The 5 Stages Of Cleaning With Children

Cleaning With Children

I have three children, ages 8, 6, and 1, and whenever I ask the older kids to clean the living room they go through Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Loss and Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance).

These are the five stages that people go through after being told they have a terminal illness.

Here is an example from last week.


Last Sunday, I called Tristan and Norah into the house to clean the living room. Tristan was playing soccer in the yard. Norah was playing with her dolls in the driveway. Both acted like they didn’t hear me. This is the first stage. Denying that I even exist, or that the job needs to be done.

The really sad part is, I can’t decide if they ignore me initially, or if they really can’t hear me because “clean” and “get to work” have become something terrifying to them that they shut down, turn off, deny that cleaning is a thing that must be done, and continue to play.

For me, as a father, it’s really frustrating, and I tend to fall into the habit of yelling as a way to grant them reality therapy.


Once I got Tristan and Norah into the house, they looked at the mess of toys in the living room and sagged their little shoulders and gnashed their little teeth. They asked frustrated foot stomping questions like: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”; “Why would this happen?”

And with each question I wanted to say, “You are the problem. You are slobs, and it’s my job to teach you to pick up your own crap.” But I didn’t, because I’m the supportive father and I don’t want to bring on more anger. So I just rode it out, kept them working, until this phase passed.

Suddenly they both became ill. Tristan had a tummy ache, and Norah’s knee hurt “really really bad!” I didn’t buy it, which only made them angrier. They looked at me like I didn’t care about them because I was making them clean when they were sooooo sick.

Once they actually began to pick up toys, they did so grudgingly. Tristan threw books onto the shelf, and Norah tossed her toys down the hall and into her open bedroom door. They both looked like totally entitled little shits, and once I pulled each one aside separately to talk with them about their attitude they started to bargain.


Norah looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m only going to clean if I get a cookie.” Then she folded her arms, letting me know that this was where the buck stopped. Tristan, on the other hand, told me that he’d only clean if he got money or screen time. “Listen,” I said. “I pick up your crap all the time. Now it’s your turn. I’m not rewarding you for cleaning up after yourselves.” Both kids looked at me like I was a HUGE dick. Then they hung their heads and dragged their feet to the next pile of crap on the floor.


“What’s the point?” Tristan asked. “Why do you even care about cleaning? It’s just stupid.”

“Yeah!” Norah said, “It’s just stupid!”

“If you two stopped fighting this, and just got to work, you’d have been done a long time ago.”

And suddenly I sounded like my mother. I hated when she said things like that because even as a child, I knew that it was true. Norah glared at me, the kind of glare that only comes from deep internal hatred and sorrow. The kind of look you give when asked to do something truly terrible.

“I need a quiet time!” Norah said.

Then, in silence, both kids slowly got to work.


We were a little half way through cleaning when Norah said, “I will only work if there’s music.” I turned on the iPad to the Princess Station, and Norah started dancing as she cleaned. Tristan complained about the music for a bit, but eventually he started strategizing with his sister over what to clean next.

Tristan looked at Norah and said, “It’s going to be okay,” his blue eyes were steady. They seemed to say, ‘We can’t fight it anymore. Nothing is impossible. We can clean the living room.’

Around this time, like I always do, I think to myself, ‘Finally! I’ve broken their spirits.’

Once it was all said and done, and the living room was clean, I said, “See. It wasn’t that bad.”

Neither kid spoke. They just gave me a look like I was wrong. Horribly wrong. They had just died and come back.

When he’s not saying insane things to his kid, Clint Edwards’s work has been featured on Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. He’s the author of the new book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.


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