My kids’ rooms sometimes resemble a frat house. But instead of empty beer cans and pizza boxes, my kids have 10 water bottles and half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches scattered throughout their space.
I know that parents have complained about their kids’ messy rooms forever. “Children don’t get very many empowering moments,” says Sonya Belletti, a clinical social worker in Coral Springs, Fla.
So how do you help kids who are having a hard time? I asked Belletti and other experts for their advice.
- Think about your messaging
“As adults, we grew up thinking chores were onerous. We felt oppressed by the amount of time we had to spend doing them. And so, as parents, we’re resentful of how much work it takes to get our kids to do chores,” says Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.” If we convey that resentment to our kids, she says, we can’t expect them to feel any better about chores.
Instead of conveying dread, try and explain why chores matter. Alyse Bone, clinical mental health counselor at Dandelion Family Counseling in Charlotte, suggests explaining that when you are organized, you are better able to find things and feel less frustrated. “When things are clean, it makes you feel good inside.”
In addition, Markham suggests altering your messaging by explaining to your kids that chores are important because that is how you show respect and contribute to your family.
- Let kids have a say
Family meetings can be a time to discuss which household tasks need to be done, who will complete each one, why chores are important and what your expectations are. “When you allow your child to pick her chore, she feels more collaborative and included since she decided on that particular chore,” Bone says.
- Focus on time, not tasks
Yuzu Sasaki Byrne, a professional organizer in Chicago who specializes in ADHD, recommends the Pomodoro technique, making the chore time-limited instead of focusing on task completion. “Try spending five minutes cleaning your desk and see how much you can get done in that timeframe,” she says.
For kids, you can use a timer to let them know that they’ve been cleaning their rooms for an hour, Bone says. This can help them to feel less overwhelmed.
- Be present
For kids who are really struggling with focus, Byrne recommends a technique intended for kids with ADHD: the body double. The term, coined by ADHD coach Linda Anderson, refers to how your presence as a parent can serve as a physical anchor for the distracted child, as well as a source of calm while she performs a task. “Your presence helps her to focus,” Sasaki Byrne says.
- Do your chores together
When parents do chores with their children, they can create a sense of community while modeling responsible behaviors. “When we create a team for our family, kids will feel pride in their contribution,” Markham says.
She recommends playing music and keeping a positive attitude. “At the end of the designated clean-up time, you say, ‘Let’s take a minute, let’s turn off the music and just enjoy the room for a moment.’ You’re making it a fun conversation about how everything has transformed, and your child did it with your assistance,” she says. If your child is having trouble maintaining a clean room, offer to be the assistant, with your child taking the lead.
“That removes the power struggle. If your house is a mess, you wouldn’t want somebody to come in and say, ‘Do this, do that.’ You would love it if someone you trusted wouldn’t judge you and said, ‘Hey want me to be your assistant for an hour?’ ”
- Make your expectations clear
Bone says that one reason kids may struggle with chores is that parents may not have shown them exactly how to do the chores effectively. “Clean your room” may seem like an obvious task, but have you explained your definition of “clean”?
A lack of clarity — and the inevitable faults parents find with the results — can make kids less willing to do the work out of fear of failure, Markham says. “Sometimes kids feel like it’s hard to do a good enough job or that they won’t please their parents,” she says.
One way to be very clear as a parent about your expectations is to take a photograph of your child’s room right after it’s been cleaned. Pull up the photograph on your phone and use it as a reference: “This is what I mean by ‘clean.’
- Don’t give up
As much as it might be easier to take the garbage out yourself or put their dirty dishes in the sink, you won’t be doing your kids any favors. “I think that chores are super important. It is an opportunity for kids to learn life skills and foster a sense of community. Their family is their first experience of a community,” says Sasaki Byrne.
Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times and many other publications.