Hello again in this week’s article about good parenting skills we are going to tackle the unthinkable: Teaching children responsibility through tidying up.

After 10 years working as a life coach for kids and parent coaching expert, and 14 years since my first daughter was born, I have noticed something obvious. There are a handful of crunch points in our daily routine with our children that trigger us. Simple things that we do every day and yet, we manage to get them wrong pretty much every time. Ok, maybe not every time. However, getting it right is the exception rather than the norm.

I am talking about morning school run, eating habits, homework, bedtime and the topic for this article: tidying up.

I am aware the standards change from home to home. However, in my peculiar case, it happens that my wife is tremendously tidy. She is a Tetris master of the universe in placing things in the kitchen cupboard. Her drawers seem to be organized with a ruler, and her jumper folding skills could pass an SAS Sargent inspection with flying colours.

helping kids tidy up

I am not so organized, but I do like a clean room, bath towels hanging up rather than on the floor, and shoes, if not in the shoe cupboard, at least paired up nicely rather than all in pile at the entrance of the house (I just hope my mum is not reading this because she will be laughing out loud as this has been a late development for me).

While the children are young, understandably, we do most the tidying up for them. However, as they start becoming more independent and have a lot more stuff, things start getting out of control. This is exacerbated if you have several kids. In my case, I have two daughters, and I have all the respect for those that have more. Even with two daughters and the advantage of being a life coach for kids, I sometimes think I need to attend parenting classes too. Hats off to you guys, you deserve a statue in Trafalgar Square.

Teaching children responsibility prevents arguments and strengthens family bonds.  

For the last 14 years, I have been acutely aware of the home routines around tidying up. You may also find this article on tidying up interesting. I also grow very discontent with the arguments that this can trigger (“how many times I told you …..”), the last-minute rush (“have you seen my trainers, I left them here, and I can’t find them” “where is my maths book. I left it on my desk”) or those calls from school in the middle of the morning, most likely when you are in a meeting or about to get on the bus/underground/car, saying how they forgot their sports kit or homework and if I can bring them to school. I won’t stop emphasizing that coaching kids is a tough job. Also, being a life coach for kids expert doesn’t make it easier for me.

teaching kids responcibility

As you can tell, the whole point of this article is much broader than tidying up. It is about teaching children responsibility, to own their actions and be conscious that failing to do them has some consequences. Let’s assume we are having parenting classes. I will be using tidying up to illustrate all those points.

In my many conversations with parents during parent coaching sessions we often talk about their routines. When casually talking about their home routine, I notice a pattern. The parents take on all those responsibilities from early on and through the years, take on more and more stuff, while the children take on less and less. Most parents think “the little ones already have homework and school to deal with” or “it is faster if I do it” or “they don’t know how to do it”. There are a million more reasons I get in parenting classes which all end in parents doing everything. Consequently, the little ones binge on their favourite tv program comfortably laying on the sofa and asking us not to make too much noise because they can’t hear.

However, as the kids get into more stuff (football on Tuesdays, chess or Wednesday, play day on Thursday, karate on Fridays and swimming on Saturdays) this becomes unbearable for the parents. If you multiply these tasks by the number of kids you have, I can tell you it is going to burn you very quickly. You will explode. It is not a question or “if” but “when”.

Start teaching children responsibility early.

The main problem with coaching kids is that we often begin late. By the time we want to change it, it is now way out of control, or mum/dad can’t do it anymore, it is almost too late. We have taken on responsibilities for so long that the concept of owning those back is totally alien to the children.

During these series of articles, I will be writing about responsibilities, how to help them become independent, good home routines, etc. There are loads of great information out there. I particularly like searching online for “age relevant tasks for children”. I admit some of them seem a bit ambitious, but overall there is a lot of great advice which I always share on this blog or during parent coaching sessions.

teaching kids responcibility

You can also read the “good homework routine” “or the school run” article to get further ideas from my site.

Since the title of this article is about teaching children responsibility through tidying up. Let’s get into it

Firstly, as a life coach for kids, I want to mention that what you are about to read is not my invention. In fact, I struggled with the issue of tidying up for years. However, with time, there was learning in every place and in every person.

In a casual parent coaching conversation with my friend Beatriz Marquez, the topic came up. I almost dropped my coffee when she said, “I sorted it out ages ago, but not only that, my 21 years step-son just moved with us, and he has got it sorted in three weeks. His room is immaculate”.

The kids coaching strategy she developed was so simple and powerful that I almost felt silly to not have thought of it.

Before you continue reading, here is the disclaimer: this technique of coaching kids is not for those light-hearted parents. This technique is simple, yet requires you to take necessary action and stick to it. You won’t get the guts for this technique from parenting classes. The approach is a one-hit home run. Do it well the first time and reap the benefits for life. Do it halfway, and you’ll blow it. It will not work, and you will struggle to implement it later.

I have to admit that we toyed with the idea for a few weeks. We saw the value and potential of it but were not brave enough to do it. Yet, when we did it, it transformed the routine.

Ok, enough rambling.

Here goes the strategy: “whatever is on the floor is rubbish.”

This is your mantra, your truth, your Ten Commandments all in one.

And here is the in-depth explanation.

When is it appropriate to start coaching kids do this? I think at a very young age. Your child as young as three can help out in tidying up. Therefore, our role as parents is to help them learn (honey, can you put your toy in the box?”). This will also give them a sense of realization and will feel connected to you as you are doing something together and, most likely, he/she will get nice praise from you. In this case, I suggest establishing the rule around the 8 or 9 years mark but, as my friend Beatriz did, you can start at any age.

What do you need to do to teach children responsibility?

First, have a grown-up conversation with them. As a professional life coach for kids, I don’t fail to mention to parents in parenting classes that communication is everything. Choose a time in which everyone is calm for the conversation to happen. Ensure all the kids are there. Simply tell them briefly (please don’t talk too much, they will switch off) that keeping their things and rooms tidy is their responsibility. The overall cleanliness of the house is your responsibility. Here is my speech:

“As you know, we tend to get into silly arguments because things are on the floor or your room is a mess or your cupboards are impossible to open. You are old enough now to look after your own things. Also, I am confused and tired. I don’t have time to tidy up everybody’s stuff. So, from now on, there is a simple rule that applies to everybody: if I see one thing on the floor, I will assume it is rubbish, and I will throw it away. This applies especially to your room, but also to the things around the house”

They will probably be amused and confused about this approach. You might want to do a walk around the house and point at all the things that are out of place and can go to the rubbish bin.

This part is setting up the agreement. It is not a discussion, it is not flexible, it’s what it is and what it will be from now on. Take time to explain it, but ensure there is no concession. Open their cupboards and, if things are piled up, explain that you will put them on the floor and if they are not hung or folded when you return, you’ll assume it is rubbish. Therefore, it can be thrown away.

A critical part of this kids coaching approach is to ensure you separate responsibilities. It is their responsibility to tidy up. Not yours. If they leave something on the floor, they are making a choice, therefore, own the responsibility of that choice. You’ll understand in a couple of paragraphs why this is so important.

What can you expect from them? In all honesty, very little. They will be amused, but most likely they won’t believe you.

Now that the rule has been established, we go into action. In our case, we reminded them a few days of the rule with some but very little success. Eventually, we said: from tomorrow morning the rule start. If you are struggling with taking decisions, I do parent coaching too. So, yeah, you are welcome to join my parenting classes.

The next day, we did the morning routine as usual. We didn’t make any comment about the tidying up, and they didn’t mention it.

When we were home alone, we went to their room and took everything that was on the floor. All went to a black bag which we left by the door.

According to my friend Beatriz, not throwing it away was a mistake. I agree with her, but I guess she is more strong-willed than me. However, we did manage to correct it.

When the girls came from school, they ignored the bag (to be fair, they didn’t know what was in there). Only when they went to bed and missed their toy, did the conversation start:

Daughter N2: “Mum/dad, I can’t find Robin. Have you seen it?”

Daughter N1: “I can’t find Thomas either. I am sure I left it here this morning.”

Me (with my heart pumping): hmmmm don’t know. Was it on the floor?

Daughters gave me a mixed look of confusion, panic, and begging. “No, I don’t think it was on the floor.”

Me: well, if it wasn’t on the floor, it will be there. If it was on the floor, I assume it is rubbish.

Daughters: No!!! You haven’t thrown it away!! (Now the confusion and begging part left their looks, and I could tell it was more panic).

Important note: the next line is probably the most critical part of it all. I copied literally from my friend, and I can swear by it.

Me (calm and casual): no, I didn’t throw it away. You did throw it away as you chose to leave it on the floor. It is your responsibility, not mine. You know the rule, you made your choice.

At this point, I pointed I hadn’t had time to go to the dump, but that tomorrow I would take the black bag there to throw away.

Well, I have never seen them go downstairs so fast and agile. They suddenly became Olympic athletes jumping steps down.

They opened the bag, saw their “precious” possessions that had been ignored the whole afternoon and evening, and pulled most of them out, took them to their room and left them in a nice tidy way. Took their stuffed toys and, calming themselves down, went to bed.

We had a bit of a chat, and I reminded them about the rule.

The next day, during the morning routine, I did remind them of the rule, and the room was perfect. This continued, in a good pattern for a few days. However, as my friend Beatriz predicted, the standard slowly decreased.

One day, we repeated the exercise. I have to be honest and mention that I moved the stuffed toy to the top of their desk. Everything else was in a black bin bag, and I dumped it in the rubbish bin.

A small explanation: in Spain, the rubbish is thrown into skippers that are collected every day. Where we live in London, we have Wheelie bins that are collected every week.

A few days later, on Saturday, my daughter N2 was looking for her favourite jacket. She only needed a second after asking her mum (“mum, have you seen my leather jacket”) to go into a panic. However, the clever rat ran to the wheelie bin and found it. In any case, the effect was almost as good as expected.

Since then, their room tidiness has improved massively. I am not going to lie, it is not to the standards of my wife, but hers is a tough standard to have. However, they are more responsible and organized.

During this kids coaching technique, I am sure we will have a few runs to the bins every now and then and, eventually, they will lose something precious. Remember, it is their responsibility, not yours as a parent.

My youngest daughter has just read the article and made a valid point. They were seriously annoyed at us. Of course, they would be, but it passed, and they learned. As they take responsibility for their actions, so do we.

And that’s it. Simple, isn’t it?

As a life coach for kids, I will advise, if you have kids of very different ages, you will need to adapt it slightly making small concessions for the very young. However, if the kids are all over 6, I suggest the approach applies to everybody.

As I mentioned above, the core of this article is a lot bigger than tidying up. It is about coaching kids to learn responsibility, being independent and being considerate of their own things and the request of their parents. Failing that? You may want to look at our article on unruly teens

I hope you enjoyed it.