Perhaps most parents want to know the secret behind keeping tidy homes and teaching children to clean up after themselves. It feels nearly impossible at times, doesn’t it? Abandoned blocks on the rug, a random sock on the sofa, books on the table, dishes in the sink, clothes on the bathroom floor. If I turned a corner in my home, I might find any one of these right now. “These are the indicators of family life,” my mother often gently reminds me. “Mess happens because life is happening. Be patient. You’ll have time for a neat house again.” I’ve always appreciated this perspective as a mother, the grace to allow the mess. In different seasons of motherhood–such as newborn stages or when life feels more frenetic–I have lived by these words. But mess is not peaceful for me. I work better, think clearer, feel happier in clean, tidy spaces. Honestly, I imagine most people do, including children. While it is impossible for our home to be both comfortable for play/work and tidy all the time, here are a few ways we have tried to keep things neater in our home over the years. Like most things in life, it is mostly a balance in effort and letting go.
Purchase less. Have you ever counted how many outfits you could assemble from your child’s closet? Or counted how many toys or dress up are in the bin? I love children’s clothing. I love purchasing new things. But honestly, children do not require much. My children tend to find their favorite shirt or dress and wear it over and over. Take notice of the clothing they gravitate toward and purchase a couple of those. I keep something special for dressier occasions, and unless one of them is really longing for a special toy or book for their birthday, we tend to give experiences. Owning less means managing less. It also means they own things that really matter to them.
Clean out. My children and I clean out the toys–less necessary as they get older–and their closets twice a year. This often happens with seasonal change. I fold up clothes that are in good enough shape to pass on to someone else. We might cut up the clothing that is overly stained or hole-y to use for an art project or as cleaning rags.
Use baskets (within reason). I love a good basket. They’re functional and beautiful at once, but they also can be overused and feel clutter-y in a space. Each of the children’s rooms have a couple of baskets for tidying toys or their soft throw blankets they insist on sleeping with at night. I keep two more in the living and dining, with extra blankets and floor pillows since we only have one sofa in our small living area. This makes clean up super quick at the end of the day. I also use woven baskets for laundry, as one doesn’t fit in our closet and it is prettier than a plastic alternative.
Set a regular clean-up time. Each day, around 3:30/4:00pm we stop what we’re doing and clean up. Since we homeschool and often use our dining table, it’s a great way to make sure our work is put in the right spot and our materials are cleaned-up before dinner. Books go on the bookshelf. Pencils are returned to the jars. Chalk pieces are collected. Unfinished projects are tucked in a safe place. Laundry is folded and put away. Beds are cleared of art projects, books, or toys. Shoes are collected and returned to the closet. Everything is put back in its home. This is not a deep cleaning time or organizing time. This daily clean-up is simply a returning things to their place for use the next day. We try to do it within 30 minutes, so we’re not bogged down in details. If something doesn’t have a home, I make mental note to find a home or re-organize something over the weekend when there’s more time. This little time allows us to be a mess during the day, to freely focus on our play and work, but also to reset to do the same tomorrow.
Begin with small children. If your children are little, they will of course be able to do far less, but they can still help! Give them single tasks that they can accomplish on their own while you’re nearby. “I need you to put all of these blocks in the basket while I pick up the books.” If they’re easily distracted, as most littles are, work on the same clean-up together. You may also consider having more than one clean-up time in a day, for instance, one at the end of the morning playtime and one at the end of the afternoon. On days that seem overwhelming or particularly exhausting, remember a messy home is a sign of a well-loved home. Take a deep breath and return a bit later.
Point out the rewards to your children. When our home is neatly ordered, I point out to my children how it inspires them to create and play and build. “Isn’t it nice knowing exactly where your things are? Look at how nice it is to build Legos on a clear desk.” These words are not badgering in tone, but simply a way for me to show them the gift of their hard work, the reward for cleaning up when they don’t feel like it.
My home isn’t perfect. If you stopped by at any given moment, you might find toys and books and projects spread across the floor or table top. Although my bed is often made, you might find a load of towels or clothes atop it waiting to be folded and put away. For us, tidying is about reaching homeostasis, a place where we can live and enjoy the life in our home, but also take care of it. If you follow my Instagram, you already know I highly recommend Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She offers inspiring and more detailed helps in this area and probably has a tidy home all the time. For us, it is certainly a process and journey.
How do you or your family handle mess? Do you have helpful tips and tricks for tidiness to share?