We all want our kids to help out around the house, and the kitchen's a great spot to establish good habits, as your kids will see you washing up in there early and often. But between hazardous chemicals, sharp utensils, and fragile dinnerware, you need to be careful about getting your kids involved.
We reached out to Nancy Bock, senior vice president of education and meetings at the American Cleaning Institute, for guidance on how to safely get the kids involved in cleaning the kitchen.
3 Important Questions About Kids and Cleaning
1. What are the concerns around kids and cleaning products?
"Young children can't tell the difference between dishwasher detergent and bubble bath, so they need to be taught that cleaning products are not toys," says Bock. In general, it's best to steer your kids towards tasks that don't require cleaning products, and always read the labels of any products you use so that you know how to properly handle them. "Because kids mature at different ages, it's the parents' responsibility to be knowledgeable about the products they're using and to determine when their own children are ready to handle products with chemicals," says Bock.
REMINDER: Cleaning products must always be stored up and out of reach of young children.
2. What about DIY cleaning products?
"We have concerns with introducing young children to homemade cleaners as well," says Bock. The first is that when you use the same product for cleaning and cooking (for example, lemons), young children might believe that means all cleaning products are made with food and, thus, edible. The second concern is that many DIY cleaning mixtures have not been tested for safety and don't have credible guides for treating accidental exposure or using them in combination with other products.
3. So is it really worth it?
"Yes! Cleaning is an important life skill — not just for kids to endear themselves to future roommates or spouses, but also to be a contributing member of the family unit," says Bock. If you assign your children age-appropriate tasks, they can have an active role in cleaning your home. You just have to take extra care in the training process to clearly explain the risks (for example, that detergent should never be put in their mouth or eyes) and make accommodations to encourage success (like swapping your ceramic plates for plastic ones while they learn to load the dishwasher). "If you have multiple kids, assign each a task and have them work together, like having a younger child clear the table while an older one loads the dishwasher," says Bock.
Suggested Chores, Based by Age
Preschool (2 to 5)
"Decide when to introduce your children to kitchen cleanup based on their age and developmental status," says Bock. "With a short attention span and lack of fine motor skills, preschoolers' cleanup help will be limited." But you can use the skills they're already learning — like shapes, sorting, and stacking — to make a game out of lining up plastic cups, stacking plates from from smallest to largest, or putting the utensils in the basket (all handles up!).
A few chores preschoolers can do:
- Close cabinet doors and drawers.
- Turn on the dishwasher.
- Help unload the dishwasher (make sure they don't climb on the door to reach the top rack).
- Help set the table.
- Place dirty dishes on the counter.
- Sponge down the play table.
- Mop up spills with a microfiber cloth.
REMINDER: Preschoolers should NEVER have access to cleaning products. Keep cleaning products stored up and out of reach of young children. Be sure that your preschooler is not handling anything sharp or that could break. Teach preschoolers that cleaning products are not toys.
Grade School (6 to 9)
"Grade schoolers can help with more kitchen chores, but shouldn't handle cleaning products until you feel they're ready," says Bock. These slightly older kids can handle more cleaning tools, like brushes or brooms, and can use gentler cleaning products with supervision (you may also have to re-clean if they don't get things totally clean the first time). "And be ready to intervene if sweeping turns into a sword fight or water battles break out while washing the dishes," says Bock.
A few chores grade schoolers can do:
- Set and clear the table.
- Put dishes into the dishwasher (be careful with fragile and heavy items).
- Wipe up spills with moist cloth and dish detergent.
- Wipe the table, chairs, high chair, counters, and cooktop or range.
- Sweep or vacuum the floor.
- Empty and wipe wastebaskets clean.
REMINDER: Your children should always be supervised when using cleaning products. Children this age or younger should not handle liquid bleach or other products with injury warnings listed on the bottles.
Junior High (10 to 13)
"Junior high kids should be able to handle all the basic kitchen chores, but they are not adults! They do not fully comprehend consequences, so giving kids too much freedom at this age can be premature and extremely dangerous. Make sure they follow the directions and heed warnings on the label," says Bock. Read the labels yourself and talk to your children about the risks of mixing cleaning products.
A few chores these older kids can do:
- Help hand-wash dishes.
- Make lunch for school.
- Unload the dishwasher.
- Disinfect countertops.
- Surface-clean the fridge. (This would include a lesson on reading package expiration dates.)
- Sweep and mop floors.
- Clean windows.
- Take out the trash.
REMINDER: Model safe use of cleaning products by reading the labels yourself, following the directions, and always heeding the warnings on the label. Don't let junior high kids use harsh chemicals like drain cleaners or oven cleaners.
High School (14 to 18)
"High schoolers should be able to do anything an adult can do — the challenge is usually getting them to do the task thoroughly," says Bock. At this age, kids are often busy on the weeknights with homework and activities, so you may want to swap the daily kitchen chores for weekly or seasonal ones. While high schoolers can safely use most products, remind them about safety and warnings.
Some extra tasks high schoolers can do:
- Clean and disinfect the sink, countertops, and other food preparation surfaces.
- Clean the coffeemaker.
- Organize the pantry.
- Scrub or strip and wax floors.
REMINDER: Be sure your high schooler reads the label and follows directions — look for warnings like "use in a well-ventilated area" and "don't mix with other cleaners." If they have little brothers or sisters, teach them to store cleaning products out of the younger children's reach.
College & Beyond
"Visiting adult children are family, so they can still help with the kitchen chores!" says Bock. When college kids are home for the summer or holidays, enlist them to help with seasonal cleaning tasks like cleaning behind the refrigerator or cleaning the oven. "After all, these chores need to be done no matter where they live!"
One Last Thing!
"Even if the job hasn't been done as well as you might have hoped, the effort matters most, and they should feel proud of their contribution," says Bock. Don't forget to thank your kid for the effort and a job well done! "Take pride in raising children to be responsible, practical, and aware of the effort it takes to keep a family running!"
What kitchen-related chores do your kids do? What did you have to do when you were a kid?