There are several reasons to teach kids how to clean. But that's a whole other blog post. For this one, I want to share some of the cleaning skills kids can learn as early as three and four years old. The earlier they learn them the better. That way, when they get older it's second nature to clean up after themselves. (I hope!) So far it's worked. My kids still leave messes but they don't leave these messes around anymore.
1. Milk Contains Sugars and Sugars are Sticky.
When my kids would spill their cereal at breakfast or milk at lunch I’d dutifully clean it up. However, one day as I was on my hands and knees mopping the floor I looked up at my 5-year-old and thought, “Why am I doing this?” I handed him the wet rag and told him to get to work. From then on, he was responsible for cleaning up his own spills. A couple days later I went into the kitchen to find white smears all over my dark wood floor.
Me: Gasp! What happened?
Boy: I spilled but I cleaned it up. (With a proud look on his face. Honestly, one of the trickiest parts of being a mom is correcting a child without destroying that confidence.)
Me: Did you know milk has sugar in it?
Boy: No. (His pride is slipping. My insides are sinking.)
Me: Sugar is sticky and has to be cleaned with a wet rag and then wiped again with a dried one.
Boy: I didn’t know that. (Curiosity replaces pride.)
Me: Let’s try it together this time and then you can do it on your own next time.
Boy: Okay. (With a smile on his face. He can handle this. Whew!)
2. Sweep Toward You
Have you ever watched a kid try to sweep on their own for the first time? It can be comical if you’re in the mood for comedy and it can be a tragedy if you were really hoping to walk into a clean kitchen. They spread things around more than they gather them in. Ugh! So I had to teach my kids to pull the dirt and crumbs toward them with a broom to make a pile that can then be swept into the dust pan. It helped to show them the angle of the broom bristles and explain how they work.
Me: See? If you press the broom down that side pokes out farther and can get into the corners.
Child: But no one sees in the corners.
Me: I see in the corners.
Child: Whoa! You have eyes that can see around corners?
Me: If you only knew...
Child: That kind of explains a lot.
3. Putting Things Where They Go
When my kids hit about 2 ½ I started them on emptying the silverware out of the dishwasher. I figured it was good sorting practice and since I’d removed all the sharp knives before I let them work it was safe too. When they get a little bigger I start having them empty the whole dishwasher. Usually by 5 they can put almost everything away. If they can’t reach the shelf for the plates then I have them stack them on the counter under the cabinet where the plates go and I put them up as I walk by. Unfortunately, there are some things that don’t get washed in every load and kids have a hard time figuring out where these go. Instead of asking, they shove them in the nearest cupboard or pile them in the pantry. Dinner would take twice as long to prepare while I hunted down my frying pan. So we had lessons on where things go.
Me: Honey, you need to put all the casserole dishes on this shelf.
Kid: But it slides off.
Me: So you have to pull out the small ones and put the big one under them. See? It works.
Kid: Do I have to do that every time?
Me: Yes, every time.
Kid: What happens if I don’t?
Me: You’ll grow hair on your chest like dad.
Kid: So that’s how it happened.
4. Scrape Your Plate
By the third time I had to reach my hand into disgusting sludge and pull out pieces of olives, onions and who knows what else to get our dishwasher to drain properly I knew something was up. Why did it keep clogging? Did we buy a piece of junk? It wasn’t that old and yet I had the same problem three days in a row. The reason became clear as I watched the kids take their plates from the table to the dishwasher and drop them in – pizza crusts and all.
Me: (Jumping to my feet.) Whoa, whoa, whoa. You can’t leave all that food on there. You have to scrape your plate.
Me: Like this. (I scrape my own plate over the garbage using my fork to push the pieces off. Shoot, I wasn’t done.)
Kid: But it’s already in there.
Me: Well get it out.
Kid: (Gives me a “are you gonna make me” look.)
Me: (Deep breath) Remember how I had to fix the dishwasher because it was a plugged up? (He nods but keeps his mouth shut so as not to be incriminated. Anything he says at this point can and will be used against him in a court of Mom.) It’s getting clogged by the pieces of food. Food will clog the dishwasher. If you scrape it off, then the dishwasher won’t get clogged anymore. (Did I use the word clogged to often there? Maybe I should have mentioned how clogs are bad things that rear up out of the drain and make Mommy scream and sometimes gag and sometimes cry.)
Kid: Fine. (He reaches in for the offending crust, shrugs and takes a bite.)
Me: (Shudder) You probably shouldn’t eat that?
Kid: Why? The light said it was clean.
Me: (Stunned silence – I don’t even know where to go with that.)
5. Refrigerate It
After a long hard day of being mom, working, writing, planning an activity for our church’s women’s group all I wanted was a hot shower and to find my bed. “We’ll clean up the kitchen,” said the kids. Dare I dream? I was pretty sure they could handle the dishes and so I agreed. Hubby came home while I was in the shower and offered to tuck everyone in. After a quick prayer of gratitude for my wonderful family I slid between the sheets and hit the off button. The next morning I walked into my kitchen to see the table full of food. Sour smelling milk, limp lettuce, half a pan of lasagna and stale bread greeted my eyes and nose. However, all the dishes were sparkling clean in the dishwasher. (They’d even remembered to start it bless their little hearts.) As I gazed at my would-be lunch now full of all sorts of mean bacteria the kids clambered down for breakfast.
Them: What smells?
Me: Yeah – this stuff should have been put in the fridge last night. (As I held my nose while chunky milk made its way down the disposal.)
Them: Hey! That’s the only milk we have.
Me: You can’t drink it, you’ll get sick.
Them: (Contemplative silence. Breakfast isn’t looking so good right now.)
They didn’t feel too bad about losing the lasagna (it was kind of dry) or the salad (not their favorite side dish) but they did feel bad about the milk. Instead of rubbing it in and making them feel worse I showed them where the aluminum foil, plastic wrap and Tupperware were housed. They looked like the little green aliens from Toy Story who go, “OOOOOOOOOoooooohhh,” as I showed them how to pull off a sheet and cover a clean lasagna dish.
These are the five main lessons I’ve had to teach my kids on daily kitchen maintenance. They aren't perfect and there are some things I have to remind them to do. But for the most part, once they got these down, clean up ran a lot smoother than before and I wasn't doing all the work.