The Essence of Family Organizing

Guidelines for getting children involved

Here are some guidelines for getting children involved in the collective effort of maintaining a well-organized home:

1. Model your own standards. Children learn more from what you do than from what you say.

2. Adjust your attitude. If you hate housework, chances are you will teach your children to hate it as well. If you secretly think that cleaning up is women's work, your children may pick this up. Gloria told her ten-year-old son that he needed to be more conscientious about picking up after himself. She was shocked when he informed her that he didn't have to clean up after himself because his (far-into-the-future) wife would pick up after him. She figured out that her 1950s upbringing and attitudes must have been leaking through.

3. Once you assign a task, let your child decide how to get it done (within reason). Teach them how to make their own beds and let them do it, even if it isn't perfect. An easy bed-making system is a comforter with a duvet cover. They can pull the comforter over the bed, and, poof, the bed is made.

4. Be matter-of-fact about housework. Cleaning up is not a punishment. It is an integral part of taking care of ourselves well. Give everyone household tasks as soon as they are old enough. Even a three-year-old can pitch in. Don't disdain household tasks or make them appear as undesirable work. Rather than call them chores, call them tasks, jobs, housework, or other more neutral terms.

5. Have patience and refrain from cleaning up for your children; let them take some time to pick up after themselves. Leave "cleanup and put-away" time at the end of activities. It may be easier now to clear up after them, but you can help them build useful lifetime habits if you can be more patient.

6. Make sure that there are plenty of places for children to put things away at a lower level that they can use without your help. Clear out closet and drawer space for them. Put shelves and hooks at their level.

7. Teach your children to put one toy back before taking another one out to play with. It gets distracting and confusing for children to be in a place with toys all over the floor. And as they put them back, they learn to treasure their playthings.

Wendy Mogel, parenting specialist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, says that what makes it hard for parents to assign household tasks to children is their own ambivalence about the value of the tasks. And it's often just quicker and easier for parents to do the jobs themselves. "If we aren't sure chores are necessary to our children's growth, why go to all the trouble of assigning them? The fewer chores we require of our children, the more free time and peace we will have." Once parents determine that there is value in assigning, however, they often stumble on which tasks should be assigned when. Three-year-olds can carry their plates to the table and help put their toys away at the end of the day. Four-year-olds can water plants and put their dirty clothes in a hamper. Children of all ages can straighten their beds. As children get older, they can take care of their own room and help set the table. Participating in caring for themselves and their home gives children a sense of mastery and the feeling that they are making an invaluable contribution to the household.

Some parents feel very strongly that their children should be spared household tasks. Anita held that belief when her children were little, wanting them to be children as long as possible without any household responsibilities. As the years went by, she was faced with the fact that her preteens had neither the inclination nor the habit to help around the house. She says, "I wish I had given them tasks when they were younger. Now they have the feeling that I am meant to clean up after them, and I can only get them to pitch in when they feel like it, which isn't that often." Melinda, who resigned as "maid of the house," says, "I wish I had taught my son how to pitch in earlier; I have an entitled prince of a son."

Giving children the responsibility of contributing to household tasks helps them develop the self-reliance they will need later. Wendy Mogel points out, "The lessons we instill by insisting that our children do mundane tasks may very well be the ones that stay with them longest, helping them to become self-reliant adults, responsible community members and loving parents."

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