimmie grew tall enough to reach the lower towel bar in her bathroom. She was so excited. And so we made a big deal out of the fact that she was now tall enough to hang up her own towel, plus her sister’s. She thought it was a privilege.
Likewise when Essie entered kindergarten. She was thrilled to be going to “big-kid school” at last. We told her that kids who go to big-kid school are big enough to make their own bed, every morning. (In her case, this is true; entering K coincided with finally being tall enough to complete this task.)
To this day, she proudly pops out of bed and immediately makes it each morning.
13. Explain the “why”
Why do we expect kids to help around the house? Because they are part of a family, and families help each other. Because they live in the family home, and everyone pitches in to get things done and keep things nice.
It’s crucial for kids to understand that helping out is an important part of family life. Everyone has jobs to do, and everyone gives back to the family effort. This is the only way both family and home can run smoothly.
Whenever my kids complain about not wanting to do something I’ve asked, I remind them that parents get to do lots of things we don’t want to, every day. But we do them anyway, because we love the people we do them for, and it’s important to do our part for the family.
Even so, it doesn’t hurt to appeal to kids’ inner altruism from one minute to the next. If you want them to do something, preceding your ask with a “Hey, I could really use your help with something,” or “Can you help me out with something for a moment?” gets better results than a simple command. Every time.
14. Get kid-friendly cleaning gear
It will be easier for your kids to help if you have tools they can use.
Things to consider include
- a box of extra-small latex-free gloves
- an electric broom, a carpet sweeper, and/or a floor duster
- a handheld crumb sweeper for small messes
- a whisk broom and dust pan, stored within kids’ reach
Kid-sized sets of cleaning supplies, like this caddy and these tools, also make it fun for kids to help around the house. And as kids get older, keeping a set of basic cleaning supplies within easy reach at all times will make it easier for them to handle basic chores on a routine basis.
15. And a cleaning “uniform”
I read in a book somewhere once that the way to get excited about cleaning was to have a special “cleaning uniform.” For example, a favorite apron that was both pretty and functional, and gloves in your favorite color.
But there’s a safety function to a cleaning “uniform”; gloves and aprons protect clothing. If your kid doesn’t already have a full-coverage art smock, letting them choose one in a favorite color or pattern, with pockets for supplies, is one step toward this. Add a dust cloth to one pocket and their current pair of cleaning gloves to the other, and they’re set.
16. Turn problem areas into teachable moments
The best mess or chore to deal with is the one you can prevent before it happens.
When auto-flush sensors on the school toilets taught my children to be lazy about flushing at home, I turned over toilet-scrubbing to them. Seeing how gross the toilet gets without prompt flushing has made them better about remembering to flush, and given them a new appreciation for keeping bathrooms clean. Ditto with crumbs and other messes under the table.
Likewise, when I got tired of cleaning out half-eaten food from their lunch bags a day or two later, I turned over that chore to them. Now they are better about emptying their lunch bags on their own, right after school; otherwise, they know THEY’LL have to deal with the stinky consequences.
And whenever someone gets tired of the school lunches or snacks I make, a few days of making them for herself usually inspires a newfound gratitude.
17. Use “certifications”
This genius idea comes from Kay Wills Wyma’s book Cleaning House: A Mom’s Twelve-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement. It goes along with the idea of making new responsibilities as kids grow into privileges to be coveted, versus burdens to dread.
When Kimmie was old enough to help clean bathrooms before guests visited, I had her start “helping” me with this process. At first, she was just old enough to empty the trash and restock the towels and toilet paper. But when she could reach the countertop, I told her she was ready for her Level 1 Certification in Bathroom Cleaning – and made a big deal of it.
As Essie jealously watched and took over Kimmie’s former tasks, I taught Kimmie how to wipe down the counters and the sinks – even as I told Kimmie she wasn’t yet ready for Level 2 (scrubbing toilets) and Level 3 (wiping down mirrors) status, but SOMEDAY she would be.
When the day came for Kimmie to learn to scrub toilets, I made a big deal of how she was ready to move up to Level 2 status, with the caveat that Mama was the cleaner-squirter-in and she had to be sure to wear her gloves and cleaning apron. The excitement over being big and responsible enough to finally scrub toilets lasted a whole month!
18. Chore charts and checklists
At some point, you will probably find chore charts or checklists useful in getting kids to help around the house.
There are many types to choose from, including both DIY and printables:
- Make a magnetic chore chart, if that helps motivate your youngster
- Or use a sticker chart
- This post includes morning checklist ideas and printables
- For kids who can read, try a clothespin chore chart
19. Enforce consequences
Life is full of choices. Good choices equal good outcomes. Bad choices lead to less desirable outcomes.
When kids help around the house (or choose not to), you have plenty of opportunities to teach these important life lessons. Weekly checklists and sticker charts are great for teaching the positive side of this behavior. For example: “If you can complete all your tasks for an entire week, we can have a special (treat/outing/prize) on Saturday.”
Likewise, lack of cooperation leads to negative consequences:
- If we have things to get done and a whole afternoon stretching ahead of us, I’ve been known to bribe the girls with a trip to the park or the science museum IF we can get everything done in a certain amount of time. If it takes too long to get our things done at home, we don’t get to go on the outing.
- If the girls don’t clean up their toys when asked, those toys go “on vacation” for a certain amount of time. Toys that don’t get cleaned up repeatedly might go on “permanent vacation.”
20. Get older kids into bigger jobs
As kids get older, it’s important for them to continue upping their household contributions in age-appropriate ways:
- They can help run the laundry sometimes, and/or take over laundering their own clothes
- They can help with grocery shopping, making school lunches, and/or prepping dinner or breakfast
- They can take out the trash, help with weeding/trimming, rake leaves, and/or mow the lawn
- They can participate in weekly cleaning tasks along with their daily chores
Yes, it can get trickier with older kids, but we’ve had good luck recently with randomizing who gets which chores, by drawing them out of a chore jar. We’ve also fueled our “Cleaning Power Hour” with kid-chosen music and a time limit (if we stay focused, we can get this done in an hour or less!).
21. Use the 5-a-day rule
Once kids have had a chance to help in more of the upkeep of the family and home, they will better appreciate the wisdom of keeping things from getting out of control in the first place.
Some parents have had luck with a five-minute family pickup before bed. Other mamas have a basket for each family member. Out-of-place things go into the basket throughout the day, and each family member has to empty their basket before bed each night by putting away its contents.
My favorite variation on this theme actually comes from a fellow mama-blogger, Lacy at Mindfulness in Faith and Food. In a comment on my last post, Lacy wrote:
I make my kids clean 5 things everyday. They just need to find five things that need to be cleaned. It helps keep the house from getting out of control.
I LOVE this idea, and am going to introduce it as soon as school lets out, as part of establishing a new summer routine.
What are your hacks for getting kids to help around the house? Anything I haven’t yet covered? Let us know in the comments!
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