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13 Little Cleaning Tips Every Parent Should Know

published Oct 26, 2021
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After I had my first baby, everything looked different. Each thing I encountered with my new mother’s eyes wasn’t the same as I remembered it because I myself was so utterly and profoundly different. Of course, becoming a parent does change everything. Some of these changes come quickly — the heart-rending love, the bewildering exhaustion drenched in joy — but others become apparent along the way. 

For one, kids come with a lot of stuff and they make so. many. messes. Naturally, our home keeping habits have to shift and adapt along with our growing children. Straddling the line between keeping our homes in order and clean but not letting the job take over our lives (because it’s a never-ending challenge) is a balancing act each family must navigate on their own. 

But parenting, while intensely personal, is also a communal endeavor. We have so much to share with and learn from one another. From ways to involve your kids in the process of maintaining a household to ways of approaching cleaning, here are some little cleaning tips from the village’s hive mind, specifically related to cleaning tips for parents:

Get kids involved as soon as possible  

Most of the time, cleaning without the kids is faster, easier, and more effective. When you need to clean the grout with an acidic cleaner, use bleach to clean the shower tiles, or aren’t comfortable with your little ones helping you clean the toilets, make sure they’re occupied with something else. But don’t fall into the expedient trap of only cleaning when the kids are at school or napping. Including the kids in cleaning tasks when they’re young has powerful and far-reaching consequences. First, you’re harnessing their natural desire to be with you into teachable life skills that will serve them well in the long run. Second, you’re making cleaning a part of your family culture. 

Becky of Clean Mama describes: “Show them how to clean, how to help put things away, and how to clean up after themselves. While it might take longer and be a little more difficult when they’re little, it’ll pay off many times over. Kids will learn responsibility, know how to do simple household tasks, and the house will be that much easier to maintain with a little help from all family members.”

So what does this look like? While every family will have their own methods that work best for them, I’ll share some of the ways I involve my young children (a 4-year-old and a 2-year old) in cleaning up at our house. First, I help them develop the habit of cleaning up one thing before moving on to another. Often I’m doing this alongside of them. I also have them at least try to clean up their own messes like wiping up spilled milk with a damp rag or sweeping up crumbs from the floor after a particularly messy snack session. These tasks are fun for them and they feel “big” when they do them, especially on their own. 

The effects of such practices are far-reaching. Mother of three and library media specialist Dianne Yowell of Lake Forest, California, explains that when you let your kids watch and help you clean from a very young age, it’s not about getting “help” from the kids, it’s about a long-term investment in their perspective. She points out, “I’m already a pro cleaner. I don’t need help cleaning. But I do need to be reminded that it shouldn’t all be on me.” One day the kids will be old enough to actually take over some household tasks and chores. When this time comes, if the kids know from experience that actual people, including them, work to make the house clean and in order, “the transfer of responsibility happens early and easily.” Dianne describes the effect of letting kids watch and learn from hands-on experience: “Household maintenance will never be a magical cleaning fairy event and the transfer of responsibility happens early and easily.” 

Have them clean up their own stuff 

Betsy Booten of Tallahassee, Florida, is a mother of four and runs an at-home daycare. When her home gets to a point where it needs a reset, she has everyone work at the same time. Rather than having everyone be responsible for a certain area of the home, she tasks each child with the responsibility of picking up all of their own things all over the house. She’s found that this decreases tension over what happens when one child is cleaning up an area of the home and has to deal with other children’s belongings or messes. 

When cleaning time is over, the house is in order, each child has exercised responsibility over their own belongings, and the whole thing was accomplished with minimal bickering. Plus, it’s easy for kids to identify their own toys and books, so this is a task that requires less guidance. You could even make it a race by seeing who finishes first!

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Clean while you’re doing other things 

Multitasking is a parenting superpower, so putting it to use when it comes to cleaning is a no-brainer. But making this a habit often requires some amount of remembering to do it. Some examples of cleaning while you’re doing other things include wiping down your appliances while you’re waiting for the microwave to beep, refilling the soap containers, shining the faucets, or giving the toilet a quick cleaning while you’re watching the kids play in the bath, or filling a bowl or half the sink with soapy water to soak the tools you’re using to cook. Becoming increasingly aware of tucking tasks into other daily activities gives you more time in the day and, many times, keeps you from having to face messes once the day calms down. Goodness knows, you need some down time! 

Divide the house into zones

While having your family clean up their own stuff works really well when it comes to picking up clutter, breaking your home into zones might be a better bet when it comes to actual cleaning maintenance. The advantages are 1. your children get practice doing every part of cleaning (as opposed to dividing responsibilities by type of task, like dusting or vacuuming), and 2. each child gets a chance to shine by being able to show off a thoroughly cleaned-up space. Example zones include the front entry and/or mudroom, the living room, the playroom, the kitchen etc. 

In our house, the kids are responsible for picking up their zones daily and cleaning it every Saturday. During the week, each of my older children is responsible for picking up everything that doesn’t belong or is out of place in their zone. My 12-year-old daughter is responsible for picking up the living room and entryway. My 10-year-old son picks up the playroom. And my 8-year-old son is responsible for the back porch and kitchen (there usually isn’t too much out of place in either of those places). On cleaning days, each child also cleans a bathroom (with my help) and their own desk areas and rooms. They are supposed to pick up, dust, and vacuum their areas. My older two children also clean some glass doors. I also ask them to do “one extra thing” to add order to one of their spaces. They’ve chosen things like rainbow-ordering their books or ordering some toys on the toy shelves. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Use the 10/30 rule

Jordan Page, mother of eight, entrepreneur, and productivity guru, turned me onto this rule and I can honestly say it’s changed my behavior at home and helped me keep my home cleaner. The rule is simple: Take the 10 extra steps or 30 extra seconds to do something the right way. The power of this mantra, which I hear in my head when I’m about to do something lazy like set junk mail down on the counter instead of in the recycling bin, lies in the fact that it prevents messes from multiplying all over the house. For instance, when a few dishes are left in the sink, it’s easy for everyone to add their own dirty dishes to the pile. But if you take the 30 extra seconds to put the dishes in the dishwasher (and encourage everyone else in the household to do the same), you prevent messes from multiplying and keep the house from getting cluttered with left-out items. 

Put on a cleanup song

I feel a little funny bringing up Pavlov’s dogs when I’m discussing children, but if you regularly put on a cleanup song when it’s time to clean up the playroom, eventually just turning on the song might prompt your littles to get to work! Even if this doesn’t happen, turning on a cleanup song (you have Alexa or your phone find and play one, but I usually use Blippi’s) makes the chore fun and gives the kids a little nudge to try to finish by the time the song is over. 

Organize their belongings with them

Like all of us, kids take ownership of tasks they’re involved in. You may have heard the tip about encouraging kids to eat diverse foods by, helping them cook with you. I saw this in action just this week, when my 3-year-old was tasked with putting cooked Brussels sprouts in a bowl for our family dinner. She couldn’t wait to eat them when we sat down at the table!

The same is true with kids’ organization. If you involve your kids in big and little organizing projects, they’re invested in setting up the systems and putting their things back where they belong. You can apply this method to their personal spaces, like their drawers, but also to more communal spaces like the toy shelves or even family spaces like the pantry. 

Show them how to clear out a space, sort items to keep from things you’ll donate (explain your thought process for deciding and include them, as appropriate), categorize, and put away. This is a lifelong skill they’ll carry with them in your household as well as when they have their own. 

Don’t take out another toy or start a new activity without cleaning up the first one

Make this extremely effective habit part of your family culture. Before you bring out another toy or activity, clean up from the previous activity. The most straightforward way to see this habit in action is when you put away, say, the barn and the farm animals before taking out Candyland. Even if your children are still learning to incorporate this practice themselves (and, trust me, they’ll need to be reminded … for years), continue reminding them. Model the habit not only as you help them with their own belongings, but with your own things as well. And, funny as it might feel at first, try to narrate what you’re doing: “Oh, I’m going to make my bed since sleep time is over. I don’t want to have to come back later and face an old mess. I’ll feel much better getting breakfast started once I know my bedroom is picked up.” 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Do “Power 10s” 

This is one of my favorite whole-house strategies to employ. While it can be done even with one person, the effect is greatly compounded when the entire family gets in on the action. Having an end to cleanup time and encouraging everyone to work fast means a lot gets done in a short but impactful burst without the nagging that upsets kids or the lollygagging that upsets parents. No matter how you delegate who does what (zones or everyone picking up their own stuff), setting a timer for ten minutes and working hard for ten minutes can transform your space from a stressful mess to a fairly orderly home you can all enjoy. 

Isopropyl alcohol is a cheap and effective disinfectant

We’re more aware of disinfecting than ever before, but pandemics aside, parents face plenty of situations where disinfecting helps keep kids safe and healthy, such as during flu season or after handling raw meat. Mother and restaurant consultant Heather Soto of Los Gatos, California, describes how she recommends using isopropyl alcohol to disinfect: “Buy a spray bottle and refill it with isopropyl alcohol to use as a sanitizer for toys, high chair trays, countertops, etc. It’s way cheaper and more effective than store mixes. Plus [it has] zero odor once it evaporates.” 

Use kid-safe cleaning supplies

Young children naturally want to help you do everything you’re doing. When they see you cleaning, they want to be involved, but if you’re using supplies that aren’t safe for kids, like sprays containing bleach or other harsh chemicals, you won’t be able to let them help you. Whenever possible, opt for gentle cleaning supplies that kids can use safely. (My favorite is Puracy.) I also give them a glass cleaner made of white vinegar and dish soap and let them clean windows and glass surfaces. Give them specific tasks to do with other tools that don’t involve products, such as dusting surfaces with a duster or microfiber cloth, stepping on the pedal of the spin mop, or sweeping up spilled pet food with a small broom and dustpan. Reward their efforts with plenty of words of affirmation and thanks. 

Dangle the carrot

There comes a time when cleaning with you isn’t a fun activity like it is for many toddlers. When this day comes, plan a reward for when cleaning time is over. This can be something simple like reminding the kids that they’re free to go play outside when their afternoon routine is finished, or it can be a bigger incentive, such as taking the family for a swim or out for ice cream once the garage clean-out is over. Your language makes a difference and sets the atmosphere for whatever needs to get done. Try to keep it positive. For instance, rather than, “You can’t play on the computer until you fold your laundry,” you could say, “You’re welcome to enjoy computer time once your laundry is folded and put away.” 

Another way to implement this advice is with a reward system. Toni Hammersley of A Bowl Full of Lemons says that to encourage kids to clean, “Make it fun! Put together their own (safe) cleaning caddy and create a reward system with a chart and stickers.” 

Use detailed checklists so they know exactly what to do

You know what’s overwhelming? Being a kid facing a disaster of a room and being told to clean it up. The task is too big and the directions are too vague. Set them up for success by breaking up the project for them with a detailed checklist. The room-cleaning checklist I have for my own children includes step-by-step small tasks they can check off, including picking up everything off the floor and putting it away, clearing off surfaces, dusting, straightening up the closet, etc. For kids who can’t read, you can use an illustrated chore chart. When they’re done working their way through manageable tasks, they’ll not only have a clean room, but the confidence boost of a job well done and the satisfaction of knowing they can do hard things.