One chore that nearly all children detest is cleaning. I don't know how many times I've heard parents comment that their child will not clean without a fight or the threat of being grounded or otherwise punished. Maintaining a clean home, however, is a lifestyle that serves to benefit people throughout their lives. In addition to making a space hygienic (which is obviously important during a pandemic, but also decreases allergens that can aggravate asthma or other health conditions), a clean environment has many other benefits, including being attractive to others (ever gone into someone's messy home and wanted to leave right away?), reducing anxiety (by reducing negatively stimulating sights and smells in an environment), and increasing productivity (by limiting distractions in an environment).
So, how do we win the "battle" of getting our children to clean? And what cleaning tasks should they do?
As with any task that children are resistant to, I find it beneficial to explicitly explain the benefits, both extrinsic and intrinsic, of such a task. In the case of cleaning, you can choose your explanation based on your child's age and interests. No matter how you explain it, emphasize that cleanliness will benefit your child personally. Your child is much more likely to "buy in" to an idea if there is a purpose behind it rather than the standard back and forth of "clean your room"--"why"--"because I said so."
Extrinsic motivation is when children are motivated to perform a task because it benefits them by providing a desirable outcome that is outside of themselves. Perhaps your child is a toddler who is learning how to care for plants. You can teach your child to gently clean the tops of the leaves of a plant and explain that it will help it grow because it will receive more sunlight. Because your child may be fond of the plant, they will be extrinsically motivated to do whatever they can to help it thrive, thus providing them joy. Perhaps your child is in middle or high school and beginning to have an interest in "romantic" relationships. You can teach your child that having a clean space is attractive to potential "love interests." Because your child may be interested in the possibility of securing a significant other, they will be extrinsically motivated to do what they can to make themselves more attractive to others.
Intrinsic motivation is when children are motivated to perform a task because it is satisfying or has other benefits that do not garner an external reward. One strategy for intrinsic buy-in is to help your child rewire their brain to understand the personal benefits of cleaning. Instead of proposing the topic as "if you clean, you will get _________" or "you have to clean," propose it as "you deserve to live in a clean space." This approach is doubly-beneficial because it also improves your child's self-worth. Another intrinsic strategy is to highlight that cleaning is it's own reward. Simply put, having a clean space is just pleasant. For example, point out that items are organized and accessible, surfaces are pleasing to look at and more useful than if they're cluttered, and sheets feel better to crawl into when they're freshly laundered.
Another challenge with children can be establishing cleaning as a lifestyle. Research suggests that it takes 90 days of completing a task before a lifestyle is formed. In terms of cleaning, this can be daunting to children. I suggest, however, creating a program called "90-in-90." To enact this strategy, sit down with your child and create a list of 90 small, simple cleaning tasks and explain that they will complete one task per day for 90 days. No cleaning task on the list should take more than 5-10 minutes. If you choose a larger cleaning task like mopping, break it up so that they only mop one room a day. By creating cleaning tasks that are limited in time, your child will quickly learn that cleaning doesn't have to take forever and it makes it feel manageable. It also begins to instill the idea that if you do a little bit of cleaning each day, you hardly ever have to spend hours and hours at a time cleaning your entire environment. It is beneficial for time management instruction, as well. You may choose to repeat certain tasks on a weekly or monthly basis to keep one particular area particularly clean.
Perhaps the most useful strategy is to make cleaning fun. I'll admit that even in adulthood, sometimes I know I need to go to town on my floors but I Just. Don't. Want. To. Do. It. When this happens, I still hold myself accountable to my cleaning and remind myself "I deserve to live in a clean space. This is beneficial to my health. If I have guests over, they will be impressed." Then, I put on my cleaning playlist and start to boogie while I sweep and mop.
Creating a cleaning playlist with your child is an excellent way to make cleaning fun. Sit down with your child and help them choose their favorite songs and compile them into a playlist to be listened to during cleaning time. I prefer songs with lyrics I know so I can belt them out while I get down with my task. I end up enjoying bopping around my house, cleaning one thing after another, and in no time my house is sparkling, I've gotten in a dance workout, and I've had a blast doing it. Additionally, years down the line, that cleaning playlist may hold some nostalgic value for your child. My mom used to listen to Fine Young Cannibals and called it her cooking music when I was a child, and I still think about her chopping and dancing in the kitchen whenever I hear She Drives Me Crazy.
Another strategy to try is a scheduled weekly deep-cleaning. If you prefer not to do your cleaning piecemeal using a 90-in-90 program, schedule one to two hours of cleaning time on the same day each week. The expectation that this is cleaning time eventually becomes standard in your child, which will help them throughout their lives in terms of maintaining a clean home. If choosing this method, have your child focus on one or two rooms in the house to clean intensively. Use the playlist your created to add an element of fun. One strategy I used in the classroom during deep cleaning time was to add a few drops of essential oil to cleaning towels to provide a multi-sensory experience for my students.
By highlighting the benefits of cleaning, creating a routine and lifestyle with it, and by making it fun, you are helping your child develop a life skill that will enhance their existence their entire lives. Be patient, work with your child, increase their responsibility slowly, and in no time you will look back and laugh about the days when cleaning created conflict.