What Minimalist Blogs Don’t Teach

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One topic that stirs up intense feelings in me is the ongoing struggle against clutter. This is reliably the case with parents of children who still live at home.

Just mention you are trying to purge your fast-mounting belongings, and you will get a lively conversation going. Watch a cluster of empathy form, as each one vents their own struggle.

“I will not accept ONE. MORE. TOY.”

“My children panic over every sequin or broken popsicle stick that gets swept into the dustpan.”

“My daughter cried when I wanted to throw away the deflated balloon from her birthday party.”

“I cannot let go of any of my son’s old baby clothing.”

“I try to pare down, but my husband/wife keeps bringing things into the house.”

Minimalism is the go-to ideal.

I see the appeal in it, and I’m a sucker for those before-and-after minimalist makeovers. I have memorized and regularly attempt to apply the three principles of Andrew Mellen’s Organizational Triangle®: One thing in. One thing out. Like with like. One home for everything.

Yet− I live with these other people.

They are my family. If they are not on board, it all goes sideways. Enter the perpetual frustration and bitterness as I become a woman possessed, consumed by an impossible ideal. It’s a frame of mind that renders me unable to see any goodness beyond the giant mess. I see only chaos, and completely miss the fleeting delight of children at play− creating, imagining, and learning all the while.

Those online makeovers I mentioned? Sometimes when my family’s overstuffed, small living space drives me to distraction, I go online for inspiration. Against experience, I type “minimalism” or “decluttering” into a search engine. Rather than someone I can relate to, I find evidence of lives dedicated to maintaining unreachable (for most of us) standards— their online presence I’ve taken to calling the “pretty coffee” blogs, a lifestyle-brand world of muted paper whites.

Instead of relatable, down-to-earth, and practical, I’m shown square meters of empty floor space, abundant natural light, and 100% cleared off surfaces (save a bowl of fruit). It is home, re-imagined as an art gallery.

What about the messiness (and yes, sometimes tackiness) of a good and rich childhood? My own childhood comes to mind. We had mismatched furniture and discount carpets. I also had a delightful childhood.

Instead of complaining and trying to pull an entire family uphill, I’ve instead outlined my role. I’m the one who steers and nudges us away from unnecessary purchases, supervises the sorting and donating of household items on a regular basis, and keeps a basic working knowledge/inventory of our children’s games, homeschool supplies, toys, and clothing, including where in storage they are located. The result of these efforts is that we do use those “someday” purchases and stored hand-me-downs when the time comes.

For example, when our oldest was six years old, my husband found a box of Relational Geosolids™ at a thrift store. It wasn’t until she was nine that she used them for a math lesson. Because I’d kept track of where things are stored, I was able to easily retrieve them. We wouldn’t have spent the 20 bucks for them, but at 1.99, they proved themselves a useful “someday” purchase. Our two younger children will have that math lesson someday, and then we’ll pass the box along to someone else. This sort of thing happens frequently in our home.

Organization guru, Andrew Mellen, argues: Someday does not exist. If you are not using it in your life right now, get rid of it. This has some (limited) applicability. However, this standard of minimalism rests on assumptions about class. Saving things and bringing them forward is not a minimalist practice. But it is economical.

For some people, the compulsion to overbuy or even hoard may be too strong a pattern and thrift stores are just not good places for them. But with a plan, self-awareness, and an imagination, someday does exist.

The key is to avoid the vague and general someday, as in “Someday this may come in handy for some reason.” Or the, “Someone could use this so I’ll get it now and then eventually figure out who that someone is.” Some useful questions:

  1. Can I find that item when that someday/someone appears?
  2. Do I have space to store it?
  3. Have I a decent track record of following through on this type of future-intentions purchase?

Often, enthusiasts of minimalism do not see how their philosophy, if too rigid, can put undue strain on close relationships. If your family has signed on, great. If you are the only gatekeeper to your home, then how could you not succeed? However, I live with three children who develop attachments to things on their own terms. While I can set some boundaries and help shape their tastes, it would be wrong to completely dictate the terms. They are not me. We have different opinions and sensibilities about clutter. I am also married to a man who collects books and many useful “someday” things.

Here is the test: What do I do when I see an inordinate number of possessions carpeting my children’s bedroom? Can I focus on long-term gains by teaching them (calmly) how to organize, sort, and cull their vast collections? If I am to do that, I need to forfeit instant results (no more short-sighted adult tantrums involving threats and a giant thrift store donations bag).

I have to adapt my ideals to fit my current reality, and become less rigid. For my own well-being, I cannot devote my every free moment to cathartic cleaning binges and purging sessions. But I do need practical habits that can be sustained over the long haul. Because of the different personalities in my family, I have to take the long view. The occasional adult tantrum aside, I am coming to accept the following: While a home ought to be welcoming and functional, it does not have to be photogenic. In short, I have had to chill out.

My children will tell you that I still occasionally go berserk over the frequent chaos of my surroundings. While the anxious alarm bells are at times a useful catalyst to motivate sleeves-rolled-up sorting/culling, anxiety and alarm are not the soundtrack I want for my daily life.

My kind of minimalism will NEVER look uncluttered.

Raising three kids in a 950 sq ft living space means the one table in our home must get entirely cleared off multiple times daily. It is our dining/math/ homework/arts-and-crafts/and jigsaw puzzle table. It belonged to my husband’s parents and he used to sit at it when he was a child.

What are some things I can do? I can say no to dollar store junk and copious amounts of plastic detritus. I can intentionally choose items that fuel the imagination and can be used over time. We can gather quality children’s books, art supplies, and natural objects for ongoing exploration. I can pass along (donate/re-gift) or exchange any gifts that conflict with these standards. That said, if my expectations of control escape practical boundaries, I make myself and my children anxious.

My capacity to make my children anxious is something I have had to face. Rigid attitudes about the right way to do things, alongside stressed attitudes about messes, is not who I want to be for them. One area where I struggle is with kitchen projects. Our crowded counter space (a small island cart) often has me hovering, repeating the utterly useless mantra of “Careful!”− or obsessively cleaning up as they go, leaving no actual messes for them deal with after the project is complete. (Hence removing from them important practice at a life skill).

If children are constantly policed as they try to accomplish a task, they do not develop confidence. My hovering also sends the message that the mistakes or messes are apparently the worst possible outcome there is. I want my children to know that because they are learning, mistakes are expected, and we trust them to deal with the inevitable spills and messes as they occur.

But our reactions are often reflexive, aren’t they? How do we move away from our own controlling, anxiety-inducing habits?

If I were to create a meme, it would say:

You can either have kids engaged in meaningful work and imaginative play away from screens,

or you can have a house that stays clean and uncluttered. You cannot have both.

I do not intend this in the same vein as those overdone anti-cleaning manifestos making the rounds. “Someone told me about using vodka to clean and it works! The more vodka I drink, the better the house looks!” or “I’m not really into spring cleaning. I’m not really into summer, fall, or winter cleaning either! I mean, cleaning, and teaching kids to clean, is important to me. But because I do not want to die from stress, cannot afford professional cleaners, and do not wish to ship my children off to boarding school, I have to change my ideal.

I find these three questions helpful:

  1. Is this mess a productive mess or a bad mess?
  2. For those messes that require immediate attention: Am I willing to invest in long-term gains by taking the time right now to teach my kids how to clean this up?
  3. What story do good messes tell about my family?

Instead of walking into an exploded room spluttering, “What is going ON here?!” I try to breath for a hot 5 seconds, survey the scene, and notice if it’s a good mess or a bad one. For example, those bed pillows and blankets strewn across the room used to be a blanket-fort, that glue gun and those scattered craft sticks and markers are from the fun time they had earlier making funny-looking space aliens. This is a good mess, a byproduct of good stuff they are engaged in. They just have to clean it up. No big deal.

Here is what this looks like right now:

I tolerate mud. I also tolerate my children learning to wash the floor.

I allow baking experiments. I also allow my children to get a lot of practice using the vacuum.

I welcome mixing up toy categories to tell a wild and elaborate story that continues on from one day to the next. I also welcome crating and storing whole categories of toys to keep playtimes from being overwhelmed with play items crowding out the space.

Pretty coffee blogs and minimalist ideals do not help us. It’s time to shut those images down. I have better things to do with my “one wild and precious life” than hover around preventing messes. Also, I don’t like the person this turns me into.

I re-frame. Those stacks of books under our children’s beds are a portal to other worlds continuously shaping their imaginations. That collection of rocks (and dirt) on the windowsill tells of their love of the natural world around us. The jigsaw puzzles we carefully transfer in order to sit down for dinner are evidence of time spent working together. The pile of plastic sea creatures next to the bathtub tell of many imagined adventures during bath times over many years. The box of our children’s broken treasures next to the gluing supplies my husband keeps on his bedside bookshelf tells of all the times our children have brought broken treasures to their Papa, trusting it could be fixed. On a different note, that trail of clothing in the walkway– not worth my anger. It’s just a normal sign of distracted children who will continue to need our guidance as they develop life skills.

When I consciously practice re-framing the world around me with an eye for the delight peeking through the messy thrum of revolving clutter, the sights I see are beautiful. Scraps of fabric yarn on my oldest daughter’s shelf tell of her intentions to create something new. One day I’ll recall with affection the temporary beds she now makes for her littlest dolls out of books and wooden blocks. The tattered drawings my son has taped above his bed are beautiful because they are from his imagination, and he is proud of them. While sharing a room with us, our three year old stews her story props spread across our bed. Dolls and stuffed toys on the sofa are not junk or clutter. They are part of an ongoing story that is currently on pause, because the doll babies are sleeping right now.

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