How I taught my kids to clean…so I could stop cleaning

How I taught my kids to clean...so I could stop cleaning
Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool, also blogs about motherhood at Steady Mom

Lean in closer, let me share a secret:

I don’t clean too much anymore…and I love it.

Why am I whispering? Well, I guess it doesn’t feel proper for a busy homeschooling mama to admit something like this.

Over five years ago, while reading one of the books that has become a foundational part of our homeschool, Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning, I came across this quote:

“A significant part of Love of Learning Phase is to learn to work like an adult, thus many responsibilities can be given to Love of Learners. Still, Love of Learners need to be trained to do jobs well, so we recommend that Mom be released from any cleaning and instead be given a training and supervisory role only.” (page 121)

As my kids were ages five, four, and three at the time, I’m pretty sure I snorted at this impossible and lofty way-too-far-in-the-distance aim that seemed unlikely to ever appear on my messy home horizon.

But now Trishna is 11, Jonathan turns ten on Labor Day, and Elijah is nine. Life looks different around here–far from perfect, mind you–but definitely different. And one variation is the amount of time I spend cleaning.

Looking back, I can see we went through the following phases of cleaning to reach where we are now. 

The Phases of Cleaning in the Martins’ Home

Phase I. Young kiddos = Parents clean alone

How long this phase lasted: 5+ years 

Young children equal survival mode for parents, and cleaning isn’t the top priority.

What is, exactly? Maybe sleep? Or the ability to take a shower? You know this phase. Solidarity, mamas and papas who are in it.

In this phase you do what you can, when you can. You clean when something strikes your attention, or come up with a method that works for you. FlyLady.net might be an option for those who find it appealing or perhaps once a month cleaning might work well.

In this phase you aim for tidy and hygienic, not picture-perfect. (Well, my advice is to never aim for  picture-perfect when there is homeschooling involved!)

cleaning1

Phase II. Getting rid of the clutter

How long this phase lasted: 1 year

Eventually–when toddlers turned into preschoolers–and sleep wasn’t such a distant memory, I began to have the desire to get rid of extra stuff.

I’m beyond convinced that this critical investment in time and energy enabled me to reach the place I’m in now (where I no longer clean much). It would be impossible for my children to adequately care for a home overflowing with clutter.

I’ve written about the case for once a month decluttering here if you decide to investigate it.

Phase III. Teaching my kids to clean

How long this phase lasted: 1-2 years

cleaning2

When my kids were over the age of six or seven, I wanted them to learn the basics of house cleaning. Prior to this, they helped with tidying and doing little jobs here and there.

We began. One day each week we made that our lesson time for the day. At first I tried cleaning with them all together (which I wrote about here), but I found that chaotic.

Instead I worked one-on-one with each child individually in a specific area (typically bathrooms, upstairs, or downstairs). The other two kids would play or read individually until their turn.

By making our cleaning time a weekly priority, I wasn’t trying to fit it in around the edges of our lives. I gave some of our best moments to it, which helped me have patience during the process.

Phase IV. Turning the cleaning over to the kids

How long this phase lasted: 1 year

cleaning4

A year ago I started to feel the need for another change in our cleaning habits. Though I like having structure at home, I also get inwardly restless when the same routine lasts too long.

As my kids got older, I also wanted to set aside our current cleaning day for learning time instead.

By this point they had the basics of cleaning house down (to a child’s standard, keep in mind), so we instituted a new routine: Each morning after breakfast and read-alouds, we clean for 12 minutes. 

Every child is assigned to one area of the house: upstairs, downstairs, or kitchen. They keep this assignment for an entire season (spring, summer, fall, winter). This enables them to reach a level of mastery before switching to a new area.

Is this a perfect system? Uh, no.

We’re talking about a regular family here–meaning kids who some days don’t feel like doing their jobs (and a mama who some days doesn’t want to do hers, either!) I also have to reduce my standards so I can be happy with the current best my children have to offer.

But is it a good system for this season of life? Completely!

Not only are my babes learning necessary life skills and contributing to the family, but I am freeing time for other tasks that also bless the family–ones that I had set aside during the years of caring for young children.

Phase V. Adjusting as needed

cleaning5

A few months ago I wrote out a list of everything I still do around the house. I put a circle around each of those tasks that Trishna, Jonathan, or Elijah would be capable of doing instead. This included cleaning up after dinner, making breakfast, taking over the laundry, and so on.

I divided these jobs up, taught the children how to complete them, and turned them loose!

Now: Before you picture me eating cookies on the couch, or scrolling through Facebook while my awesome kiddos (& they really are awesome) work all day, rest assured that I still keep busy.

Plenty of tidying up still falls to Mama throughout the day–tasks that need to be accomplished or helped with. And when we have overnight guests we all pitch in to do a longer deep clean.

But recently, as the children do their daily 12 minute cleaning, I’ve been able to devote time to decluttering projects that have been on my imaginary to-do list for ages. It feels so satisfying to finally cross some of them off.

To pay or not to pay?

Each family will come to their own conclusion about whether or not to pay for chores.

Most of my kids’ work they do without pay, but we did offer them the chance to take on an extra paid responsibility (currently $5/month) if they wanted to.

One child is in charge of trash and recycling for the house, one child in charge of laundry, and one child lost their paying job after too much complaining. When I feel they’re ready I will invite this child to try again–until then they continue on with their other non-paying duties as usual.

I remember thinking, a few years ago, that I needed to find the “one right way” to teach my kids housework if we were to be successful. But like most things in life, I’ve found that with consistency and effort many routes can lead to the same goal. 

Don’t look at this post as a formula to follow, but just a collection of inspiration and ideas to choose from as you find what’s right for your own family.

“I am thankful for a lawn that needs mowing, windows that need cleaning and gutters that need fixing because it means I have a home…. I am thankful for the piles of laundry and ironing because it means my loved ones are nearby.”
~ Nancie J. Carmody

Originally posted on July 28, 2014.

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.

Comments

  1. Yes! We’re right on the cusp of this! The fact that I gasped when I read the title of this post in anticipation and joy might mean I’m ready for this next phase! ( my kids are over ready!) Thank you!

  2. I realized a week or two ago that I’m really spending much more time supervising/managing the household than actually doing the nitty-gritty myself. It’s kind of a great stage to be in . . . and it makes me realize that the story I read years ago when I had 4 babies 3 and under about the homeschool mom of 10 whose house was spic and span IS a reality–just not for anyone who only has small children. Her house was clean because she’d taught her kids to clean over the years and because they were big enough (and expected to) contribute to home care. The same is now true for me–though I only have 7. 🙂 So, to moms who only have small children–release yourself from the standard that moms of big kids can have! You’re not failing, you’re just in a different phase.
    Anne’s latest post: Changing . . . and Support

    • I’m so glad you mentioned this, Anne. I think there is a season in the middle period where the supervising part does take more time than it would take to just do the work yourself. That’s part of the process if we can just stick with it–then we’ll reach the Promised Land on the other side! =) And such a good point about mamas of littles – grace, grace, grace to them!

  3. I appreciate your honesty with the time frames (1 -2 years). I think we all (well, I know I do) have in our heads that they should be able to instantly do these things bc they are of a certain age.
    Thanks for the inspiration, Jamie.
    sheila’s latest post: A Few Things

  4. N Fiegel says:

    How encouraging to read. I am doing exactly this in my own house! I am in the training/ transitioning phase! I, too, realized one day that I needed to free up my time from task oriented work at home to training, managing, and long term planning for my family. Once I released basic daily chores to the kids, I found I was able to think more clearly and focus on homeschool planning, and have a more organized home. I can even find time for more messy projects because I have the time to plan and energy to carry them out! I recommend every household train up their children in the tasks of every day life, and apply the same organization and purposeful planning to their homes as we do to our careers!

    • Once I released basic daily chores to the kids, I found I was able to think more clearly and focus on homeschool planning, and have a more organized home.

      Yes, exactly – such a help!

  5. Thank you for sharing this. Our kids are 9, 7, 4, and 20 months. As I am gearing up for the start up of our new homeschool year in 2 weeks, I have been thinking alot about how I am going to maintain the house. These are really some great ideas, some of which we already do. We definitely believe in training children to work. They have chores, but we might need to work on the system some.

  6. THANK YOU! This is so wonderful, Jamie–thank you for letting us have a peek into how this all works for you. Very inspiring and encouraging!
    Kari Patterson’s latest post: Grace for the curve-ball days

  7. That last quote is fantastic! Great article.

  8. I so loved this! With kids 4 and 6, I am reaching the decluttering phase. I have felt convicted and wanting to minimalize our home. Thanks for this encouragement! And adore the last quote. Love your blog :).

  9. I love this post! What you’ve talked about here is so important for a large, homeschooling family 🙂
    Michelle M.’s latest post: One Week Later

  10. Oh Jamie, I love coming to this space for gentle guidance and your wisdom. I love your way of easing into the cleaning tasks for each age and season. I have 2 sons (ages 2 and 4) and I love to have them do chores with me. They put away their dishes, wipe the table, vacuum and dust. I have no expectations (which helps!) because we are just learning each day and each season.

    Downloaded your free book, can’t wait to dive in!
    Mel’s latest post: on defending your parenting choices

  11. I love seeing examples of how other families do things. My daughter is almost five and I’ve been contemplating how to start teaching her how to do some chores. But I also have a one year old so I may just wait a little longer…
    Steph’s latest post: No Easy Answers

  12. For years I struggled with cleaning, until I found something that works for me (at this stage of life, with a mix of toddler and school age kids). We do daily tasks, of course, for us its things like wiping down the sink and toilet seat, sweeping the floor, and of course kitchen clean up etc…but once a week, I have a cleaning day and we don’t do formal homeschooling. I think learning how to clean is part of homeschooling. I try to get as many of the jobs done as I can, but they are never all done. Then those get to be the first chores to be done the next week (I have cards with all the chores listed on them, and I file them in a priority spot for the next week). The bathroom is always done (well, almost always). This works well for us.
    I am also working at de-cluttering. I was wondering what you do if you have a child who is a collector and keeps all sorts of papers and nature items and likes to decorate their shelves with all sorts of things. I am thinking I need to set more limits. Eg. rotate the decorative items so many at a time etc.

  13. Thank for sharing your wisdom with us. Good to know the structure that eventually leads to desired results.
    The last quote was really encouraging!

  14. My kids are 12, 8, and 6 (and 1, but she doesn’t help much) and they do a lot of work around the house. We don’t pay them for normal chores, but if they do something extra like clean the garage or vacuum out my car, I’ll give them a few dollars. I read once that the cleaning should be turned over to the kids at a certain point so the mom can manage the home instead of manage AND do everything. I love that picture.

  15. I did a lot of work and cooking for my mom from about 10 years on so I know this is absolutely possible. My oldest is 6 and he is beginning to be able to take on more responsibility though still with my presence. We do family work every day though so I feel we are setting good patterns that when they are able they can be a little more “on their own.” Right now family work is all together in one room and we rotate clockwise around the house. This keeps us all together so the littles have monitoring and while I still do the bulk of the work, they have jobs and they are quite helpful. We hit a little sweet spot that is working well–until it has to be tweaked of course! 😉
    Johanna’s latest post: On a change of perspective {life as a pedestrian family}

  16. This is great stuff! I think it’s wonderful how you’re able to incorporate TJEd into’s not everyday life. It’s not just a classroom method.
    Alyssa Marie Thys’s latest post: Awesome But Underused Boys Names From the Old Testament

  17. Leigh Owens says:

    I just love your sweet, gentle ways, Jamie. I have been working over the last year to hand over more and more duties to the kids (15, 11, and 8). Our problem is how the waters keep getting muddied between allowance and chores. No matter how we try to separate the two, they just seem to go hand-in-hand. I would LOVE more insight into how you handle allowance/spending money in your house.

    • This is an old post, but I have such a clear memory on how my parents handled this. For my Mom, the waters were always muddied. One day, though, our Dad told us that we get allowance because we are part of the family, and we do chores because we are members of the family.

  18. Thank you for this post. I really needed it. I feel like this conversation about cleaning is not had enough for homeschoolers (and everyone!) I have actually thought about asking you to write one!!! I have struggled with this issue for years. My mom was the type to push me aside and clean, clean, clean. I have not wanted to be that mom. But I believe I went in the opposite direction. Now it is time to come back to the middle! Thank you for helping me have a bit of direction!

  19. This is such great wisdom! We found that it’s amazing how little time each task actually takes when you break it down like you have. We also included a “play with the baby” category during cleaning sessions so mama could actually cycle into the cleaning tasks without having to stop to care for tiny ones.
    Traci Matt’s latest post: How to start a great children’s book club Part 2

  20. Genevieve says:

    We are also transitionning into this phase. My two older children are 7&10 yo. Every meal, they set the table and then clean it off when we are done eating. They fill and empty the dish washer. They also do all the cleaning required in the bathroom. Our routine is: every time we eat, we clean the kitchen and do a 5 min clean-up of another section of the house. Since my kids eat as often as hobbits, it really ads up fast! 🙂

  21. Jennifer says:

    As a single mom of four, I struggled with this at first. My girls are a year apart, and then on average about 3-4 years apart…(almost 16, 14, 11, and almost 8 now).

    I did teach some cleaning – dishwasher duty (from “just silverware” to “can you put these pans in that cabinet” to my 7 year old asking last year if she could unload it fully herself “for practice”…”uhm, yes sweetie, let me just pick my jaw up off the floor…” 😉 ), vacuuming (from “detail vacuuming with the dustbuster to carpet cleaning with the vacuum), laundry was assigned as one child’s (or mine) a day…after twice killing my clothes with a rouge crayon…and the girls started loading the washer or switching the clothes to the dryer…and they folded their clothes and put them away too. (Two clean clothes baskets, and only 8 pairs of undies…they can do a load the day following theirs, if they forgot, but they have to wait until that person starts their load first.)

    I also worked on cooking. Not huge meals at first, but microwaving popcorn or reheating their dinner… Then baking cookies with me. The stovetop (“keep an eye on this, I’ll be right back”) was last. My oldest and second oldest make meals without referencing a cookbook (although my second oldest can get distracted while cooking… :/ ), my third has started watching the stovetop “for a minute” (consider her an alarm with legs…”Its bubbling!” Or whatever 🙂 ) My youngest has the microwave down and we’ll be looking at baking after she turns 8.

    I haven’t had to cook a meal in years – well, except for those few and far between times that both of my older girls are out on the same night… These kids won’t starve 😉

  22. I’m so glad to read this! I started w/ my kids as soon as they could pull toys out of a basket or off a shelf. Their very first chore was to put their toys back in the basket at a very young toddler age. Then it progressed to putting your dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Next was dusting. They love that. Eventually bigger tasks came up. All of my boys pitch in. They are 9, 8, & 3. They enjoy vacuuming, dusting, doing dishes (b/c they get to play w/ the bubbly water), clean up in the bathroom, etc. I usually put the laundry in the wash but let them put the dry ones in the basket & the wet ones in the dryer & then I start another load. I fold, they sort & roll socks. They also put away the towels, wash clothes & their own clothes. Even my 3 year old does it. Do they always put them in the right drawers? Nope. But they know where there clothes are. My three year old is quite different from my other two. He louder, more hyper, more destructive, more messier. He recently has been broken as far as put your toys up when you’re done before moving onto another game. They are learning that regular toys should stay in their room instead of spilling out into the hallway & into the rest of the house & that school educational toys should stay in the school room. They have access to them all day long but they know that school material should not get lost in their chaotic rooms. Anyway….I see so many parents not teaching their kids to clean & I see the mama’s struggling to keep her breath & try to smile through it but really, I gave that up a long time ago. It is what it is & that is…you’re kids need to learn responsibility, team work, accountability. They should learn. One day they will go out on their own & my dreams & hopes are that they’ll make great husbands & fathers. They’ll know how to cook, clean, be a helper not a contribute to the mess & then expect the woman to clean it up. I’m real w/ my kids. I tell them that it hurts my feelings that I clean up & then everyone tears it down. You’ll be surprised that kids want to know those things. In fact, my neighbor kid who is about 10 or 11 years old told me, “I like it when my parents discipline me.” I asked why & he said, “Because I know it will keep me out of bad stuff.” Then he went on to tell my kids, “You should wash the dishes for your mom.” Wow! I’m glad I’m not the only one raising their kids right! Good post!

  23. Oh boy, I really can’t wait until mine can cook.

    “The Glass Castle” (a great book) hot dog burning incident has scared my wife and I though…
    HomeschoolDad’s latest post: Living in London – Vacationing in Sicily!

  24. Thank you so much for this blog post. I have been stressing over whether or not the systems we’re working on are the right ones. This advice helps so much.

  25. This blog is so inspiring! I want to BE you. Haha. It’s really encouraging to see that I’m really in the early days yet. I feel like such a failure. Like a lazy slob who doesn’t do enough to keep up with my home. My kids are 5.5, 3.5. and 9 months. By this chart, I’m well in the nearly impossible to keep clean stage! Then you had your declutter stage. I feel like I’ve been trying systems and nothing works, but maybe it’s just a product of young kids. I’m tentatively sticking my toe into 15 minute a day declutter challenges. http://www.home-storage-solutions-101.com/declutter.html Maybe this can be my year of decluttering and then we can move into the kids being more hands on with the housework. 🙂 I am definitely a minimalist at heart, not the art or the home design, but the lifestyle. I hate being weighted down by stuff. My dream is to someday pack up our life into a few suitcases and go be missionaries.

  26. So helpful article! I have three kids. Two boys and a girl. I love them and I love to take care of them and the house but the work is too much for one. I will be so glad to tech them how to clean their rooms and to help me along the house. Thanks for the useful article!

  27. I’d love to hear what things you have them do in that 12 minutes? And how strict are you with things getting done correctly and what do you do if they aren’t? My kids do do most of the chores but I feel like I’m always battling them doing them correctly. Thanks for the post! Blessings!

  28. I have four kids at home, 7 mos, 4 yrs, 6 yrs, and 9 yrs. I am starting homeschooling this next school year. My question is, do you have lists of what needs to happen throughout your house? It may sound silly but I was raised with a live in housekeeper and I still have not figured it out. So, I’d like to teach my kids, but I need directions, too.

    • I’m curious too Jamie!

      I have a chart on my fridge for my five boys. They are older though…
      Bekki@a better way to homeschool’s latest post: Emotional Boys? What is a Mom To Do?

      • Yes, I have a chart with general ideas broken down by each area of the home that the kids work in. For us that is upstairs, downstairs, and kitchen/dining room. The kids don’t really look at it, it’s just for my reference when I assign jobs in the morning before our 12 minute cleaning begins. It’s a loose structure that reminds me of what needs to be done, but flexible enough that I can change it around.

  29. My favorite class when my son was homeschooling in high school was Independent Living Skills. I had an old home economics textbook I found in a yard sale, and used that for the text. He learned to do his own laundry, to plan, shop for, and cook a meal, and general cleaning. Though he was not happy to have the class at the time, he later thanked me when he married and his wife could not cook. He was happy to teach her what he knew and now she is a great cook, too.
    Linda Sue’s latest post: Educational Shower Curtains for K-12 Students and Homeschool

  30. What sort of consequences do you have when your children do not chose to complete their chores or completing them at a much lesser quality than his/her normal ability?

    • Great question, Holly. It depends on their age/phase of learning. With my youngest, who is in Core Phase, I would try to have us work together to complete a job until he is confident to do it on his own. If a bad attitude emerges, he might be sent to his room until he is willing to help. If you aren’t familiar with the phases of learning, this post will explain a bit: http://simplehomeschool.net/core-phase/

  31. I have five boys and have had all kinds of seasons of training in regards to chores and cleaning.

    I’m currently teaching “Daily Goal Setting” and retraining cleaning. I LOVE the idea of both 12 minutes of cleaning and being captain of an area for a full season!

    I’m definitely gonna weave that into our day!
    I also love the concept of making the teaching of a cleaning job (or re teaching in my case) a priority.

    Life skills are so necessary to master:).
    Bekki@a better way to homeschool’s latest post: Emotional Boys? What is a Mom To Do?

  32. Oh I’m so happy to read this. This has been a very uncomfortable phase for us…but my kids are 6, 5 and 3. My husband has super high, and I usually think, unrealistic expectations for our kids, but he said they should do the work so they are! We usually have to do a once a month deep clean…basically a restart. That pile under the bed would overtake the room if we didn’t pull it all out and start over. But I keep looking forward to the day when they can just do their chores without me standing there saying, “there’s a shoe. Now get the pencil. Now get the bear, etc.” Oh my, it’s still very painful with my two youngest!

  33. Thanks for these ideas! My boys are 7 and 9. I love the idea of 12 minutes a day and that they get one job for a season. Instead of my kids arguing over who wipes the table and who sweeps the floor after meals, I will know assign each kid to a meal where they do both!! I think this will reduce the bickering!! I am not a homeschooler—I teach Montessori and my kids go to a Montessori school. I still get GREAT ideas from your blog!!

  34. You’re doing a great job by teaching your kids to clean! Many mothers just do all the job by themselves, and their children grow up incapable to take care of themselves. This way you are preparing them for the world outside and you’re making sure they will manage to take care of themselves when the time comes. I think that in a household everybody should be involved in the cleaning and maintenance!
    Amy @ Paul’s Carpet Cleaning Melbourne’s latest post: How to Keep the Dust to a Minimum

  35. Mary Khan says:

    Love this post and your one on baking. I am looking forward using them with my son and eventually, my daughter. Just wondering if you have a printable (or post) on the cleaning portion of your binder?

  36. It took a lot of reading and convincing from my husband to understand how much my kids can do. And it took me not being able to do it for me to totally relinquesh. Not anywhere near perfect and sometimes drives me crazy but yes kids can be in charge of cleaning!

  37. Thanks for the great post and insight. It is great to teach kids these fundamentals early on in life.

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