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How to CLEAN HOUSE with 5 kids

I go through phases in regards to house cleaning, where I can't function without a housekeeper and our bathrooms are covered in toothpaste and our floors with dirt clots, dragged in from muddy boots, and there is a layer of crumbs on every surface. Other times, having a housekeeper is more of an inconvenience-- making sure to have the house tidy on a certain day at a certain time, keeping the children out of her way, and possibly getting out of the house while she's here. Plus the expense. Currently, we are in the latter category. So, for the time being, we are back to cleaning our house, 5 kids and all.

So how do you clean with 5 kids? Well, our youngest is an infant, so I don't have much to worry about with her, save for feedings and naps interfering. I tend to do loud cleaning, like vacuuming, right after she wakes up from nap. That way she's happy and content to bounce in her Excersaucer. For the in depth cleaning, like the bathrooms, I try to do that when she's entertained, either napping or happily playing.

Our other 4 children are a 2nd grader, twin kindergartners, and a toddler. For them we have a variety of jobs. As opposite as it seems, the 2nd grader is the hardest to involve in housecleaning. For starters, it is amazing how he can have boundless energy to play with friends but as soon as he picks up a broom, he has a stomachache or his arms don't work. It's surprising how many selective illnesses a 2nd grader can have while housecleaning, that quickly resolve themselves once chores are over. Sporadically non-functioning arms aside, 2nd graders can be exceedingly helpful when housecleaning:
  • Sweeping the floor
  • Cleaning the bathroom, including the toilets
  • Taking out the trash
  • Fully unloading the dishwasher, including putting away almost all of the dishes
  • Washing handwash only dishes (such as pots and pans, nothing valuable)h
  • Small organizational tasks (for instance, sorting through jumbled puzzles or board games, cleaning out his desk and throwing out the trash, sorting through his sock drawer, etc)
This age is old enough to execute a task. I have to train him in these tasks (sometimes more than once). But once I oversee him doing them a time or two, I can trust him to do the jobs and do them well (er, pretty good).

For our kindergartners, there are a ton of tasks that I have them do:
  • vacuum the stairs with our dust buster
  • unload the dishwasher (putting the dishes on the counter that they cannot put away)
  • reload the dishwasher
  • tidy the floor ("floor helpers"), this means picking up all the little toys and trash that otherwise I'd have to pick up to sweep or vacuum
  • clean the bathroom: shower/bathtub, counters, sinks, cabinets, sweep the floor
  • fold laundry
  • put away laundry
  • clean the kitchen: counters, cabinets, kitchen table, chairs, etc.
  • load/unload the van when we get home or are leaving
  • helping with the baby: diaper changing, putting on pajamas, fetching things from her room for me
  • dusting
  • putting toys away: cleaning the loft/playroom, cleaning their room
  • helping others with their chores, especially the toddler
These are also tasks that I have the 2nd grader help with. However, my policy is that I have each age group do jobs first that the younger age groups cannot do. For instance, the 2nd grader starts with jobs the kindergartners cannot do and the kindergartners start with jobs that the toddler cannot do. That way, when each age group is finished with their work, there is a pool of jobs to choose from that any of them can do.

Training the kindergartners takes longer than the 2nd grader. Kind of. With them, they either are too energetic or reckless in their helpfulness (not listening to all of my directions, carelessly knocking things over, etc). While sometimes the kindergartners "don't want to," it is usually the 2nd grader who "doesn't want to." The kindergartners do throw fits and get moody, but they still will usually grudgingly obey when I say, "Okay, this is what we are doing." The 2nd grader, though... man, he can make sweeping the hallway take 45 minutes... just to let me know he doesn't want to do it. Anyways, training them takes some patience. For starters, we have twin kindergartners. When training them in a job together, they often get competitive. Kindergartners want to be "chosen." If I say to one, "I need you to vacuum the stairs." The other will start pouting, "What about me? He always gets to do the job..." (The ironic thing is that if I did chose the whining kindergartner, he would say, "Why do I have to?" The other ironic thing is that a whining sibling makes "the chosen" kindergartner suddenly cherish the job.) Training them separately usually works best. Not just our twins, but all of them. If I train all of them together, our oldest starts rubbing in... whatever. "I've been doing that job for years." or "You are doing it wrong!" A simple task suddenly turns into an all-out argument. The biggest problem with kindergartners is their desire to rush through the job, either to snag more desirable jobs faster than their sibling or to have the job over with so they can be done. With our 2nd grader, I have to emphasize that doing chores is just part of living in the house, something we all have to do. It may not be fun, but it is part of life. With our kindergartners, I have to emphasize responsibility and ownership, making sure to do the whole job well.

Part of teaching that message is handing over the responsibility and the ownership. It is so hard not to nit-pick. It is so hard not to hover and criticize. It is so hard not to let sulking children sour the mood. I mean, I don't want to be doing chores either. (After being up all night with a baby and changing stinky diapers all morning while dealing with pouting children. I mean, come on, kids. You want to play who has it worse? You don't win.) But... that doesn't motivate them to own it. Instead, I train them in their jobs. For our kindergartners, I try to clearly and succinctly make sure they understand the job at hand. "All right, bud. You get to vacuum the stairs today. Please vacuum all of the stairs just like this [demonstrates]. And remember to do it well and to take your time. Thank you." For our 2nd grader, I give him positive and constructive feedback on jobs he is working to master. "Hey, bud. I'd like you to sweep the floor, please. Would you please make sure to get under the table? Crumbs like to hide under the chairs and table legs." I make sure not to put blame on him (such as, "You never sweep under the table well") and I also try not to give him an out or make the job sound harder ("I know it's a lot of work to pull the chairs out, but you need to make sure to get under the table"). And then I hand over the whole job to them. It is hard to do as they pout or sulk through their work. It helps me not to watch, to leave the room and come back when they ask for help or when they finish.

Outside of attitudes and bickering, the hardest part of having young children help clean is how well jobs get done, or, rather, don't get done. Because no matter how well I train our children, they don't do it like I do. I try to be laid back. We have 5 children. I can't hold on to the reigns so tightly. But my heart doesn't know that. My heart loves a shiny floor and a couch that isn't covered in crumbs. So when the 2nd grader actually tries his hardest to sweep the floor and there are still little crumbs or a spot he totally missed, it takes a lot to say the right thing. When the kindergartner proudly shows me the hard work he's done cleaning the bathroom, it is up to me to say the right thing. What is the right thing? Of course I give feedback. If there is a spot to fix, I have him fix it. But if he did the job to the best of his abilities, the right thing is, "Thank you. Good job, bud." And that's it. Because mastering a job takes practice. And burning him out on a job won't make him better at it. And parenting is a long game. The long game here is teaching them life skills and to eventually fully hand over these household chores to them. Be mindful when assigning their chore lists. Their chores should actually help around the house and they need to complete their entire list. The children should learn that they need to finish each one of their jobs, not that they can get out of their list by pouting or taking too long.

Now, for the toddler question. We've had various numbers of toddlers/preschoolers in our house at any given time. As a family, we view chores as part of life. We make them fun. We turn on music and we bust them out as a family. It may not be the most fun, but it is something that needs to get done. Even if we have a housekeeper, there are still chores to be done and skills our children need to learn before entering adulthood. So, we start them young on chores. There are a lot of things toddlers can help with:
  • Unloading the dishwasher (with supervision), putting away the silverware
  • Dusting (a favorite job of mine to give toddlers)
  • Sweeping up the piles made by sweeping the floor
  • Tidying, picking up toys
  • Folding laundry
  • Putting away laundry
  • Cleaning bathtubs/showers
With a toddler, I try to keep it fun. I keep him involved, make him feel useful. I also try to keep the toddler out of the way of older siblings. Often our older boys feel "Why me?" when doing chores and throwing a toddler in the mix who is "messing up" their chores is the last straw for them. (I do make a point to remind them that when they were toddlers, we made accommodations for them.) While the toddler may not have jobs that he sees through from start to finish like our older 3 do, I do make sure that he has jobs that he could finish. Part of that is having jobs that he can clearly see he finished. Unlike cleaning a shower, unloading the dishwasher has a start and end point that he can clearly see-- no more dishes in the dishwasher. At 2 years old, he doesn't really grasp whether or not he has thoroughly wiped clean a bathtub. Even with cheerful involvement, there will reach a point when the toddler is done. Often, I just ignore him when that point happens. If he wants to sit in the bathtub and sing "Old McDonald," then why can't he sit in the bathtub and sing "Old McDonald?" He's not in my way and he's not in his brothers' way. When I finish in the bathroom, I have him "finish up," and then move him with me to the next room. The big lesson at this age is that we all have chores and that doing chores is a family activity. As he grows and as he masters things, his responsibility level will change.

With 5 children and involving those children in our chores, safe cleaners are essential. I need a cleaner that I don't need to worry about our kids drinking or getting on their hands or even spraying places they shouldn't (like dumping it on the carpet). To that end, I make most of our household cleaners. For recipes, check out my blog post "Homemade household cleaners." I rely a ton on vinegar. Personally, I don't mind the smell of vinegar. It's not a favorite with our children, but the smell dissipates quickly. I also use clean sponges that I spray with homemade cleaners. I use these instead of Clorox wipes. I store all of our unsafe cleaners in a plastic bin on a top shelf of our laundry room. That way our toddler cannot accidentally ingest them and our older children can't accidentally use them.

The last thing to remember when involving children with chores-- especially a lot of children-- is to make it a routine. We have an assigned chore day. On that day, each of the children do assigned chores that are age appropriate to their abilities, including skill level and attention span. There are some chores that I rotate who does each week, by desirability. I do not want to frustrate them by always assigning a job that they truly dislike doing. I also focus on mastery. I want them to learn how to do a job thoroughly. Having an assigned day with expected chores allows the children to feel more in control on chore day. With a set routine, they know cleaning the house will take 2 hours. They know there will be a start and there will be a finish. They know they won't have to do this chore again until the next chore day. It keeps chore day separate from other days. Now, that doesn't mean they don't have other jobs throughout the week. In our house, we call them tasks, such as putting dirty clothes in the hamper, being a laundry helper, keeping their spaces clean and tidying up after themselves. But chore day is different because that is when we do in depth cleaning, compared to the surface cleaning we do on the other days of the week.

Welp, those are my tips. Cleaning with children is a chore in itself. Some weeks go better than other weeks. I don't know what makes it so hard sometimes. Sometimes it just doesn't make sense. Everyone has napped. Everyone has full tummies. It wasn't a stressful day, but then chores start and suddenly everyone is whining and fighting and bickering. Those are the days that I dig deep. Turn on some soothing music, breathe in, breathe out, and love on the kids. Encourage them along. "I'm going to go upstairs and finish the upstairs bathrooms. I can't wait to see what progress you make while I'm up there." Be careful setting timers when housecleaning; you don't want them flying through a job to beat a timer. When they do a job exceptionally well, make sure to point it out. I can't say for sure (our oldest is only in 2nd grade), but I feel like that one day it will all be worth the effort. I picture one day our children knowing how to do laundry, cleaning the house for me before I come home from a trip, or cleaning the kitchen on their own after dinner. Even better, when they have homes and families of their own, being equipped to handle it all because they were taught these important life skills.

At least that's what I tell myself as I bounce a crying baby, the toddler chasing everyone down with vinegar water, while our older 3 get into a knock down drag out fight over who gets to vacuum the family room. Hey, a girl can dream.

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