I’ll never forget the day an old friend told me she still cleans her 14-year-old daughter’s room, does her laundry, and even makes her lunches for school. She related this to me in the midst of a conversation lamenting that her daughter was a “spoiled, disrespectful brat” (her words) who takes her mother’s sacrifices for granted. She marveled that my school-aged children seemed more competent than her teenager.
I’ve noticed that many modern parents have the idea that their children will magically transform from helpless, dependent infants to self-sufficient adults at age 18 with no guidance from them. But realistically, our children need to be trained in self-discipline from the beginning and gradually given more and more responsibility for themselves and the household as they get older.
Our rule is: If they can toddle, they can contribute to keeping our home orderly. Even two-year-olds can pick up toys, hand you silverware out of the dishwasher, and carry their clothes to their drawers. By the time they’re adolescents, then, most kids should have mastered more complex, individual chores such as loading the dishwasher and cleaning a load of laundry from start to finish. Teens should know how to take care of pets and keep their rooms decent. (Not perfect, but decent–at least most of the time.) They should be intimately familiar with the family vacuum cleaner and mop.
But there’s one more transition period that many parents forget about and that’s moving from individual tasks to cleaning whole areas. Because as every mom knows, cleaning a home efficiently and well isn’t just about what and how you clean, but in what order you clean things, too. You don’t sweep floors and THEN wipe down counters, for instance. You don’t clean out the sink and THEN load the dishwasher. Keeping up on laundry requires at least a load a day, with prompt swapping out of the loads between washer and dryer. And there’s no point to even doing laundry if it’s just going to sit in the baskets all week to wrinkle (eventually ending up back in the dirty clothes bin because half the basket has been strewn on the floor as family members rifle through the basket for clean items…ask me how I know this).
Our three oldest kids are 11, 12, and 14–prime ages to start being responsible not just for a handful of tasks, but for a whole zone of the house. I broke our home down into four main zones: 1) Living room and dining room, 2) Kitchen, 3) Laundry room/pets, and 4) Bathrooms/hallways/stairs. For one whole week, each child is responsible for one zone and then they switch. (I take the remaining zone.) The first day they were responsible for the zone, I sat down with them and had them read the detailed cleaning list I’d prepared for each area (click on the link to see our list):
I explained why the order is important and how following the order would help them do a better job and get the job done faster. In addition to their daily tasks, they have one additional task that’s to be done each day, such as vacuuming the stairs or buffing the stainless steel fridge. This ensures that certain tasks get done at least once a week. It takes about 45 minutes each day to complete their zone cleaning.
The advantages of switching to zone cleaning for the kids was apparent right away. With three kids each doing a handful of different chores each day, it was getting to be a nightmare for me to keep up with whether their chores were completed. (No doubt they took advantage of that to get out of a chore here and there, too.) And half the time, I couldn’t remember WHO was responsible and didn’t feel like wrangling with them, so it didn’t get done. Now, it just takes a cursory view to know whether someone has done their zone for the day.
The kids also have become very territorial about their assigned areas. I no longer have to yell at anyone to pick their clothes up off the bathroom floor after their shower because the child in charge of the bathrooms that week will do it for me. My children also take obvious pride in being able to point to an entire room that they’ve cleaned, too; there’s an ownership that simply wasn’t there when they were just responsible for the dishwasher or taking out the trash.
Overall, the house stays tidier. And there’s less bickering over chores; I’m no longer dealing with complaints that “I had to empty the dishwasher twice yesterday after the party!” or “It’s not my day to take out the trash!” The expectations are crystal clear now.
Of course, it’s not a perfect system. They are still kids and that means they do their best to slack; I have to prompt and follow up each day to ensure they’re getting their work done. They still forget what it was like to have a sibling trash their zone after it was just cleaned and throw their crap everywhere from time to time. The process of teaching them to clean up after themselves (ostensibly to be considerate of the person responsible for that room)…well, that’s still a work in progress.
But aren’t we all?