What to Do with Adult Children Who Don't Clean Up

'245' photo (c) 2009, Chelsea Oakes - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/I’m a big believer in helping your children learn to do chores! It’s important for character development, for training for independence, and for your own sanity!

Unfortunately, if you haven’t inculcated these chores when kids are young, it’s harder when they’re older. I recently received an email from a woman wondering what to do with a 23-year-old son who is living in their basement. He doesn’t clean his bathroom, doesn’t change his sheets, and doesn’t do much of anything. The husband also expects this woman to clean up after the adult son. What is she to do?

Here’s the email I sent her:

That is a tough problem! It sounds like you have several issues:

1. Your children believe it’s your job to clean up after them.
2. Your husband believes it’s your job to clean up after them.
3. You’re worried about your children’s ability to be independent.

I would say that there’s also a fourth issue—your children need to learn to care for others, and not take others for granted, and the best way to do that is to do chores!

It’s hard to get kids to do chores when they’re in their 20s if they haven’t been doing them all along. It’s especially hard if your husband isn’t really on board. But I would suggest that you start presenting this as “Everybody in this house helps out because we all have a lot to do. We all need to learn to clean up after ourselves and look after ourselves.”

Don’t do it because “I’m sick of cleaning up after you all”, but do it because it’s good for THEM. It’s good for them for several reasons: first, they do learn independence and how to care for themselves. Second, their relationships later in life will be stronger, because it’s rare to enter into any long-term marriage relationship today and have the other person willing to bear the entire burden of housework alone. Most people expect it to be shared, and if they marry someone who doesn’t know how to clean, or who assumes that someone else will do everything, that relationship is going to be very strained.

Finally, it’s good for them because it teaches them to be responsible for their own actions, something that is key if anyone is going to develop a strong moral core. If people assume that someone else will always clean up their messes, then after a while they stop noticing their messes. They don’t even see how they are inconveniencing others. They assume someone else will be there to fix the things they don’t like. And that’s not healthy.

Since your son is already well into his twenties, it’s going to be hard to stop this pattern. But you have to try. I would start with having a talk with him and setting new ground rules for what it means to live in your house. He is, after all, an adult, and you are doing him a favour by letting him live there. It’s time for him to start acting like one. Why not set up a chore chart for everyone in the house that they have to follow? I have some free ones you can download here that are helpful. Talk through the expectations you have of him, and explain that you want these chores done every week. I don’t know if you’re charging him rent or not to live in the house, but if you are, I would also tell him that doing chores is part of that deal. And if he can’t live up to the deal, then he needs to find somewhere else to live. It’s not pretty, and you’ll need your husband’s support, but it really does need to be done.

If your husband is undermining you in front of your son, then I would recommend talking with your husband and explaining your reasons for wanting him to pick up after himself and clean up after himself. It isn’t because you’re being selfish; it’s actually because you’re thinking of your son’s future relationships and future independence. Hopefully he will understand. I know it’s hard, because sometimes husbands don’t understand, and then they think that your sole job in life is doing everything for your kids, but I don’t think that’s what God intended. God put us on this earth to raise responsible, independent, godly people, not to pamper our kids. I hope that your husband can understand that, but if not, I would suggest that you just keep talking about it, little by little, because it is important to you.

Ask your husband what he wants for your son. What does he want your son’s relationships to look like? What does he hope for your son in terms of jobs, or independence, or morality? What is he looking for there? And then ask your husband if you think that you’re on the road to leading your son in that direction. If your son is going to lead a family one day, and raise kids of his own, then he needs to start learning to take responsibility now.

I hope that helps! The key is to keep talking with your husband so that you can present a united front. So pray about it, be gentle, and be clear why you want to make the change—for your son’s good, not yours!

Now, for the rest of you, what would you say to this woman? Do you have any thoughts on how to get adult children to start doing chores? I’d love to hear them!


  1. Herding Grasshoppers says:


    I have to tell you… I hear about situations like that and I get angry!

    Angry with the son for being so lazy, disrespectful, and selfish. Angry with the dad for encouraging that kind of foolishness. And angry with the mom that it ever got to that point.

    You're so calm and encouraging!

    I think I'm more of a drill sergeant. (BTW, I'm assuming that the son is not disabled, or recovering from some horrible illness, or otherwise unable to work or help…)

    Frankly, I don't think she's going to make much headway with the boy if the husband isn't on board, and your ideas for ways to approach him are sound. The boy, (because he's clearly not a man, even if he's 23), needs to develop some basic life skills and soon. And – if the dad will allow it – the mom needs to very quickly clear up any misunderstanding about the way things work around the house.

    As far as I'm concerned, if you live under someone else's roof, you are obligated to abide by their terms no matter your age. It's their house. It's their rules. And if he doesn't like it, he's perfectly free to go elsewhere.

    In my family, we could live at home rent-free as long as we were going to school. And I did. That was my parents' much-appreciated contribution to my education. It was assumed that I would do the things you mentioned – my own laundry, clean the bathroom, vacuum, "tidy", and help around the house. (We could also live at home and work, but then we would pay rent. Cheaper than an apartment, but helped with the bills.) Either way, it was assumed that if we lived in our parents' house, we conformed to their standards – whether that meant house-hold chores, general behavior, guests, or just plain common courtesy. It's their house.

    If it were me…

    #1 The son pays rent. Immediately and every month.

    #2 If he wishes to live under Mom's roof, he will perform certain chores/jobs around the house at a frequency (and a standard) that is satisfactory to Mom.

    The real questions are – will the husband get on board? and do they have the strength of will to enforce it?

  2. Herding Grasshoppers says:

    >Aack! And I'm sorry I spelled your name wrong!

    I have a good friend that is "Shiela".

  3. >Herding Grasshoppers–

    You made me laugh!

    I probably would be a lot tougher with a kid like this if we were in person, and I certainly would be a drill sergeant with my own family!

    But from this woman's story, it was clear that her husband wasn't on board. And in that case, the real question is not "what should be done" but really "what is possible to accomplish to get everybody as close to what "should be" as we can". In other words, it's how it's possible to move in the other direction, not just what "should be done".

    You obviously get that, but that's why perhaps I don't sound as harsh as I actually am! I think in most situations like this, getting the husband on board is the #1 priority. And, as in most relationship issues, it's also the hardest!

  4. Herding Grasshoppers says:

    >You're so right 😀

    Thanks for your graciousness to my rather… ahem… lengthy response.

    Question… in a case like that, would you prefer that people leave a long response, or blog about it on their own space and leave you a link?

    Not sure of "blog etiquette",


  5. >Julie–

    I LOVE long comments! I think it makes it more interesting! Not sure if that's the "proper" blog etiquette, but I like getting discussions going!

    You can always write your own blog post and link up, too, but I sure don't mind people chiming in!

    I was thinking about what you said, too, and I think I may write a post soon on "what I wish I could say to the men". Hmmmm……

  6. >Loved Herding Grasshoppers comments. Cutting off our anger in its tracks and considering the issue from God's point of view is so much more helpful in the end. My reaction would have been cuff 'em all upside the head. But anger never really helps. It only makes me feel entitled and them defensive. Strong work, Sheila!

  7. Anonymous says:

    >Hi Sheila,

    I have one of those husbands who expect women to do "woman's work." He's willing to to "man chores," like throwing out the garbage, cutting the lawn, shoveling snow, changing lightbulbs, and such. But do dishes? sweep? cook? shop? No way!

    Interestingly, we shared chores up until our eldest was born. Then he went into "man" mode.

    For five years I tried to talk with him about it and got almost nowhere, and it didn't matter much to him that I worked parttime earning money or that I cared for our child all day long. He wanted me to do what his mom did. This was his template.

    So I had a decision to make: resent him or accept things.

    I chose to accept things.

  8. I am curious… what ever happened to that 23 year old son and his parents?

    I’m a single mom – didn’t start that way but I am now… .to a 21 yr old girl and a 20 yr old boy – both in school, both live with me. BOTH are giving me a hard time – they don’t do much at all and when they do it’s all complaints and things just sit half done for days on end… as an example like the laundry sitting in different stages of being done… some in the machine… some dried, some half dried and some on the floor in the laundry room. Same thing happens in the kitchen, bathrooms etc. I try to talk to them about it… over and over again… but after some time I get so frustrated that I end up yelling and upsetting myself more than anyone. I’m tried of living like this… and I try to NOT pick up after them… but after a while… of trying to let it go… I get so sick of it that I just clean up. Is there an end to this? Some people tell me that – some day very soon… I’m going to miss all this and would gladly have it all back if only they’d still be with me. UGH!!!

    • I don’t know what happened to them. Perhaps the mom will write in again!

      I think that line–“you’ll miss all this one day”–is overused. Will you miss your companionship with the kids? Probably. But that doesn’t mean that you should excuse laziness or disrespect today. That’s not the kind of people you want them to be.

      Honestly, what I’d do with the laundry is if they don’t fold it or dry it or wash it is to dump it all inside of their rooms and close the door. Just get it out of your laundry room. And never, ever do their laundry. And if they put a load in the washer, and don’t move it to the dryer, and you now need to use the washer, out come the wet clothes, dumped on their floor.

      Just make things into their problem. Right now those things are your problem–your laundry room is a mess. Make it their problem again.

      If they leave dishes all over the house, put those dishes on their beds. If they don’t wash the evening dishes, make yourself dinner the next night but don’t make them any. Just let them own the problems in a way that doesn’t require more work or aggravation for you!

  9. I am in this boat; stressed to the point of depression (I have military PTSD). My eldest daughter has always been a ‘handful’, difficult to follow house rules, chores and respect seems like a foreign concept to her. My two other children, complete opposites.
    I’d agree with the live by my rules or move out. However, she has recently went into remission from stage 4 cancer, while I do not expect her to clean extensively, I do expect help, like picking up your things, dishes and the like. Simple right… No. She refuses and will even say she didn’t do it, she didn’t make the mess and expects her 18yr old sister to be her maid (she actually said yet).
    I love the comment about putting the clothes back in their room, dishes ect. However I know that she doesn’t mind the mess, and the smell becomes over whelming. Sadly she has a 3yo she doesn’t want to take responsibility for either.
    I have contemplated CPS

  10. My husband recently passed away, and i have my 21 yr old granddaughter living with me.
    she works pays no rent and stays at her boyfriends 4 or 5 days of the week, seems like just enough time spent away that she does nothing to be helpful. i wouldn’t mind not getting extra help, but have insisted she take care of the upstairs her living space, by vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom once a week which she doesn’t do. I have newer carpet and am having the bathroom remodeled. and resent thinking my long awaited nice upstairs guest area is not being respected or taken care of, I have had many conversations about what i expect and even told her i do not want to play the nagging parent role.
    Now I’m thinking I need more leverage than nagging or conversations. Most of the time i talk to her i get excuses or polite acknowledgement but nothing changes.

    • Shelley, I’m so sorry about your husband’s passing. That’s a lot of stress to bear, especially if you feel that your grand-daughter is taking you for granted.

      The only leverage you really have, though, is to say, “you can’t stay here anymore.” Until you’re prepared to do that, she likely will keep taking advantage of you.

      So just saying, “My life has really changed since your grandfather passed away, and I can’t handle a lot of stress in my home right now. I’ve asked you repeatedly to do two tasks: vacuum and clean the bathroom. You haven’t done this. If I don’t see some improvement by (select a date), then I am going to have to start packing up your things and asking you to move out.” I know it sounds harsh, but it really does need to be done!

      Best wishes to you!

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