Kids are slobs. It's not their fault -- at first! Once they're older, though, there is no excuse. How do I know? There is not one single page in all the volumes of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books where Ma complains about stepping on yet another Lego in the living room or finding teeny tiny bits of paper and broken crayons strewn about the bathroom. If you show me either of those things in the Wilder books, I will recant my original thesis.
I don't mind the actual messes kids make. Honestly, I usually find them charming reminders of creativity and initiative. What I mind is when kids leave their messes for someone else to clean. Since mine are all nine years old and over, they don't get a pass. As they have heard lectured in my I-will-make-this-point-and-I-will-make-it-good-voice, "If you clean up your one mess, it will take just a minute or two, but if I have to clean everyone's messes, it will take me a lot longer. And that doesn't seem fair. Does it? I said, 'Does it?'"
After years of unsuccessful attempts to get everyone to clean up after themselves using rewards, allowances, and my own regrettable bouts of shrieking, I figured moving into a new home provided the perfect opportunity for developing some new habits. So I stayed up late one night concocting a plan I like to call "The Quarter System" (Seriously, all it takes to turn a simple concept into a brilliant idea is the addition of the word "system".)
Here it is:
1. Set out a receptacle for each child and one for the parents at the beginning of the month. (We bought cheap, but pretty cups at HomeGoods and a pitcher for the parents, all displayed prominently near the kitchen).
2. Fill each receptacle with X amount of dollars in quarters (We chose $20.00).
3. Remind the children of their daily duties and your daily duties, including the need to clean up after oneself (We distinguished between common areas and their private areas and mutually decided that this system does not apply to their private areas -- unless the filth in their private areas invites unwanted pests or mold).
4. Establish agreed upon timelines (e.g. An unfinished art project may not be left overnight in a common area other than the art space; morning kitchen duties must be completed before 10:00 a.m.; etc.).
5. Explain the system: Each time a parent needs to ask a child to complete one of their duties (because said child did not complete it within the agreed upon timeframe), the parent moves a quarter from that child's receptacle to their own. If the parent then completes that chore for the child, the parent moves another quarter. Likewise, if a child completes a chore the parent or another child did not complete, they move a quarter from said child or parent's receptacle to their own. At the end of the month, each person keeps the money in their receptacle as their allowance and we start fresh. Anyone who finishes off the month with their full $20.00 receives a $5.00 bonus.
6. Discuss the difference between working towards maintaining the house and purposely trying to one-up or, as the case may be, avenge one another. Also establish policies for requests for help (In our family, there are no quarters exchanged for helping each other out, and we often transfer quarters because someone forgot to clean up after themselves, but still help them if needed.).
7. Take the first month to practice (We offered greater allowances for mistakes, reminded a few times before moving quarters, and took time to discern the nuances mentioned in number 6).
8. When you count money at the end of the month, be sure to talk about what each person's final tally means. Two of my kids were shocked to learn that they had lost all but three or four dollars. This invited some heavy discussion about hard work, money, and team work.
9. At the end of the month, have everyone trade their quarters in for cash. This prevents the parents from having to re-stock quarters each month. It also provides an opportunity for the kids to receive what feels like a paycheck (We even made a rule that the next month does not officially begin until they get their cash. We want them to know that their time and skills are valuable.).
This system has been unbelievably magical for our family. Because of it, we have not have to spend any time doing big clean-ups around the house. In fact, I have not had to spend time cleaning above and beyond my normal duties at all. The house has remained clean -- not just relatively clean -- really clean and uncluttered. The concepts have even even spilled over into the kids' private spaces. They are keeping those cleaner than anytime in the past as well.
Furthermore, I like the lessons this system is teaching:
1. They are learning that it is important to do a job well and that poorly done work equals less pay.
2. Each time they hear a quarter from their receptacle clink into someone else's, they receive a tangible reminder of the extra work their negligence made for someone else. No amount of my lecturing has offered them that perspective in the past. Now they get it.
3. They are learning that their work has value.
4. They are learning through the bonus $5.00 that diligent work can yield big rewards.
On a final note, I do believe that part of the magic of this system lies in the ages and developmental stages of my particular kids. I can't imagine this would be effective for a child who is really too young to thoroughly clean up after themselves and/or who does not understand the value of money.
For us, though, it is bringing a level of harmony to our household that cannot be defined by any numerical value. Besides sharing a learning and living environment that is pleasant and easy, it is truly priceless to walk into a dark hallway at night to get a glass of water and know that I won't be stepping on anything sharp, sticky, or fecal.