Getting Housework Done with Small Kids

It’s an amusing thought, but one I’ve asked myself in all honesty on those long winter afternoons. The breakfast dishes are in the sink – ok, we’re being honest here – they are piled on top of last night’s pots and pans that didn’t make it into the dishwasher. Hansel & Gretel could follow the poptart crumbs all the way to the pile of clean laundry thrown on the floor to make room for the next wet load before they begin to mildew… not exactly the Martha Stewart image I’d like my friends and family to see.

But this is actually how many households are at one point or another. In my early mom-hood, I believed that I was supermom and needed to be able to get everything done every day. I believed that all my friends had it together because their homes were tidy and clean when we came to visit. I believed I was failing miserably because I couldn’t figure out how to vacuume AND read books to my son at the same time. How did people do it?!

Then I met Karen who opened the door to household reality for me. Karen is an amazing mom of two very spirited children. Jillian is 4 and Eric is rounding 2nd. When Karen first joined our playgroup, she would only host visits at the local playground or in the nearby McDonalds playarea. It wasn’t until we’d know each other for quite a while before she shared why… “our house is so small and by the time I’d have it cleaned and ready for everyone to come, the kids would have destroyed it all before the first guest arrived. They are twice as fast at messing up than I am at cleaning up!” She felt inadequate, but when I told her I had the same problem, and that I often felt guilty for letting Ben watch TV while I cleaned and arranged toys for playgroup those mornings I hosted, she was elated. Yes, elated. See, I thought it was just me who was failing in the household department and she thought she was the only one. In one instance we both realized we weren’t alone in the trenches of toy-clutter warfare. Karen finally started having friends play at her own home and it worked out just fine every time.

Tamie goes to school at night and raises her 6 year old daughter Samantha and 3 year old Ben, who we call “crazy Ben” during the day. This duality of responsibilities makes it hard for Tamie to find time for everything, but she’s quite vocal about her position on the matter: “If I’m cleaning the house, I’m not paying attention to my kids… I can’t do both every minute”. That one statement, made in passing, set me free. She was right, I can’t do both every minute.

Ok, that all being said, don’t put away your mops just yet. Anti-bacterial soap is your friend and a clean home is necessary to raising healthy children – even if we’ve adjusted our standards of “spotless” to include a spray of matchbox cars across the living room floor and a half dozen barbies floating in the sink enjoying their “spa-day”!

So then I started asking other parents what their tactics were on getting things done and here’s the best of what I’ve heard:

Nancy gives Alex his own little squirt bottle of water and a rag when she cleans the kitchen and bathrooms. He goes with her and does his own “cleaning”. The water won’t damage items hit in the overspray and Nancy can get a few minutes of scrubbing done herself. Alex thinks he is helping, Nancy gets something done and they both are spending time together.

Lisa and Jacob have a love-hate relationship with the broom. Jacob loves to help sweep but Lisa hates the fact that he often spreads out more dirt than she can pile together. Their solution? They play legos first so Jacob gets that “face time” with his mom. Then, while Lisa attacks the rest of the kitchen floor, Jacob uses his own broom & dustpan to sweep up the legos in his area. If he finishes fast enough, he can hold the big dustpan for Lisa. Jacob is entertained and distracted from the dirt-spreading activities that attracted him before when he was bored.

Peggy and 3 year old Sam do one minute clean-ups in each room every day. A few in the morning, a few in the afternoon and a few in the evening so Sam doesn’t tire. First they huddle up for their “pep-talk” to boost energy and then BREAK! they’re off! In a one-minute clean-up, they each do as much straightning or cleaning they can in 60 seconds. They practice counting by saying out loud 1,2,3 etc. together until they get to 60. Sam learns to pick up after himself, that there are 60 seconds in a minute and how to count, and Peggy gets a little head-start on the day’s clutter. 60 seconds doesn’t sound like a lot, but we started doing it in my house and I can unload the dishwasher in under a minute now!

Lara puts 2 1/2 year old Leslie in the bathtub for a big bubble bath. After washing her hair, Leslie can play for a while and Lara waits in the bathroom making sure she is safe. What does Lara do during this time? She scrubs the shower and sinks and sometimes mops the floor. With all the supplies in hand, she can do it all while still within inches of her daughter. She never uses harsh chemicals in this process since Leslie is so close. When bathtime is over, the tub gets drained, Leslie gets all jammied-up and just before she leaves the bathroom, Lara puts away her supplies or sprays the mildew/bleach leave-on cleaners where necessary and shuts the door. Lara gets to spend time laughing & singing with Leslie AND gets something done at the same time!

In our house, we play “throw the laundry”. We started this when Ben was just 1 year old and he still loves it (although it has gotten to be a rougher, more active game now!). I bring together the load of clean clothes (ok, again, honesty – it’s usually 2 or 3 loads of clean clothes) that need to be folded and put away. We dump them onto the carpet in a big pile. When Ben was little, I’d lightly toss a hand-towel or t-shirt over his head and he’d laugh and pull it off while I folded 2 or 3 pieces quickly. As he got older, he’d toss back but I could still get in 2 pieces folded to every 1 piece tossed. Now that he’s 4, he leaps into the pile like it is a blistry fall day and he’s going leaf jumping. I simply fold anything along the edges and he leaps until the pile is smaller, smaller, gone!

Chore charts. These are fun, simple ways to get your children involved in being responsible for their own things. Even at 2 or 3, children can take pride in doing a few things themselves, getting a sticker or whatever reward works, and learning to be a productive family member.

Is your child able to :

Put their dirty clothes into an easily reached basket or hamper even if you’re the one undressing them?

Take their dishes to the counter after they eat (especially if they use the plastic child plates/cups)

Put their shoes into a specified location (we have a “shoe-basket” in our entryway closet which makes finding both shoes a breeze when heading out the door)

Put their toys away into a toy basket or other appropriate place

Make their own bed (even if it is just pulling up the covers)

Put away their laundry (lower drawers and a child size bar in the closet makes this easy!)
Finding your system is important. Does your lifestyle allow chunks of time that are large but few and far between to devote to taking care of business around the house? Is your schedule more suited to only giving it a little bit of attention at a time? I suggest you first decide on what amount of time you can realistically commit to doing these activities. Then decide which activites are most important to you and your family – is it always having a spotless kitchen or does someone need neatly ironed clothes each day? Here are some examples of different systems in action:

Jennifer finds it best if she utilizes one morning per week to clean the entire house top to bottom including the laundry. On Saturday mornings her husband takes the kids to breakfast, then out to the park or mall to play and then they come back to a clean house after lunch. Jennifer gets it all done at once and worries less about things during the week.

Maggie is the opposite, each night she cleans one room in her house completely. Monday it might be vaccuming, straightning and dusting the living room. Tuesday she hits the kitchen, Wednesday is the bedrooms and changing the sheets. She only has to spend about an hour a day, and each room gets cleaned once a week.

Kara tackles one chore each day based on the activity. Thursdays she vaccumes the whole house, Fridays she mops all the tile floors, Saturday you’ll find her dusting the furniture. The little-bit-at-a-time approach works best for the time she has to give it.

Lauren and Karie have a trade-off system on Tuesday mornings. They alternate watching each other’s kids for 3 hours while the other gets things done around the house. Often this time flies by, but they get a head start on what needs to be done and the kids get to play with friends and have a good time!

The main point to all of this is to realize the world will not end if the kids toy kitchen is cleaner than yours. Social services will not take your children if it takes an extra few days to clean the toilets. What is important is having a home you are comfortable in and spending time with your children in a way that makes them feel special and loved. You can’t do it alone, and I advise asking for help from other family members, from your children or friends whenever you need it, because everyone is fighting the same battle!

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