How to get your kid to clean their room

To get your kid to clean their room, give them the autonomy to choose, sweeten long-term incentives and worsen short-term ones, clean with them as you teach them, and determine whether they suffer from depression.

Getting your kid to do their chores can be a chore. Getting them to clean their room can feel right up there with shoveling 10 feet of snow off your driveway at 5am.

Each person is different, and people resist doing unpleasant things for a myriad of complicated reasons. Why your particular child resists room cleaning is beyond my capacity to know. But here are four possible reasons and what you can do about them.

First, they don’t feel like they have autonomy over the decision. As kids grow, they feel naturally compelled to exercise their own decision-making and have greater control over their lives. If you coerce them into a chore, or frame it as an expectation, they’re more likely to resist – not because of the nature of the chore but because of the coercion. And they may not realize they’re doing it.

So, rather than telling them to clean their room, consider framing a decision for them: they can clean or not. Then you can explain to them the tradeoffs of each option, focusing on the positive tradeoffs (focusing on the negatives makes one more likely to put off the decision). Maybe throw in some incentives to tip the scales toward cleaning. But ultimately, if they can’t legitimately exercise the free will to make a choice, they’ll be more likely to resist. They may not do what you want them to, but it’s not like they were doing that anyway. Giving them an option makes cleaning more likely. Sometimes, that’s the best you can hope for.

Second, they may be delay discounting. This bias forces us to see the short-term rewards of a decision as better than they actually are and the long-term rewards as worse than they actually are. Some individuals are more prone to delay discounting than others. If your child tells you that cleaning their room feels too hard or takes too long, this may be a sign that they may be unable to see the long-term for the short-term.

So, try incentives that will boost the long-term rewards and disincentives that will diminish the appeal of short-term rewards. An immediate penalty for not cleaning their room will make that option less valuable than they perceive it to be. The penalty doesn’t have to be painful, but it has to be significant enough and negative, and they have to believe you’ll enforce it. However, without the offer of a significant positive reward once the cleaning is done, this short-term disincentive will just feel like punishment. So, make sure to sweeten the longer-term outcome too.

Third, they may legitimately feel overwhelmed by the task. Sometimes we blame the kid and not the circumstance. This would be our bias, attributing the cause of something to character rather than context. Unlike adults, kids have don’t have a ton of experience cleaning and organizing. We might have our processes for efficiently doing household chores, and a lot of our chores are performed by muscle memory, but kids are still just learning. It’s not like cleaning is hard. But even easy things feel difficult if you’re not experienced doing them.

Try cleaning their room with them and showing them the ropes. Teach them tricks that make cleaning go quickly and that make the task feel less insurmountable. Having someone helping can also make the experience more fun and less overwhelming for them. It can make them feel supported. Over time, pull back the amount of help you offer little by little, until suddenly they’re cleaning on their own. And expertly.

Fourth, they may be suffering from depression. Research has shown a correlation between depression and messiness. And depression impacts decision-making by making all outcomes so unappealing that inaction is the default. The world can feel like a crazy place, and for a kid these days, the state of the world can be anxiety-inducing and depressing.

Therefore, before assuming your kid is a problem, examine whether your kid has a problem. If they do, then who cares about their room? Addressing their mental health is really the priority.

Every kid is different, and there could be a number of reasons why your kid is resisting cleaning their room. Why your particular child is pushing back is beyond my capacity to know. But it can’t hurt to experiment with the suggestions I’ve listed above. There are no guarantees, but with science-backed things to try, you’ll get closer to finding the right formula for building good habits in your kid.

If none of this works, then you might consider the positive benefits of messiness, and lean into those. Messiness has been connected to heightened creativity. Maybe rolling with it, and nurturing your kid’s ability to think outside the box, would put them in a better spot than a clean room would.