Isn’t it amazing the way kids manage to leave a trail behind them everywhere they go?? It’s like you can almost piece together their every creative impulse and destructive need just by surveying the damage left behind! And then Mommy has to utter those dreaded words: “Clean your room, please!”

Observing some master Waldorf teachers work their magic with young children has been incredibly inspiring and inspired many kind, light-hearted, yet firm ways to guide our children to participate in maintaining the beauty and order of the family home. Believe it or not….. kids WILL help out! In fact, they want to be helpful… they just have to be inspired to do so…..

Here’s what the masters have taught me:

COMMUNICATING RESPECTFULLY is the foundation of cooperation. No one wants to do something if they are barked at! If children feel respected they are usually respectful in return. It’s that baseline of communication that opens the door of cooperation.   I usually say something like, “Wow! You two have had a lot of fun in here! What are you working on?” (They love to share their creations…. give them a moment to share and then….) “Well, it’s time for dinner so let’s tidy up.” Then I break down the work into manageable tasks (more on that below) “Here, the blocks go in this basket. The cars live over here….”. Notice: there are no questions asked…. just gentle directives. Don’t give them the opportunity to think about it… or an opening to resist your request. Major secret trick!!

MODELING THE BEHAVIOR we would like our children to internalize is the second layer. Care for your home joyfully and turn housework into purposeful work. This is how they do it in a Waldorf classroom. Works like magic!!! Teachers put a lot of attention into the environment, hum a sweet song as they sweep, and put a touch of magic on the most mundane tasks. The classroom is always cleaned, even by the youngest of children, as a way of restoring order and serenity to the environment. It’s very soothing for the children but also completely mesmerizing and enchanting in a way that stirs an inner desire in them to participate on their own. It’s the old “whistle while you work” philosophy….

HAVING A REALISTIC UNDERSTANDING OF A CHILD’S STAGE DEVELOPMENTALLY is very important as well. In the Waldorf tradition, it is only during the first year of nursery (when children are 3 to 4 years old) that the request to tidy begins. Prior to that, is the child really capable of participating in a way that is authentic? Or perhaps more motivated by rewards/punishments? If they have seen that tidying the home is part of the normal routine and rhythm of the day, they are more likely to participate when the time comes. The truth is, children want to be helpful and included in family life activities; it gives them a great sense of purpose.

HAVING A MINIMAL AMOUNT OF TOYS is huge help too! After countless times of picking up thousands of Legos, I finally committed to not buying ANY toy that has too many parts to pick up! This has greatly reduced the amount of clean up time and annoying instances of finding lots of lost parts that amount to a toy that is useless! I love the ideas in Simplicity Parenting, a great parenting book that advocates minimal toys. The ideal play environment would be simply organized with a variety of textures, materials, and building items. For instance, we have silk scarves kept in a basket, wood blocks, some wooden trucks, a few smaller vehicles, some books, a kitchen area with just a few pots and pans and a small dress up corner. That’s about it. Every so often I clean out broken items and switch out things that are not being played with. I have a shelf up high in our garage that houses some other items and I switch things out to make it new and exciting. All this I do while they are sleeping so as not to incur their protest. In the morning when they see the newly arranged playroom with long-forgotten items, they are very excited to play!

GIVE THE CHILD A SPECIFIC TASK when asking them to clean. “Johnny, the blocks can go into this basket.” “Jane, the scarves live in the basket over there”. This makes the job manageable and the child isn’t as likely to get lost in the desire to play again. Of course, as young children develop their own sense of will, resistance to eve the very best techniques are inevitable. What to do when a child says, “NO, YOU DO IT!” ??? (It WILL happen!) Well, after you’ve bit your tongue and let your blood settle back down again, a kind but firm, “Oh, the room must be cleaned. Come. Take my hand and you MAY begin picking things up”. Often does the trick, followed by an adult staying close but not taking on the task of cleaning the mess themselves.

Notice the use of the words “you MAY pick it up”. “May” is a word heard often in a Waldorf setting, used both by parents and teachers. I’ve seen it work magic. Here is a wonderful passage from “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge” by Barbara J. Patterson and Pamela Bradley: “There is a magic word, not authoritarian or permissive, which works well with children. The word is may….It contains no question to answer or ignore. In the word may is the quality of privilege. ‘You may place your boots on the mat.’ I have also heard parents say [this] to their children but then weaken the statement by tacking on ‘OK?’. Is this an effort to soften what seems too demanding a request? What does the ‘OK?’ mean? If it isn’t OK, does that mean the child doesn’t have to do it? Does the child have a choice or not? This can create confusion and insecurity for the child. The child feels most secure when he knows that his parents, teachers, and caregivers know what is best for him.” So…. no “OK?”s….. Ok?!

STAYING CLOSE has a lot to do with a child’s follow through. Ever notice how your words seem to disappear into thin air when yelled from across the room? It’s like they never heard it! I like to come close, take my daughter’s hand, and guide her gently into the activity. Then I stay close to her while she cleans. If I get distracted she often begins playing and forgets to clean.

Notice that none of these suggestions involved bargaining (If you clean this, I will clean that… OR If you clean up, you get a treat) or threats, or struggles. I find that the more clear and centered I am in the intention behind my words, the less thinking or protesting is required of my children.

It seems crazy that a few small things like this could make a difference by after many years of working on this with my Little Ones I can attest to how powerful it is! Good luck, Ladies! xxx, Leah