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The older I get, the more of a neat freak I become. This is most unfortunate because kids are messy. Really messy. It would’ve been so much easier if I could’ve started neat and learned to relax by the time I had kids. But I can’t. I love my kids, but I hate the messes that they are constantly creating!
A couple of years ago, when we were living in Seattle, I remember being offended when a childless couple came over for a neighborhood cocktail party and the wife commented “I just don’t know if I could have kids and live with all this kid clutter everywhere.” At the time I had only one child, and the “piles” of “kid clutter” in my living room consisted of a (mostly decorative) wooden rocking horse and a wooden kid-size table in in corner. There were no toys, no hideous brightly colored swings or jumparoos or ride-on toys or high-chairs. Just a rocking horse and a table.
So while I was slightly irritated and a little bit offended (since I take pride in my very clean house), I also thought, “oh honey, you have NO idea!”
But the truth is, I really don’t like having kid clutter everywhere, either. I want my living room to be a comfortable living space, a place where we can invite guests and relax in a serene environment, not just a dumping ground for every toy on the market. I don’t mind if my kids take something out and play with it as long as when they are done, the toy goes away.
In order to find some balance and to bridge the gap between my need for clean and their messy nature need to play, I have worked very hard to set up a system of controlling the chaos that comes from having kids.
In a nutshell, this is my controlling-the-kid-chaos philosophy:
1. Spend Time Organizing Your Toy Storage Area
My theory is that if you can tame the area that generates the chaos, you can tame the chaos in general. Even if you are lucky enough to have an out-of-sight playroom, you’re probably not lucky enough to have kids who are content to keep all their toys in one room. It seems like once they’ve thoroughly trashed one area they no longer have any interest in playing there, and they move on to the next room.
Thus, if the place you would like them to play is kept neat and tidy and they can easily find the toys they actually want to play with, they will play where you want them to. Most of the time. And even if they don’t, they will know where everything goes when it is time to put it away.
2. Only Keep Toys They Are Interested In
Everything else gets stored in the attic (or given to Goodwill.) I would guess that at least 80-90% of my kids’ toys are currently stored in the attic. I try to pay attention to the things they are actually playing with, not just pulling out and throwing on the floor, and then put the rest away.
Every once in a while, my oldest daughter Maggie will request something that has been put away and we will swap out something she is no longer playing with for something new out of the attic, so not only does it keep things tidier, it keeps things fresh and new. I am a firm believer in the idea that less is more when it comes to toys.
This was never more evident for me than last fall when we took our 5 week cross-country motorhome trip, preceded by a month of living in a hotel. All of Maggie’s toys were packed away and for more than 2 months she had nothing but a small bag of random McDonalds toys and Boeing canine unit trading cards (from Boeing Family Day) to keep her entertained. That little bag was everything–her friends, her zoo, her tea party set, her “babies.” It forced her to use her imagination, and she was never once bored. It was an eye-opening experience, and I find that the less “stuff” I leave out for her to play with, the more self-entertained and imaginative she becomes.
3. Keep Toys With Lots of Pieces Out of Reach
Why is it that almost every toy these days has about a billion pieces? In our house, puzzles, legos, games, kitchen accessories, doll clothes, craft supplies, play-doh, and any other toys with lots of small pieces are kept on higher shelves in the girls’ closet. This makes them easily accessible to an adult, but not to them. It is much easier to enforce the “don’t take out something new until you put the other thing away” rule when you have control over what comes out and what doesn’t.
4. Give Everything a Home
It is SO much easier to clean up when there is a place for everything and everything is in it’s place! Use labels whenever possible. (I try to label everything, although currently my one-year old thinks it is hilarious to pull the labels off almost immediately.) My husband once asked me why I am so obsessed with labeling, since I already know where everything goes. I patiently explained that the labels were not for me, they were for him (and everyone else.)
I love using opaque or lined baskets for the toys and clothes they can reach because the room will look tidy once everything is put away, even if not everything goes in the correct basket or gets folded up correctly every time. (And let’s face it, it won’t!) For the higher shelves, I like using Sterilite 30 quart containers with lids. I am also a huge fan of those Command adhesive hooks. Don’t forget to have a place for storing all the artwork that comes flowing in every day! I keep a bulletin board in their room for M.’s favorite pictures, and the rest go in a 18 gallon container in her closet for me to sort through (much) later.
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5. Make them help clean up, even though it takes MUCH longer.
My four year old can now clean up her room entirely on her own (though often not without a battle.) When she was a little younger, I would break it down for her and assign her one task at a time. Sometimes it took all day and 20 trips to the naughty stool, but eventually she started realizing that I wasn’t going to back down.
My one year old has now started learning what it means to clean up, and will put things away with assistance. This works in direct conjunction with having a place for everything. When kids know where things belong, it is much easier for them to tidy up. I’ll readily admit that I don’t always stick to this rule because it is often much easier and faster to just quickly pick things up myself every day, especially during the week when my older one is away at school. But it is such an important lesson for kids, and *hopefully* someday all the training will pay off!
Unfortunately Annie is now at an age where all she wants to do is climb into said grocery cart, which is a disaster waiting to happen. The cart is now in the attic, waiting for the day that we can use it again!
UPDATE: Our system has changed quite a bit since this post was written–my girls are now 7 and 10, and they have gotten a lot better at picking up after themselves. Of course, it wasn’t always easy! In fact, at one point, I even went so far as to take all their toys away. Our goal these days is to just keep clearing the clutter, and to have a lot less stuff!