Finding ways to motivate kids to clean on their own can help them develop skills they’ll use throughout their life.
Both kids and adults can agree that cleaning is a tedious task. But cleaning and keeping a clean room offers many benefits aside from just having a tidy space.
“Cleanliness and the process of cleaning has been associated with many positive mental health outcomes,” says Anjali Gowda Ferguson, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Cleaning also provides children with a sense of responsibility, Ferguson says. Putting the cleaning task in their hands helps promote adaptive living skills and build self-esteem.
While it may seem easier to just complete the task for them, encouraging kids to clean on their own helps set them up for success. “If we jump in and complete the task for them, then they are not learning independent skills,” Ferguson says.
There are ways to make cleaning more enjoyable and less of a chore.
Ease into the task
Suddenly thrusting a cleaning chore onto a child can cause friction. You may find it more helpful to provide a warning that playtime is about to end, Ferguson suggests.
“Imagine if you were watching your favorite TV show and out of nowhere someone turned off the TV and told you to do the dishes right away,” she says. “You would likely become a little upset.”
Ferguson says kids need time to wind down and prepare for a less enjoyable activity like cleaning.
A verbal warning may be enough for a small child, but some older children may react better to a time cue like: “Let’s clean up in 5 minutes.”
Teens may respond better to scheduled tasks, so you may tell them something like: “Please, clean your room before bedtime on Sunday.”
Give them a hand to start
It may not be helpful to clean the entire room for them. But your child will likely appreciate and benefit from having you join in at the start of the cleaning process.
“Children learn through modeling, and when you make it a collaborative task, they’re more likely to join in,” Ferguson says.
As your child gets used to the cleaning routine, you can reduce the amount of time you’re involved in helping out. But starting off by lending a hand can help a lot with motivation, she adds.
Provide specific tasks
This is an especially helpful strategy for small children who may need more guidance when it comes to cleanup time.
“Cleaning up a large mess can feel overwhelming, but focusing on one task or item encourages mindfulness and makes the job more manageable,” Ferguson says.
Being specific and providing instructions can also help children better understand expectations related to their tasks.
Give them praise
Providing kids a reward for cleaning can be a helpful way to drum up motivation and make the cleaning process more fun.
To start, the reward can be something small yet tangible, such as a sticker on a chore chart.
Your child will get used to the cleaning routine and feel a greater sense of ownership of the task. After that, you can move on to telling them they’ve done a great job or giving them a high-five, Ferguson recommends.
Older kids might be more motivated by rewards like additional screen time or more time out with friends.
It’s a good idea to pay attention to what your child responds to. It’s also important to understand that this can change over time, as they age and as their interests change, Ferguson says.
“We all like to know we’re doing well at a job — same goes for kiddos,” she says.
Consistency is key
Staying consistent can be challenging, but it’s an integral part of encouraging a specific behavior like cleaning. Stick to the rules and rewards you’ve created.
“Consistency helps build expectations,” Ferguson says.
“When we’re around clutter, we can feel mentally or emotionally cluttered or overwhelmed,” Ferguson says.
Keeping an organized and clean space can contribute to overall well-being.
Ferguson says that having honest, direct conversations about the benefits and importance of cleaning up is important.
“You can try saying, ‘We take care of our space and our toys. When we clean up, it helps take care of our space. When we take care of our space, it makes us feel good,’” Ferguson suggests.
Not every child will respond positively to cleaning motivation strategies.
If you’re having trouble encouraging your child to clean up after themselves, Ferguson recommends setting developmentally appropriate consequences.
“Continue to provide some verbal prompts, so the child knows the reward is contingent on the process of cleaning up,” she suggests.
You might try telling them something like: “I really want you to go to the park today, but we have to clean up first.”
If your child refuses, you might find it helpful to revisit things later.
Keep in mind that children have good and bad days, Ferguson says. Sometimes, they’ll refuse just because they’re in a cranky mood.
“Pay attention to the frequency and duration of these changes in mood and behavior,” she says. “If they start to impact other aspects of life, like school or interactions with peers and family, then it may be something to look into more.”
Children may sometimes turn their noses up at cleaning. But teaching them to clean their space can foster a sense of responsibility and control, and provide them with valuable life skills.
Simple strategies, such as offering small incentives or praise, can help motivate children to complete tasks like cleaning.
Refusal to clean isn’t necessarily a sign of an underlying condition — everyone has off days, after all. But if you notice consistent behavior and mood changes in your child, it may be a good idea to get advice from a mental health professional.
If you’re not sure how to get started looking for a child therapist, consider looking through the following resources:
- Choosing the Right Therapist for Your Child
- Bellyache or Depression? How to Recognize Mental Health Conditions in Adolescents
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- Mental Health America – Youth Mental Health
National Institute of Mental Health
You can also visit Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource.