How She Teaches Kids to Be Tidy
When I was a young mother with just two little cyclones messing up my house, I turned to my friend Lisa Hoelzer for help. Her house was always immaculate, despite the fact that she had four little girls. I invited her into my cluttered house and asked her to share her secrets. I had just fed my kids, and I could have fed several more children just from the food that ended up on the floor. I asked her how she managed to keep up when her kids did that to the floor.
Her answer blew me away: her kids didn’t do that to the floor. She didn’t say this in a judgmental way. She just kindly explained her housekeeping philosophy: she trained her kids, from a young age, to be tidy and prevent messes before they happened.
Her floor was never very messy because she sat with her kids while they ate, used bibs religiously, and taught them to eat carefully,
What? It had never occurred to me that you could keep the kids from making the messes in the first place. It rocked my chaotic world.
That day and the many other days she coached me, she taught me many skills that I still use in my house today. Her overall strategies of prevention and daily maintenance made perfect sense to me. They were logical and efficient, and resulted in a beautiful home and ultimately a lot less work. I tried for years to be like Lisa, knowing it was technically possible to change my habits and follow her advice. But eventually, I also learned something else: I’m not Lisa. And, even more eventually, I realized that’s OK.
A few posts ago, we talked about How She Teaches Kids to Clean. But knowing how to clean is a very different skill from knowing how to keep a house tidy. My kids can scrub a toilet, but they have no idea where they put their shoes and socks.
Today we’re going to talk about how to teach our kids to be tidy. In the first half of the post, we’ll unpack the concept of tidiness a bit. Tidiness, and its counterpart, messiness, is about more than stuff. It’s a surprisingly emotional topic. Teaching our kids to be tidy requires us to confront our own skills and habits. In the second half of the episode we’ll talk about all sorts of different techniques that moms use to teach their kids (and often themselves too) to be tidier.
The Tidiness Continuum
Tidiness is a tricky value to talk about because it’s so relative. I think it’s safe to assume that neither the tidiest person on earth nor the messiest is listening to this podcast, so we all fit somewhere in between. Even within the same household, we all have different ideas of what a clean house looks like. We all live at different points on the continuum from pigpen to pristine.
In my family growing up, I shared a room with my sister. She was the messy one; I was the clean one. Now I share a room with my husband, and I’m the one with a pile of dirty socks by my bed. David has very tidy habits, and I never have to pick up after him. We’ve both had to relax the borders of our comfort zones as we’ve slowly nudged our dots closer together on the continuum from messy to tidy.
If each of us has a reality dot on this continuum, signifying how we generally live, we also each have a line, a messiness threshold. Once the mess in our house crosses this line, we feel anxious and overwhelmed, sometimes even embarrassed.
I was recently talking about this topic with my friend Lindsay at the pool, and she said, despairingly, “I’m the worst kind of cleaning personality. It drives me crazy to have a messy house, but I just can’t keep it clean.”
My knee-jerk reaction was to say, “There’s no wrong kind of cleaning personality!” But I realized that wasn’t true—because I know exactly how she feels. If your reality dot is always on the messy side of your messiness threshold, it feels terrible. You feel anxious and out of control, like Lindsay.
Getting that dot back on the tidy side of your line is hard enough for just one person. But add more people, especially little people, each with different dots and lines, and it gets, well, messy. And sometimes, especially in seasons like new babies or summertime with all the kids at home, it’s the line that has to move, not the dot. We have to be OK with a little more mess.
It’s important to note here, that the continuum goes from messy to tidy, not bad to good. I spent most of my life thinking tidy was good, and messy was bad. In fact, one of the most common religious quotes about tidiness, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” isn’t in the Bible at all. I checked. It was John Wesley, the minister who started the Methodist movement, who said it. Your place on the messy/tidy continuum has too much psychological and emotional baggage tied up with it to let morality complicate things even more.
There are actually good and bad things about both sides of the messy/tidy continuum. In fact, each extreme has its own disorder: on one side you have hoarding disorder, which is a real thing—I found it on the Mayo Clinic website—and on the other, you have obsessive compulsive disorder.
It’s easy to see the advantages of tidiness. It looks great, feels great, and you can find stuff easily. It’s efficient. Taking care of your things shows respect and gratitude for the possessions you’re blessed to own.
But there is a downside, too. Lisa says, “I’m kind of uptight with my kids. I get irritated when they make messes. So there are pros and cons of each way.”
A house that’s too tidy can even make guests feel uncomfortable—they don’t want to touch anything and mess it up. My mom told me that when her house is really clean, she doesn’t feel comfortable until she’s messed it up a little bit.
On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to see the disadvantages of being messy. You can’t find your stuff. There’s nowhere to sit. You feel overwhelmed and cranky, maybe even defeated, and suffer from what the fabulous Marla Cilley, a.k.a. the FlyLady, calls CHAOS, an acronym for Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome. In the extreme, it can even be downright unsanitary. I could continue with more disadvantages, but you get the messy picture.
What you may not have thought about, though, are the advantages of messiness. For one, we messy folk are in good company. You’ve probably seen the iconic picture of Albert Einstein’s cluttered desk, along with his famous quote: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
Tim Harford examines the advantages of messiness very thoroughly in his wonderful book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. He makes a good argument that a messy desk can be more efficient than filing papers away, since the cluttered papers organize themselves, the less important ones filtering down to the bottom, until it’s clear what to save and what to discard.
Harford also talks about Benjamin Franklin, who as a young man made a list of 13 virtues, such as frugality, industry, sincerity, and, yes, cleanliness. He worked on one virtue a week, forming habits to mold himself into the man he wanted to be. He kept a journal of his progress all his life. And when he wrote his memoir at age 59, he said, “My scheme of order gave me the most trouble. My faults in it vexed me so much and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt.”
If Benjamin Franklin was ready to give up on tidiness, I think we can give ourselves a little grace!
Harford writes, “Franklin’s diary and his home remained chaotic, resisting sixty years of focused effort from one of the most determined men who ever lived. No matter how many disorderly decades passed, Franklin remained convinced that orderliness was an unalloyed virtue; that if only he could fix this deficiency in his character, and become less messy, he would become a more admirable, successful, and productive person. Franklin was surely deluding himself. It is hard to believe such a rich life could possibly have been made still richer by closer attention to filing papers and tidying up.”
Am I just quoting this example to justify my own weakness? Maybe. Am I saying I’m pretty much the same as Benjamin Franklin? Yes.
In another win for messiness, research also links messiness and creativity, in a kind of chicken-and-egg relationship. Which comes first?
My friend, Jen Brewer, leans to the messy side. She says,. “I have a friend who says she would go crazy if she couldn’t vacuum every day. But for me, if I have 20 minutes without kids, my thought is, ‘Why would I waste time vacuuming if I can get a chapter written on my book? When you have kids, you have two options: You can either become hyper organized, and everything runs like a ship on schedule, or you just embrace the chaos.”
There are just so many factors that influence both your dot and line. First of all, there’s the home you were raised in—what you’re used to. Your upbringing also influences your skill level. Like Jen just talked about, your values and priorities also influence how you keep your house. Cleaning takes time and/or money (if you hire it out). The amount of time and money you spend developing skills and keeping your house clean will vary in different stages of your life. And anyone who has more than one child knows that personality also plays a big role in tidiness.
Some people, like my friend Lisa, are born with natural tendencies toward tidiness. They love order and their brains just work that way. It comes naturally to them. There are an endless number of books written by and for people like Lisa. One that’s in the spotlight these days is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I love the book, I’ve used many of her methods, and I think she’s a genius. But I find it hard to relate to some of her uber-tidy habits, because I’m just not wired that way.
Others of us seem to come out of the womb like the character Pigpen from the old Peanuts cartoons, who walks around in a constant cloud of dust, or like the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes. Chances are, you have at least one kid like this.
For these messier personalities, there are different books--just not as many. One of my favorites is How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind by the lovely Dana K. White. Dana is the mastermind behind the blog and podcast, “A Slob Comes Clean.” She started the blog anonymously as an attempt to get her house under control and came up with a great system that works better for the way her mind is wired.
This book was a revelation to me, in part because of the way she explains her messiness. She says, “I have Slob Vision. I don’t see a few dishes. I don’t see incremental mess. I see beautifully clean and overwhelmingly messy, but the in-between doesn’t register in my brain.”
I’ll be sharing some of Dana’s tips as we go, but if you’re also a little on the slobby side, I highly recommend connecting to her in some way, through her book, blog, or podcast, A Slob Comes Clean.
It’s important to recognize and respect our children’s natural tendencies. The best strategies for teaching our kids tidiness will take their personalities into consideration, respect those personalities, and teach them skills that work for them.
Emily Widdison has nine children of her own and a fluctuating number of foster kids. Their tidiness personalities are all over the map. Because of this, she has different expectations for different kids, especially foster kids, and she also teaches them differently. She has some kids who can’t remember to put something away unless they do it right away. For others, she can say, “Can you please put this away when you go downstairs?” and they can do it later.
One of her daughters cleans their gym, organizes everything, and then takes pictures because she’s so proud of it. When her oldest son clean it, everything is tossed generally in the right places, and the floor is clear but it’s no work of art.
Juliana Hall has four girls and a boy. Two of her daughters share a room and have very different cleaning personalities. One is very tidy and cleans quickly; the other takes forever and just doesn’t care as much about tidiness. Sometimes this causes friction between them. One time, her tidier daughter put her laundry away quickly and then taunted the messier one about it. Juliana took her aside and explained, “You and your sister have different strengths. You’re able to see what needs to be done and get it done really quickly. Instead of taunting your sister, you could use your strengths and talents to serve your sister by helping her.” She then reminded her of all of her sister’s talents—she’s extremely funny and makes them all laugh, and she helps the whole family have more fun.
Juliana is intuitively following a principle from the book, Strength Based Parenting. Mary Reckmeyer argues that when we spend too much time focusing on improving our kids’ weaknesses, we are short-changing their strengths. She says, “You can try to improve in an area of weakness, and you can get better. But being mediocre may be as good as you’ll get. And wasting so much time and energy becoming adequate means not putting time and effort into an area of talent, where you could become extraordinary.”
She doesn’t advocate ignoring our weaknesses altogether. She says, “Do what you need to do so that weaknesses don’t get in the way of your goals.” In the context of tidiness, this could mean that we teach our messier kids enough tidiness skills to keep track of their shoes and car keys, but, like Juliana, we turn a blind eye to the state of their dresser drawers, and we certainly don’t ask them to alphabetize their bookshelves.
This idea speaks to me. I have put countless hours into trying to be like Lisa, Juliana, and my mother-in-law. And I have improved in many ways. But the outsized efforts I have put in are disproportionate to the progress I’ve actually made. I am much better at keeping track of things than I was in college, but you don’t want to look in my laundry room.
But just because you’re naturally messy—or because your kids are—doesn’t mean you have to throw your hands up and resign yourself to living in a messy house forever.
In her book, The House that Cleans Itself, another great book for naturally messy people, Mindy Starns Clark says, “Even if I lack a talent for housekeeping, I do have plenty of other talents, some of which I can use for conquering the mess….It has been my observation that the kind of people who tend to be messy are also often clever, creative, and flexible – all qualities that can be used in very unique ways.” We’ll explore some of Mindy’s unique ideas here in this episode.
We’ve come to part two of the podcast: tactics for teaching your kids to be tidy. Wherever your reality dot is, and wherever your messiness threshold, your house is going to cross that threshold sometimes. And when it does, you don’t want to be the only one stuck getting it back to the tidy side. For the rest of the podcast, we’re going to talk about the practical side of teaching kids to be tidy—or at least tidier. Some of these tactics are structural—changing your house to be less cluttered, more organized, and more efficient. And some of the tactics are behavioral—teaching kids specific skills to help them form tidier habits. For messier moms, implementing the structural changes will probably be your best strategy for getting your house where you want it. You naturally tidy people probably already have a lot of these skills in both areas.
1. Set Expectations and Priorities
Before you teach your kids to be tidy, you have to make your expectations clear. What is your definition of a clean and messy house? You can start by looking objectively at the current state of your house. Do you consider it messy or clean?
Talk to the rest of your family about it, and ask them. If you think it’s messy, talk about what would have to be different for you to consider it clean. Be realistic, and respect everyone’s opinion. Then you can talk about what you would like your house to look like and figure out where your comfort zone is.
This may be different for different areas of your house. For example, Lark Fillmore cares most about having a clean kitchen. When her kitchen is clean, the whole house feels clean. So the family focuses most on this room. Even if her kids get no other chores done, she makes sure they do their kitchen jobs every day.
In my family, my kids and I have a much higher mess tolerance than my husband. We’re the ones who are home the most, so the house is usually messier than he would prefer. But we make sure there are certain areas in the house that stay just the way he likes them. We stay out of his immaculate office. That’s his space. His car is also always beautifully clean. We recently took it on a road trip, and we respected his rules on the whole nine-hour drive. We didn’t eat in the car and unloaded it completely upon arrival. When we take my car, we have very different rules. I’m working on keeping our shared bedroom tidier.
It works the opposite way too. My friend Juliana, who is very good at keeping her house tidy, tries to back off on her standards for the play room: “I realized as my kids have grown up that if I want them to be creative and to use their imaginations and explore, I need to have a place where they can make a mess. When I walk by the playroom, rather than just seeing the mess, I remind myself that it’s okay to make messes, because that’s the kind of mom I want to be.”
2. Be a Detective—and an Anthropologist
In episode 22 of the 3 in 30 Podcast, Cleaning Strategies for the Naturally Messy Mom, Candi Kidd shared a concept that opened my eyes. She suggested looking at our house as if we’re a detective to find and then solve the messy spots in your home.
She got the idea from a book called The House That Cleans Itself by Mindy Starns Clark. Mindy suggests that you ask three questions to start this process: “1. What are the problem areas in my home? 2. What items do our recurring messes usually consist of? 3. Why do these particular problems and messes keep happening?”
Then she suggests that you go room by room with a notebook and a ladder, looking at your house from different angles and cataloging your mess as evidence—like you’re on a forensics team. Then you analyze that evidence and figure out why those problem areas are messy. What is the root cause?
Then the next step is to come up with solutions—changing the house to fit the behaviors. The goal here, Mindy says, is “to make the clean thing the easy thing.” For example, she realized that her basement really needed to be vacuumed, and that the reason she hadn’t done it in a long time was that she hates bringing the vacuum downstairs. So she bought another vacuum. Then, she realized that her kids always drop their backpacks by the front door as soon as they walk in. So she bought a storage bench and put it right where they usually drop their stuff. The mess disappeared.
In addition to analyzing your house itself, you can analyze the people in it—a more anthropological approach. Think of yourself as the Jane Goodall of your own little jungle. Here you’re really focused on the “why” behind the messes.
If your children routinely make a mess in the playroom, for example, watch a play session. Are they dumping toys because they’re just belligerent little twits, or is it hard for them to know where to find things? Are they overwhelmed by too much stuff? Is there a skills-gap—do you need to teach how to clean up as they go or how to tackle a cleaning project? Are they easily distracted, or so easily overwhelmed by the mess at the end that they don’t know how to start? Is the mess part of an elaborate imaginary world or ongoing project —organized in their own minds— and should you just chill out and let them leave the mess and return to it the next day?
Another great place to investigate is your kitchen. If your kitchen is routinely a disaster area, there could be several root causes, each with different solutions. If the floor under the table is messy, it’s pretty easy to tell whose chair has the most rice sticking to floor underneath it. Maybe that kid needs a booster seat, needs more help eating, or needs to be in charge of cleaning the floor for a while. If every pot in the house is dirty after meal prep, maybe whoever is cooking needs a sous chef, needs to learn more efficient cooking techniques, or needs to plan simpler meals on days when there’s little time for cleanup.
One of the most obvious things you can do to help yourself and your kids be tidier is to get rid of some of the stuff that’s messing up your house. And you can hardly have a conversation about getting rid of stuff these days without talking about Marie Kondo and her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She explains how to do a drastic whole-house purge, category by category from clothes to books to toiletries. Her main takeaway is that we shouldn’t keep things that don’t spark joy. If you haven’t read the book, or watched her Netflix show, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” believe me, you’ll want to get on this bandwagon.
But if a whole-house purge seems overwhelming, you can always go one room at a time or one small space or project at a time. Kendra Adachi, host of the Lazy Genius podcast, suggests you start with the most frustrating room in your house first, so you can feel that beautiful relief. Dana suggests you start with the most visible room first, so you can see the results immediately.
As you begin decluttering, it’s useful to figure out your Clutter Threshold. According to Dana, this is different from the tidiness threshold that we talked about earlier. She defines a clutter threshold as “the point at which [you] have more stuff than [you] can keep under control—the point at which [your] stuff becomes clutter.”
I’ll illustrate with an example: A peek into my in-laws’ toy closet is like traveling back in time. To the left you have the Castle of Grayskull. On the right, you’ll find a whole village of the original Little People, along with their bus, their airplane, and a couple of awesome houses, complete with trapdoors. They’ve even got Muppet-baby McDonald’s toys. You might be thinking, “hoarder alert!”—but you would be very wrong. These toys are organized, missing very few pieces, in great condition, and still used frequently by eager grandchildren. There’s a place for everything, and, you guessed it, everything is in its place.
The thought of keeping all those toys makes me want to hyperventilate. They would be all over my house, all the time. But my in-laws have a very high clutter threshold. They don’t need to be minimalists. They’re both super organized and tidy and they could probably manage a couple more closets full of toys, even when all 18 grandkids visit at once.
My clutter threshold is much lower. As soon as my kids outgrow a toy, I either put it in the donate bin or box it up to pass down to the next kid. Then on that next kid’s birthday, I wrap up the age-appropriate toys from storage and regift them. Since they’ve been out of circulation, they’re new to them, and I’m not bringing a bunch of new stuff into my house!
Many moms I talked to, like me, keep a running donation box in a closet or in their garage, so it’s easier to get the stuff you don’t want out of your house. Mine is just a clothes hamper in the corner of my closet that I line with a garbage bag so I can bag it up easily. I donate about once a month. Once they’re full, Kendra (the Lazy Genius again) warns against putting your donation bags in your trunk, because—out of sight, out of mind. Instead, she puts them in her passenger seat so she remembers to donate them right away.
It’s tempting to do your decluttering when your kids are in bed. Chances are, they won’t even notice what’s missing. I’ve definitely done this. But that’s a big missed opportunity. The goal here is to teach kids how to be tidy. This is your chance to teach them to evaluate what’s important to them, and what they can let go of. You can even encourage them to think about how happy some other kid will be to buy this toy they’re giving up. It also teaches them the impermanence and relative unimportance of stuff.
There are several specific decluttering skills you can teach your kids. One is the “one-in-one-out” rule, a common rule that organizers use to encourage people to get rid of stuff. Any time you buy something or bring something into your home, you have to get rid of something.
Dana White also swears by the Container Rule. Basically this means that once a container is full--be it a drawer, a shelf, a bin, or a closet—it’s full. You don’t just buy another container. You either stop accumulating stuff in that category, or you follow the one-in-one-out rule and get rid of other stuff. The big lesson here is about being deliberate. You can decide how much space you want to dedicate to toys or books, for example, and then let that space dictate what you keep. Then the toys can’t take over your life.
Perhaps my favorite of Dana’s rules is her “head-explosion rule.” She explains, “If I feel like my head is going to explode while deciding whether something is worth keeping, I don’t keep it…. No possibly-useful-but-not-actually-useful item is worth my head exploding.”
You don’t even have to donate the extra toys, if that feels wasteful, or if you still value the toys. Ivanka Siolkowsky, a KonMari-trained organizer, and founder of The Tidy Moose, advocates rotating toys in and out of circulation seasonally, so the toys are always fresh and exciting. In an interview on the Just Add Sprinkles Podcast, she suggests keeping just 10 toys per child per season. This may sound like a small amount, but Ivanka’s clients have found that it’s plenty. Plus, kids get so excited to open the next season’s bin.
And then there are the clothes. Especially if you keep hand-me-downs, sorting through clothes each season is a monumental decluttering task. To make it easier, I keep an inventory list of the clothes each child should have in their room. When I pull out the clothes for the next size or season, I have them pick what they want to keep, based on the list, and then we box up or get rid of the rest.
Adrianne hangs her clothes in her closet with the hangers backwards. After she wears something, she puts it back with the hanger facing out. Then she can go back through her closet, see what clothes she hasn’t worn for a while and donate them.
4. Organize Your Stuff
Once you’ve figured out what you want to keep in your house, you have to figure out how to organize it. This is a big topic for another month. But if you’re trying to teach your kids to be tidy, you certainly have to be able to show them where things go. Of course we’ve all heard the adage, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” This includes the hard-to-categorize stuff that kind of floats around your house.
Sometimes I organize a room or a closet and then accidentally skip the step of showing the rest of the family what I’ve just organized. I’ll reorganize the pantry, for example, forget to explain the new system to the kids, and then get annoyed when they don’t put things where they go.
There are lots of standard principles professional organizers commonly use to organize spaces. Some are very logical—like putting similar items together, putting things where you’d first think to look for them, and organizing stations based on specific tasks, like a baking station somewhere in the kitchen, a gift-wrapping station complete with scissors and tape so you’re not constantly looking for those items, or a command center where you do your household administrative tasks. April Perry at Learn Do Become has a great system for creating this type of Command Central.
This is really about functional home design. When Mindy Starns Clark had the epiphany that led to her book The House That Cleans Itself, she realized, “My house was a constant mess because in my impairment I had made it too hard to keep it clean. It was that simple. I had engineered disaster from the get-go.” She cites examples like keeping the paper shredder in the garage instead of the office, so her pile of paper to shred piled up and created a monumental project. Mindy realized, “If a person could engineer disaster, could they not also engineer cleanliness? …Instead of trying to change myself, which has never worked anyway, I need to change my house. I need to turn it into a home that lends itself to cleanliness instead of messiness.”
The other bonus of this approach is that it’s much more fun. It becomes a design challenge instead of a hopeless problem.
One common organizational challenge is to figure out some kind of before and after-school system, so kids know where to put their backpacks, all the paper they bring home, shoes, sports equipment, etc.
Emily has a big IKEA book shelf by her garage door with two sections for each of her kids. One section is for their backpacks. The other holds a box where they put all their school papers for the year—anything they want to save. It fills up over the year, and when it overflows I have them go through it and get rid of what they don’t want to keep—things like ribbons, school-work they like, etc.
Each of Emily’s kids also has a special box in their rooms where they keep things that are important to them but don’t really have an official spot. The rule is that everything has to fit in that box. So when it overflows, she helps them go through it and get rid of whatever they don’t really care about any more.
Another organizational challenge is what to do with ongoing projects. Cleaning them up each time you take a break would be inefficient and disruptive. Crafts are a good example of this with kids. When Jen moved in to her house, they had a formal dining room. But they needed a place to do projects and crafts. So they converted the room into their craft room. There’s still a table in there, but it’s splotched with paint, and there are always several projects going on in there. Especially in that room, they’ve chosen to embrace creativity over cleanliness.
Lego projects or forts are other good examples of other ongoing projects. Sometimes it just takes a bit of patience to recognize the value of these things and either have a designated spot for them, or just turn a blind eye for a while, letting creativity win out over tidiness for a bit.
And of course, there’s the challenge of toy organization. First of all, many moms I talked to suggested taking all toys out of kids’ rooms, so they only have to worry about putting away clothes and books. This works great if you also have a designated toy room. We’ve done this at our house for years, and it simplifies room cleaning so much. If you have to keep toys in kids’ rooms, high shelves are a mom’s best friend, so the kids have to ask for your help to get some of the messier toys down. Emily keeps all of her toys in a locked closet to avoid toy-dumping disasters. She doesn’t do this to withhold the toys from her kids—she usually helps them get what they want to play with. But this makes it much easier to make sure the kids play with just a few toys at a time
5. Create Systems
This leads right in to talking about systems, finding long-term processes that make tidiness more automatic and efficient. Let’s go back to Mindy Starns Clark’s idea of making “the clean thing the easy thing.” You don’t need complicated systems that require wall-sized charts and diagrams. In fact, Dana White warns about focusing too much on systems. She says, “While I’m reading about systems for doing laundry or researching the best way to keep my kitchen under control or asking my neighbor how often she mops her floors, my house is getting messier.”
Emily’s family does what they call “quick cleanups” several times a day, whenever the clutter gets out of hand. They have three baskets strategically placed in their shared living spaces, plus a small one on the kitchen counter for little stuff. When they do a quick cleanup, they just throw everything into the basket. Then emptying the baskets are part of the kids’ daily chores. As a result, their house looks clean most of the time, even though not everything is technically put away.
You can read more about Emily’s baskets and her other great ideas in the post How Emily Teaches Kids to Clean.
Several moms I talked to, as well as Dana, do 5-minute-pickups. They gather the family and set their timers for five minutes to pick up as much clutter as possible—sometimes in a specific room, sometimes just all over the house. It’s surprising how much you can get done if you all work hard for five minutes. Do this every day—or even a couple of times a day—and you’ll start to see big progress. My sister-in-law Ashley introduced me to the “5 Minute Clean Up Song” by Miles Bonny, which lasts five minutes and makes us all laugh. This inspired us to make a 5-minute cleanup playlist, with this song and other upbeat 5-minute songs, so we can just dance-clean. Some of our favorites are Mr. Blue Sky by the Electric Light Orchestra, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, and Home, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
The goal is that the more kids participate in the clutter pickup, the more aware they’ll be that they shouldn’t just throw things on the floor in the first place.
Linda and Richard Eyre, authors of the book Teaching Your Children Responsibility, have a couple of great methods for clutter patrol. For one, when they found the kids’ clutter around the house, they’d pile it on their beds, and the kids knew they couldn’t go to bed before everything was put away.
My favorite of their tactics, though is the Gunny Bag. We’ve used this for years, and it works great. We call it the bag monster. The Eyres drew a face on a big cloth laundry bag and introduced their kids to “Gunny Bag.” They explained, “He lives in the attic, and every once in a while, without warning, he comes down here and gobbles up all the toys or clothes that are left lying around out of place….On Saturday, he spits them all up in a big pile, and if they are put right away he doesn’t eat them again. If they are left out, though, he gobbles them right up.” If gunny bag ate anything a second time it would automatically go to the donation bin.
6. Differentiate Between Projects and Maintenance
Probably the biggest epiphany for me while researching this topic was originally Dana White’s epiphany. She says, “Here’s what I had to accept: Cleaning my house is not a project. It’s a series of boring, mundane, repetitive tasks.” She made a distinction between project cleaning and maintenance cleaning. Project cleaning is when you let your house get to the point that it drives you crazy, and then you spend all day or all weekend whipping it back into shape. Or you have company coming, so you mobilize the family for an emergency cleanup.
The majority of household tasks fall into this maintenance category—the things that constantly get messed up and are never really finished, like dishes, laundry, and cleaning up clutter. On the other hand, a project has a start and a finish, like organizing a closet, or cleaning out the garage.
Since learning this concept, I’ve found it useful to think about my household systems in these terms, so that I deliberately choose whether I want it to be in the maintenance or project category. For example, some people, including Dana, have one laundry day. That’s a weekly project with a beginning and an end. Others, like me, do a little laundry each day, so it fits in the maintenance category.
When it comes to kitchen cleaning, it’s pretty clear that maintenance is the way to go. Letting dishes pile up is less efficient and it stinks—literally. Do I sometimes make it a daily project anyway, saving them for after the kids go to bed or—gasp—the next morning? I think you know the answer.
My Instagram readers were pretty divided on the bedroom-cleaning front. Many were on the maintenance side, teaching kids to clean their rooms as they go, with a daily checkup. Others were like Kristin. She was tired of hounding her kids about keeping their rooms clean every day, so she decided that Thursday was room cleaning day. It’s up to her kids how messy they let it get. But they know they can’t play until it’s clean.
Cheryll Cardall, who has a great Instagram account called @supermamas4real, made a similar decision with her second son as he finished high school. She decided to focus more on their relationship and less on how clean his room was. She figured he’s the one who has to live in it, not her. She usually asked him to clean it on Saturdays, but if it doesn’t happen she doesn’t get worked up about it.
Because I, like Dana, suffer from slob vision, one thing that helps me turn housekeeping from project mode to maintenance mode is to play a little game I call “neat freak.” I tell my kids we’re going to play, and ask them to identify the messiest room—usually the kitchen. We clean the room, with everyone helping, until it’s spotless, and then we kind of adopt that room for the day. Whenever something is out of place, we make a big show of freaking out and rushing to clean it up.
7. Be a Good Example
You probably knew I was going to get here eventually. If you want to teach your kids to be tidy, you actually do have to be tidy yourself. This seems obvious, but it’s actually hard to remember. I usually find that I have so much mess to clean up all over the house that my own bedroom usually gets a seat in the way back. But it’s hard to teach your kids to make their beds each day if yours is always a rumpled mess. It’s hard to get your kids to take their plates to the sink if you never do. And how many of you have a pile of your own laundry to put away?
8. Give Positive Reinforcement
As with any skill we teach our kids, positive reinforcement makes a huge difference in teaching them to be tidy. Juliana is really good at this, when she walks into a kid’s room and it’s clean. In the mornings before school she checks the rooms really quickly - rather than focusing on the 3 beds that were not made, she calls up the one kid who’s bed was made, gives her a big hug and says, “I am so proud of you for taking care of your room and making your bed. That really helps our mornings go smoothly. I’m so glad you are showing responsibility and taking care of your room. Great job kiddo!” This is a great reminder to the others of how much she appreciates this simple thing, and chances are, they will remember it the next morning when they are tempted to leave their beds unmade. And it’s so much more effective than nagging the others to make their beds.
It also helps to model a positive attitude about work itself. Lisa says, “Above all, I don’t want my children to have a negative association with work. They’ll be cleaning up after themselves their whole lives—I don’t want them to dread it. So I try to have a positive attitude about work myself.”
For example she tells them, “We get to clean” instead of “We have to clean.” She acts like she enjoys it, and talks about how nice it will look when things are put away and they will be able to find things. When she’s done cleaning a room, she comments to her children on how great it looks and how nice it feels to have a clean space.
9. Teach Tidy Skills
So far we’ve talked a lot about structural ways to teach tidiness, but the harder thing—at least for me-- is to teach your kids tidy habits. I love how Lisa puts it. She says, “Like many parenting situations, teaching kids to be clean is really parent training more than kid training. By that I mean that it is the parent who has to remember to bring it up and enforce it on a regular basis.”
Skill 1: Clean Up After Yourself
After my mother-in-law watched my kids one weekend, the house was immaculate, as it always is when she comes to stay. (I need to mention right off the bat, that this is a great thing. I greatly appreciate her housekeeping skills, even if I can’t match them, and she’s not critical or judgmental of my inferior skills.) When I got home, my kids had a few ideas to share with me. “We should clean up what we’re playing with before we get something else out.” And “If we clean up our room every night, it will never get really messy.”
My first instinct was to laugh when they told me this, because of course I can’t even count the number of times I had told them the same thing. But then I stopped to figure out why it made more of an impact when my mother-in-law said it. Sure, they might have just been trying to please their grandma, but let’s face it. The difference is that my mother-in-law actually follows through and makes sure they do it. She reminds them, trains them, and micromanages. I could probably get the same results if I were consistent and persistent enough to do it.
The problem is, I hate micromanaging like that, even more than I hate the mess. So we settle for a messier house. The solution for people like me is to pick just a few things to micromanage—the stumbling blocks. As I mentioned before, my friend Lark chooses to micromanage her kitchen. She makes sure everyone clears their dishes right away
Another good—and relatively easy—time to micromanage is after school, making sure backpacks, shoes, and paper don’t get strewn around the house or the car.
Professional organizers often teach the one-touch rule. When you pick something up, you put it right back in its rightful place—you don’t sit it down with the intention of putting it away later. Organization expert Andrew Mellon even goes so far as to say that everything in your house should be one of two places: in your hand or put away.
Of course, the tidiest way to teach kids to pick up after themselves is to be consistent across the board. Because Lisa is also good at micromanaging, she would remind her kids to pick up after themselves right as they dropped something on the floor. This was a lot of work when her kids were really young, but by age 8 or so, it was just a habit, and things like 5-minute pickups are irrelevant, because there is never clutter to clean up. She’s living the dream, because she put in the work up-front.
Skill 2: Prevention
As I mentioned in the intro, Lisa is also the one who taught me the principle of prevention—stopping messes before they happen. So she helped her kids eat until they could do it neatly, used bibs religiously, and saved herself a multitude of sweeping and laundry hassles. She also taught them to avoid other dirty messes, like dirt, sand, and food experiments.
Part of this is also teaching kids to be self-aware and careful when they’re doing things like pouring, painting, or making a sandwich.
Skill 3: Single-tasking
In this multi-tasking age, it’s important to teach our kids how to single-task, especially when they’re overwhelmed by a big project like cleaning a messy room. This is another great tip from Candi Kidd, from the very first episode of the 3 in 30 Podcast, Getting Unmotivated Kids to Help. She identifies one category of item for them to pick up at a time, such as clothes, and then has them chant “clothes, clothes, clothes...” until they’re done. Then they move on to the next category. (P.S. This also works for adults!) See more of Candi’s great ideas @somedaysoundsbusy.
My sister Cassie Gadd’s twist on this is to play Robots with her kids. She makes funny beeping noises while she pushes “buttons” on their backs, programming her little robots. She assigns them each one type of item to pick up as they say, “Legos, legos, legos” or “blocks, blocks, blocks” in robot voices and move in jerky robot style.
Skill 4: Respect and Gratitude
This may not seem like a skill, but it really is. You can teach your children to be grateful for their possessions and to take care of them. Ivanka Siolkowsky, of tidymoose.com, shared a great idea for this on episode 31 of the Just Add Sprinkles Podcast. When she was an elementary school teacher she played an ongoing game with her students called the million-dollar pencil. She had them imagine that each pencil, marker, book, piece of paper, etc. cost a million dollars. Then when someone let anything fall to the floor, she’d ask, “Would you pick that back up if it cost a million dollars?”
One way to teach kids respect and gratitude for both their possessions, and for the house itself, is not to replace things that they break, lose, or mistreat. I had a perfect opportunity to teach this on an inexpensive scale. Recently I bought my kids a big box of Otter Pops. Before I opened it, I warned them that I would throw the rest of the box away if I found even one wrapper on the floor. That very day, I picked up several wrappers, and mopped up the little sticky puddles they left. Then my kids watched as I marched those wrappers and the rest of the box to the trash can. Sure, giving them away would have been less wasteful, but I was going for drama.
Skill 5: Be a Starter
It almost seems silly to make this its own skill, because it seems like it should be obvious. But to some of us, it isn’t. Procrastination may be the greatest enemy to tidiness. Dana White explains it this way: “Some people dust nonstop. They mop three times a day. It never ends, so they never stop. I’m not one of those people. While they can’t stop, I question the point of starting. Why get down on my knees and scrub behind the toilet when the Night pee-er is going to strike again before I wake up tomorrow?”
I’m sure we’ve all seen our kids take all day to clean their room, when it could have taken just 30 minutes. It’s easy to come up with excuses of why not to start, but it can be even easier to just jump right in and do it.
Of course, this is another thing we have to model for our kids. Juliana says, “Do it right away. If the dirty dishes in the sink are going to bother you all day, just do them and get them over with. It won’t be easier to do them later, and having them bug you all day won’t improve your mood. Letting things pile up often makes for a bigger challenge later. Then you will have more freedom to do things you want, rather then having a chore hanging over your head.”
Sometimes there is no magic system. You just have to dig in and do the work.
Skill 6: Be a Finisher
The last skill we’re going to talk about today is one I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t learn until I was an adult, working as a magazine editor. One of the columns I edited was called Ask Dan, an advice column by management consultant Dan Lumpkin. In one particular column he talked about how every task has a three parts: 1. Prep, 2. Doing the task, and 3. Cleaning up. This should not have been such a revelation. But it helped me understand two things about myself. First, this was why I was so bad at estimating how long things are going to take, because I only calculate the “doing” part, not prep or cleanup. And second, part of the reason I’m messy is that I often skip that final cleanup stage completely.
In Emily’s family, they make a point to celebrate finishers. She and her husband are both finishers, so the non-finishers kind of baffle them. For example, if they ask a kid to plant a plant in a pot and they leave the bag of soil and the shovel right next to it on the ground, that’s.not finishing. Finishing is putting the bag in the garbage and putting the tools away.
She says, “When the kids do their laundry, we teach them to finish by putting the laundry away and then bringing the basket back to the laundry room. We’re always trying to reward and celebrate the kids for finishing, and we teach them that they have to completely finish a task before it counts as being done.”
I love this idea of being a finisher.
Wherever you fit along the tidiness threshold, I hope we can agree not to judge families on either side of us. Years ago, I decided to never apologize for the state of my home, but to always invite people inside. I called it my “self-esteem project” for other moms. I figure that seeing my house in its natural state could do one of three things. They could either think, “Oh good, I’m not the only one who’s messy,” or they could think “Wow, at least my house is tidier than hers.” Either way, that mom feels better about herself.
More than 10 years ago, I discovered a book called “Dirt: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House,” a surprisingly moving collection of 38 essays about housekeeping by different authors. I checked it out again while researching for this episode and loved it all over again. In one essay, Joyce Maynard talks about how she struggled to keep her house clean while raising three kids, and how guilty and inadequate she felt when she fell short of her ideal. She eventually learned to relax her messiness threshold and embrace the chaos. Then her kids left home, and she was suddenly left to herself in a tidy home.
She says, “There is no returning to the country I used to live in—the Valentine-making supplies spilling out over the dining-room table, the half-completed papier-mâché dinosaurs and Halloween costumes and sticker collections and rock collections and baseball cards and glitter glue. All those socks lying around, no two of which ever seemed to make a pair. For a while, I actually thought I missed their mess.
“But really, I understood, I just miss the ones who made it, the life we knew once—the happy clutter of days gone by when all of us were younger and glitter shone between the cracks in my floorboards.”