Help Kids to Keep Their Messes Under Control: Routines

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As you may have noticed, children aren’t born picking up after themselves.

Many (most?) of them are naturally messy. They are sinners just like we are, so it makes sense that they would struggle against the selfish desires to let others do all the work. Seeing laziness in my children is like looking into a mirror.

And yet, things continually push from order to chaos, and as mothers, the prospect of singlehandedly keeping it all at bay is overwhelming (if even possible).

The more kids we have, or the more time our kids spend at home, the more this mess seems to spiral and compound.

We feel overwhelmed, agitated, and stressed. The constant mess becomes a barrier to enjoying our homes, accomplishing other goals, and even showing hospitality.

Although I’ve heard of tidy children, I didn’t get one. (Although admittedly, some of mine are messier than others!)

A few months ago, I took some time to observe my kids. I noticed that all three of them seemed to pay little attention to the things they were scattering about the house. They did not tend to clean up their messes without reminders, and even then, they might complain or do it slowly. They are ages 3, 5, and 7.

I wanted them to learn the joy of working hard for God’s glory and to experience the reward found in keeping order. I knew their natural propensity for laziness was something they must overcome in order to live God-honoring and fulfilling lives. What’s more, I was overwhelmed and needed their help!

So, I began considering what it would mean to make a change, and happily, I have found some strategies that work!

In Part 1 of this series, I shared about the role simplifying has played in helping my children keep their own messes under control. This is an important first step! Today we’re going to look at the benefit of routines. I will also share the specific (and simple) routines I’m using in my home with my young children.

How to implement routines to help kids keep their messes under control

I believe the key is clarity and consistency. In other words, we must outline very specific expectations and help children to follow them every day, at the same time of day.

Start with a rationale

We must cast vision for the “why” of our routines. It is important for our children to have a rationale for the new work they are expected to do. They can pull from this understanding to stay motivated and feel their jobs are important.

For example, you might explain that:

  • You are overwhelmed. You can’t keep up, and you need their help.
  • Your family is a team and you must work together to keep the home running smoothly.
  • “Many hands make light work” –when you work together the job will be easier, and maybe even fun too!

Post the routine

I’ve found that it is important for routines to be posted for complete clarity. (Picture clues help young children.) It is easy to forget a step. We need reminders. With a posted routine, nothing is left to memory, so “I forgot that part” is no longer a valid excuse.

I’ve also noticed my children feel a sense of accomplishment when they’ve worked their way through a posted list. In fact, I do to! It makes the routine feel concrete rather than abstract.

Teach the routine

Don’t leave any barrier to your child’s success with her new routines. Teach and model each step. Show her exactly how to wipe off the table after a meal. Show her how to rinse the rag and go back over it a second or third time. Show her how to carefully spread out and arrange the centerpiece, etc..

Whatever the routine you are trying to teach, walk you kids through it step-by-step, and be willing to coach and help them often as they assimilate to doing their job every day.

Provide lots of reminders, but also, hold kids accountable

Your routines will not be helpful if you have to harp on your children to do them every single day. That creates more stress for you, not less! It doesn’t help their character development much either.

Although grace is critical during the process of learning routines, and many reminders have been offered every day around our house, there have also been multiple situations over the past few months where discipline has been necessary.

Because we believe these routines are good for our children as well as for our home and family, we have chosen to hold our kids accountable to the jobs they have been given.

And you know what? That has worked. Our willingness to provide accountability is one of the primary reasons we have been successful in alleviating the burden of our kids’ mess around our home.

Our routines

After-meal routine

I recommend starting out with an after-meal routine. And then adding other routines slowly, as your children are ready.

This is a time of day when everyone is sitting down together, so parental guidance is very easy and natural. It’s nearly impossible for kids to slip away without being called back to complete their routine.

Our routine has two parts. We taught these in two phases.

After-Meal Routine Part One: Each person asks to be excused, clears all his dishes, scrapes his plate off into the trashcan, and pushes in his chair.

We actually implemented this routine about a year ago, so our children were already used to doing it before we added Part Two. A simple routine like this can easily become second nature with lots of consistency (and many reminders in the beginning)!

I often find myself saying pleasantly, “Oh… Matthew, you forgot to clear your dishes.” I try to keep a positive tone, especially for the first reminder. Kids get distracted and are naturally forgetful!

After-Meal Routine Part Two: Each family member has a very specific, after-meal responsibility –including mom and dad!

These jobs should be age-appropriate and also genuinely helpful. Posting jobs near the dining area helps kids review and remember, but it also helps them see that the whole family is in this together, even mom and dad!

Our jobs look like this:

  • Matthew and Emily clear the table. (They are ages 5 and 3). All the individual dishes are already gone, and they are now responsible for transporting the ketchup bottle, empty serving dishes, etc. to the countertop beside the sink. Of course, if there is something heavy, we quickly grab it before they start.
  • Clara wipes off the table and replaces the centerpiece neatly. (She is 7).
  • Mom and dad clean up the kitchen.

We do not rotate jobs, but rather keep the same jobs for every meal. We do this because we want them to accept their job (no complaining), we want them to become an expert at their job, and we want their job to become habitual. As they get older, we may change our approach.

Morning routine

Our morning routine has five components. Again, this routine is posted in our kids’ rooms where they refer to it daily. All our children complete the same routine.

It includes the following:

  • Get dressed
  • Put dirty clothes in the laundry basket
  • Make your bed
  • Brush your teeth
  • Wipe off the sink

Our 3-year-old does need help making up her bottom bunk, but other than that, this routine is done independently.

The goal of this routine is to get our kids ready for their day (dressed and teeth brushed), and to accomplish some simple mess-maintence around our home (beds made, dirty clothes, and sink).

It does wonders and will hopefully teach them good lifelong morning habits.

Night routine

The goal of our night routine is also mostly mess-maintence in a simple, concrete form.

Our kids’ night routine includes:

  • Put on your pajamas
  • Put dirty clothes in the laundry basket
  • Put shoes in the shoe basket
  • Return all books to the bookshelf
  • Brush your teeth

“Why this specific list?” you might be wondering. I didn’t feel that “clean up your room” was an appropriate nightly job for my children. Because they are young, they have a hard time sifting through and processing a larger mess. “Clean up your room” doesn’t have much definition, especially for a young mind.

So, I assessed the messes my kids were making in their rooms. I noticed that there were several categories of “stuff” that needed to be put away at the end of a day: legos, clothes, trash, books, toys, shoes, etc.

Then, I chose the three that I felt would be the simplest for my children to understand and execute, while having the biggest impact on the overall mess. That’s what I recommend you do too! Customize to maximize!

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How have you used routines to calm the mess around your house?


Do you ever wonder how some women make running a home look so natural?

I certainly have!

However, after many years of watching my friends who do this well, and after much trial and error, I’ve boiled it all down to 3 essential daily habits. With these 3 habits in place, a home can function pretty well! Without them, it will be perpetual catchup.

While I used to feel like a failure as a homemaker, I know feel a sense of success and satisfaction.

I’d love to share these 3 simple (secret) daily habits with you. If you focus your energy into establishing them, I believe you will achieve the same breakthrough in your homemaking that I did.

Can I share my secrets with you?

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  1. Michelle@ Moms Are Frugal says:

    This was a great post on how to help our children be more orderly. It took me a long time to get over the fact that my children NEVER picked up after themselves. After much prayer and thought it was revealed to me that teaching them was important. So since then we have followed most of your steps. Routines are a huge part of the success!

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