In 1314, during the Battle of Bannockburn, the Scottish militia littered the road to Stirling Castle with caltrops, small tangles of metal spines arranged so that one points upward. When trampled underfoot, these weapons have stopped horses, troops and war elephants. As English troops stormed the castle at Bannockburn, they trod upon these terrible devices and retreated posthaste.
My 7-year-old must consider his bed a type of fortress, under siege from Mom and Dad. Unseen Lego pieces, left out from the day’s amusements, litter the floor. I enter, barefoot, to bestow a goodnight kiss. The first brick, on the rug, gives a bit under my weight. The second one, on the hardwood floor, isn’t so accommodating. I fall back, hobbled with pain. “Someday,” I mutter through the tears, “he will learn to pick up after himself.”
Little did I know that by using a few simple strategies, I can make my child a partner (not a nemesis) in the eternal struggle to keep a tidy house.
Back in the day, my parents assigned room cleaning like a drill sergeant demands push-ups. When my brother and I reached our monthly quota of ill deeds, we were punished by having to clean our room. Meanwhile, there were full ashtrays on the coffee table. So we come to the first tenet: Walk the talk. Don’t expect your child’s room to be the lone outpost of tidiness — cleanup has to be a house rule. Don’t dump your coat on the chair while ordering them to hang up theirs. Clear dishes after a meal. Sweep the floor once in a while. And make sure your children see you doing it all. Consistent, habitual cleanup says you prefer a tidy house — and every room counts.
These days, of course, kids are wise to parents’ room-cleaning strategies. To get started, you may have to give a reward — plan a special activity if the kids clean their room. Heidi Rothgeb, a principal in the Snohomish School District and mother of 9-year-old Casey, has good results with this approach. “Sometimes I offer a reward. I say, ‘When your room is clean, we can head outside and play.’ I don’t offer cash or food, but we get to do something fun if he tidies his room.” In our house, we pit both boys against each other, to see who can pick up more stuff. A satisfying victory over a brother is reward enough.
Remember: Cleaning once a month takes more effort than cleaning once a day. Thus, you need to break it into small tasks. Children respond to simple directives, rather than grandiose workflows. Rothgeb agrees: “Instead of saying, ‘Clean your room top to bottom,’ I will have Casey pick up five things and I’ll pick up five things.” If Casey lollygags, Rothgeb turns up the pressure, but keeps it fun. “We see who can pick up five things first.” But make it age appropriate — a 6-year-old will probably rebel if given more than a few simple tasks. As they grow older, feel free to pile on the duties.
Still, as you’re piling, ensure that your sons and daughters know what you’re asking of them. “What does ‘clean’ mean?” Rothgeb asks. “Pick up toys? Hang up clothes? What does it look like?” Cleaning one’s room is not an instinct. Children need to be taught, so teach them by doing some of the work yourself. After my 7-year-old scatters 72 Hot Wheels across the couch, I show him my finest car-gathering technique and then let him have a go. Combining forces is a good teaching technique, plus it makes for quick work. Bonus: He learns that a clean house is a team effort and everybody pitches in.
Perhaps the surest path to a clean room is to have a place for things to go. My childhood bedroom had little storage, so I would heap G.I. Joes next to the baseboard heater. Have coat hooks, laundry baskets, toy bins, and clothes drawers within easy reach. Christine Nettle of Tacoma believes organization is the key to winning the room-cleaning wars. Nettle, an admitted cleanliness fanatic, says her two daughters “were very easy to train and maintain a standard.” That figures, given her dogmatic approach to organization. She helped her daughter Melissa build a space to house her massive doll collection. “Melissa was happy that all of her dollies had a proper bed, and I was happy that I could move about the room,” she says. “I think it’s important for kids to learn how things go together — you don’t put your coat next to the underwear because you’re not going to put them on at the same time. In that way, you’re teaching them logical thinking.”
When you think about it, 6- to 10-year-olds might be the most receptive to your room-cleaning strategies. They can’t claim incompetence like a 3-year-old and they can’t bolt the bedroom door just yet. Strike while the iron is hot. And don’t forget to wear slippers.
Derek Blaylock lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.
Originally published in the January, 2009 print edition of ParentMap Magazine.