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Ask UfYH: Habit Building for Kids, UfYH-Style

Q: Any ideas on how to help teach children good UfYH habits when you never learned them yourself? My 7-year-old has picked up all my bad habits and is impervious to the good ones I’m trying to teach myself and her.

A: Full disclosure: I don’t have kids. I have dogs, and although I truly believe that most techniques that are effective for dog training would also be effective for kid training (seriously, get a clicker and try it out), my interactions with tiny humans tend to be brief and more fun than functional. That said, I’ve done a lot of talking with many of the members of Team UfYH who came out of childhood either without the skills necessary to keep their homes clean, or who had such traumatic experiences with their parents and cleaning that they have to first disconnect the act of cleaning from feelings of abuse or neglect, and then build up a healthy relationship with cleaning again. You’re in the really good position of knowing that you and your daughter both have bad habits that need to be undone, and you want to help her start early so she doesn’t find herself in the same position you’re in.

In childhood, it’s much easier for kids to learn new skills and develop new habits than it is for adults. And the behaviors that you model are going to serve as the foundation for those skills and habits. So, just as she’s picked up your bad habits, she can eventually pick up your good ones, too. The key is consistency. Make it a part of her (and your) your daily routine to spend five or ten minutes every single day picking up toys, putting clothes away, or other small chores that involve her belongings. Instill in her the habit of putting things away after you use them. Enlist her help in putting away dishes, vacuuming (for some reason, lots of kids seem to LOVE vacuuming), and helping to clear off cluttered surfaces.

A few things:

  • Be patient. You, as an adult, are still learning these skills, so a kid who’s not used to doing things that way might not get it right away, and will almost definitely push back. Be firm, but kind. The worst thing you can do is to have her start associating cleaning with “angry parent.” That only leads to bad things down the road.
  • Make it fun. You know what you kid likes, so use little rewards or incentives when she gets it right. I will say that most of the people I talk to who have bad childhood associations with cleaning generally cite being punished for doing things wrong, so this is one of those times where effort should be celebrated just as much as results. Listen to fun music, or make cleaning time the time she gets to wear something special. (If I got to wear a tutu while I was cleaning, I’d be way more excited about it. Then and now. I’m just sayin’.)
  • Be consistent. After dinner, everyone brings their dishes to the sink. After playing, toys get put back before you move on to the next thing. After laundry is done, it gets put away right away. It’s so much harder to build habits if you aren’t being consistent about this.
  • Accept that it’s going to take a while, and there’s going to be pushback. Figure out how you can keep coming at it from a positive perspective, and give yourself and the kiddo a little room to screw up without it being a catastrophe.

You can do this. I know you can, because you want to. It’s just going to take a little time.

Q: How often, if ever, do you recommend clearing out drawers/cupboards (in any room, but I was thinking kitchen especially) to clean and organize them? I realized we’d never cleaned inside our utensil drawer since we switched organizer-things in there, and I’m wondering if that’s a quarterly or annual task we should put on our schedule? If I’m doing it once a year, should we go more intensive than a Lysol wipe? What about shelves that usually store food?

A: For most cupboards, I’d say two or three times a year is plenty. Kitchen cupboards, especially, are constantly in use, with things being taken out and put back, and over time, the level of organization just kind of naturally breaks down. It’s worth it to pull everything out, wipe it down (and Lysol wipes are fine, just make sure it’s not damaging the material, and let it dry before putting things back), sort, toss what needs to be tossed, and put things back in nice and orderly. For shelves that hold food, a diluted white vinegar solution is safe and effective, just make sure it dries all the way. You might consider shelf liners that can be replaced if needed to make the task a little easier.

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4 replies on “Ask UfYH: Habit Building for Kids, UfYH-Style”

Music always works. My mum always went by the rules “If you want it washed, put it where I will find it to be washed”, “If you want a clean room, make sure I can clean up” and “If you want a fresh bed, make sure I can put freshly washed stuff on it”.

There were times when I slept in a little dusty (teenager’s) hole, but it was a short time.

Awesome read!

I’m very aware that Juniper Junior is at an age where habits and skills really deserve some focus. One thing I’ve found very important is how things are phrased: “can you please come over and help me sort the laundry” rather than “stop what you’re doing and help with the chores”. Framing those “chores” as helping out and being needed has worked for us – I think what we’ve been aiming for is to make household tasks part of daily life rather than a forced annoyance.

Effort > Results. Learning that the dishes go in the dishwasher is more important than learning exactly how they go in. So they don’t all get clean the first time around, you run the dirty ones again. Learning the process is the focus, not achieving perfection. Much easier when you’re a person who isn’t really focused on “cleanliness being next to godliness.”

Absolutely. I think the reason so many people came out of childhood hating cleaning is because they never did things “good enough.” We need to give ourselves (and our kids) a little bit of a break and understand that putting the effort in is the hard part. The results can be fine-tuned later.

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