kids helping declutter

How To Get Your Kids to Declutter For You

My three sons are now 26, 30, and 34 years old. They live in their own houses which are amazingly pretty neat and clutter-free. I go over there and they are doing laundry, vacuuming, mopping, and cooking dinner and I try to pretend that I am not completely shocked by this. Of course, they are grown-up now. They are intelligent and perfectly capable of cleaning their own homes. But I am still shocked because I remember when they lived with ME they were totally happy living in rooms knee-deep in legos, action figures, cars, dirty clothes, clean clothes, things that were not toys and they shouldn’t have, their friends’ things, school papers, etc. They didn’t seem to even notice clutter, dirt, or piles of debris, that is until I mastered how to get them to declutter FOR me.

They Are Not Kids, They Are Wild Animals!

At times it seemed like I was the den mother of a pack of wild animals who ate enormous amounts of food, were incredibly loud at all times, and destroyed many things (usually accidentally leaving trails of crumbs, foul-smelling socks, shoes, toys, and unidentifiable items which served no purpose but absolutely could NOT be thrown away under any circumstances.  

And their bathroom, oh my gosh, if you have ever set foot in a bathroom shared by 3 boys you will know EXACTLY what I am not talking about here. Ugh.

And what was I like at this point in time, I’m sure you want to know? (Well maybe you don’t but this is an important point).

I was a Home Organizer back then, helping people out on the side while I worked a corporate job as kind of a troubleshooter. My professional career was to figure out how to streamline processes in various departments, figure out what wasn’t working, and fix it. I was definitely a TYPE A person (as many Organizers naturally are) and I liked things to be clean, tidy, and logically organized. 

I also was a young and insecure mom, and I felt like I HAD to have an organized home or I wasn’t a good parent. I felt like people who came over would judge me, and everything had to be perfect. 

So the Universe gifted me with 3 extremely active boys who were fun, creative, and very sweet but incredibly messy. 

I constantly annoyed them by trying every trick in the book to get them to do their chores and keep the house neat. I tried chore boards, job wheels, job jars, checklists, magnet systems, family meetings, threats, bribes, yelling, crying, and everything I could think of.  

For many years after the boys grew up, if I mentioned a checklist to any of them, there was a lot of moaning and groaning about all the ways I had tried to get them to clean up after themselves.  UNTIL one of them had kids of his own! Yep, he’s the one who now COMPLETELY understands the value of a good checklist or chore chart and I am secretly very amused by his efforts to get his kids to clean up after themselves.

Of all the ideas that I tried, there were a few that worked consistently and that I have always recommended to my clients.  

But the first thing I had to do was pop my head out of my own butt. Yes, I know that’s graphic but I really was so controlling that it’s no wonder my sons didn’t want to do what I said. I was so focused on the end goal of “getting things done” that I forgot about fun, motivation, reward,s and the principle of “making the right thing easy to do and the wrong thing harder to do.”  

3 rules that were absolutes and helped keep things manageable

  1. Every kid did their own laundry once a week. They had a day assigned to them and as soon as they got home from school they had to do their laundry, dry it and put it away before bed.  This started as soon as they were old enough, by around 8 years old. I marked off the “extra large” cold water” and “normal” settings on the machines with a black permanent marker and that’s what they all used. We didn’t separate colors or anything, we kept it simple.  

Don’t forget to notice every time your child follows through on this and compliments them.  They are learning an important life skill that should build their self-esteem and confidence.

  1. Each child had to clean their room and scrub their shared bathroom on Saturday mornings BEFORE they could play with their friends. This was very effective as their friends would call and bug them to get it all done so they could hang out. I also thought that making them scrub the biohazard place that was their shared bathroom would encourage them to “use it” in a less disgusting way. It did not. But that’s okay because I wasn’t the one cleaning it. To keep it fair, this was also the day I would clean MY bedroom and bathroom at the same time so it was a family activity.  

If you make a rule like this, make sure you plan a reward at the end for everyone involved.  Bake cookies or have some kind of special Saturday snack (we love popsicles at my house) to celebrate getting these important jobs done. 

  1. They had to keep their clutter in their rooms, not strewn throughout the house. Their natural instincts were to leave a trail of shoes, socks, jackets, schoolwork, and toys throughout the house as soon as they stepped in the door. I don’t know if this was so they could find their way back or what, but they all 3 did this. Even their friends would do it.  

A VERY effective way to end this practice is to address it immediately. Ask the kids to stop what they are doing and come pick the items up. If they are on the phone, they have to hang up. If they are watching TV, playing a video game, or whatever, they have to turn it all off and come put everything away. They will find this so annoying that they will eventually just put things away when they come home because they don’t want to be interrupted. You MUST be consistent and absolute about this, with every single kid, every time. You are basically a “child trainer” at this point. (If you have ever trained a dog, you know what I’m saying).  

Having this kind of family rule only works if the parents model this behavior. If you walk in the door and dump your purse, coat, backpack, keys, etc. on a chair, your kids aren’t going to respect this rule of “keep personal things in your own room”. And if you, as a grownup can’t do this daily, how can you expect children to do it? 

Finding the Fun

With any kind of chore, it’s always helpful to find the fun.  Playing music is really helpful but it has to be music that the KIDS love. This is not the time to force them to listen to your favorite song from your teenage years. Let them pick the music or if what they like is too horrible (I can only listen to so much Swedish Death Metal) then you guys can choose songs and take turns.  You can even make a family music playlist when you come up with songs that everyone likes.   

There are fun ways to make tidying up feel like a game.  Here’s an example of one idea that really works and is a lot of fun. 

The  “Area Manager” Game

Step 1:  You have a family meeting (I found these have to include pizza or there will be so much complaining that it’s not even worth it) and you promote each kid to the manager of a specific common area. The kitchen can be too hard for a kid to handle but maybe put Tommy in charge of the living room and Danny in charge of the family room. The basic rule is that Tommy and Danny are IN CHARGE and everyone else in the house has to do what they say (even the parents, especially the parents because your kids will LOVE bossing you around). Everyone agrees on 2-3 rules for each room that will eliminate most of the clutter. 

For example:

Rule 1: Each person will not leave any of their own items in the room. When the person leaves the room, they have to take their item with them and put it away in their room. 

Rule 2: Each person will “leave no trace”. Meaning no one should be able to tell someone was in there. 

Rule 3: Each person will put their dirty dishes away and not leave them in the room.

Of course, each room may have completely different rules. You can write the rules or have the kids do it and tape it to the wall of the room, or inside a closet or cabinet door.

The kids get to decide how to enforce the Rules. My kids were positively gleeful about this part and came up with some scary (and illegal) punishments so they definitely needed some guidance there. Once the rules and enforcement are decided, everyone signs the rules.  

You will probably find that the kids LOVE this and are happy to live up to their room manager potential. (They may want to make hats, or badges displaying their new job title). You will also find that you will not get away with leaving a dirty glass, pen, or piece of mail in the living room ever again. This will be incredibly annoying but your living room will also be clutter-free! And you don’t have to nag anyone! It’s amazing!  

It’s a fun family activity but the important thing is that it teaches your children to recognize clutter and how it impacts the enjoyment of a space. This is a great lesson for anyone to learn and definitely something we want to teach our kids. 

Now quick, go put your shoes away before Danny sees you! 

And remember to have FUN with your kids! The relationship is always more important than getting things done.  The real goal is to encourage your children to be independent and learn new things so they feel the satisfaction of being good at life stuff. 

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