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 carpet. 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 in the attic, 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 other two children will have that math lesson someday, and then we will pass the box along to someone else. This sort of thing happens frequently in our home.
Organization guru Andrew Mellen’s argument goes: Someday does not exist. If you are not using it in your life right now. Get rid of it. This has (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, clear limits, and an imagination permitted to encompass more than this moment right here and now, someday does (and should) exist.
The key is to avoid the vague and general: Someday this may come in handy because, I don’t know, it just might. Or the someone could use this so I’ll get it and figure out who that someone is.
- Can I find the item when that somewhen/one appears?
- Do I have space to store it?
- Do I have a proven pattern of follow-through on this type of “someone could use this” purchase (The item was redistributed within less than a month)?
Some enthusiasts of the minimalist movement fail to see how their philosophy, if too rigid, will breed conflict and hurt 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. I can set some boundaries and help shape their tastes, but it would be wrong to completely dictate them. I am also married to a husband who collects books and many other useful things. While I can influence, I cannot dictate what my husband brings into our home.
My kind of minimalism NEVER looks 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 the ages of our children.
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 aggressive purging sessions. Rather, I need practical habits that can be sustained over the long haul.
Here is the test: What do I do when I see the inordinate number of toys 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 give up on demanding instant results (no more short-sighted maternal tantrums involving threats and a giant garbage bag).
Out of respect for the differences in my family, I have had to learn how to take the long view, accept that while our home can be functional, it does not have to be photogenic. In short, I have had to chill out. I still revert sometimes and lose my cool over the perceived chaos of my surroundings. While the chaos alarm bells can be a helpful catalyst that motivates me to stay vigilant about the accumulation of unnecessary stuff, alarm bells are not the soundtrack I want for my day-to-day life.
What are some ways I can set us up to win? I can say no to plastic junk and dollar store detritus. I can carefully select items that fuel the imagination and can be used over time. Together we can gather quality children’s books, art supplies, and natural objects for ongoing exploration. I can reserve the right to pass along (donate) or return to the store any gifts that clearly conflict with standards we have set. That said, our control should not extend too far past these practical borders, or we will make our children anxious.
Making my children anxious is something I have had to overcome the hard way. My rigid attitudes about stuff have had to change, alongside my unrealistic attitudes about messes. Because of our quite limited kitchen counter space, I was becoming one of those adults who hovers and repeats the useless mantra of “Careful!”− obsessively cleaning up after my children, leaving no mess for them deal with once their project was complete.
It is stressful for children to be constantly policed as they try to accomplish a task. It also sends the message that we expect perfection. Rather, we need them 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 (acknowledging that varied age-appropriate levels of assistance will be needed). For me, moving away from harmful, controlling habits started with identifying what unrealistic standards I’ve set for myself, and figuring out where these impossible images are coming from.
If I were to create a meme, it would say:
You can either have kids engaged in meaningful,
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 hardy-har anti-cleaning declarations you may be familiar with. “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!
Cleaning, and teaching kids to clean, is important to me. But not all messes should be avoided, and life skills develop slowly, over time. Meanwhile, 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 had to look beyond the emotional impression of “the mess” and check my knee-jerk reactions. Instead of walking into a room spluttering, “What is going ON here?!” I try to survey the scene and differentiate between an irresponsible, out-of-control mess, and a rather temporary, productive one.
For example, the blanket-fort-in-with-dolls-and-pretend food is a good mess, and snack-crumbs and squished play dough-all-over-the-floor is not. The former is evidence of creativity and learning. The latter is a signal to pause playtime and restore order.
I find these three questions helpful:
Is this mess a productive mess? Can clean-up wait?
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?
What goodness do I see, what story do these good messes tell about my family? What would our living space tell an outside observer about the things that are important to our family? Those stacks of books under our children’s beds tell of beautiful worlds shaping our their imaginations. That collection of rocks on the windowsill tells of their love of the natural world, and their ability to pay attention to the world around them, to notice of beauty in its subtler forms. 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. These dolls on the sofa are not just clutter. They are an ongoing story that is currently on pause, because the dolls are sleeping right now. On the other hand, that trail of clothing in the walkway or strewn contents of a carelessly up-ended art supplies box tell the story of a distracted child who needs consistent guidance as they develop important life skills.
Constant motion and meaningful play make up childhood’s fondest memories. It’s not important to our kids that their world is photo-ready, only that they have some space where they can work, and that they can find whatever supplies they are looking for. They also prefer their mother to be fun-loving and laid back about life’s messes. I’m not there yet.
Minimalist lifestyle branding images do not help me. It’s time to shut those images down. Living a beautiful life does not mean being constantly photogenic. It does mean having a functional space and doing delightful things within our modest walls. (Losing my temper and being downright rude to my children while constantly trying to prevent messes is hardly a beautiful way to live.)
I’m not against minimalism or decluttering. I am for both. But foremost, I need to set the standard of what good enough looks like. I choose function and freedom for my kids to be kids who are LEARNING responsibility, over appearances. I choose trust in the long-term value of making messy mistakes over the short-term gains of constant correction and mess-prevention. Giving them opportunities to learn these skills also means refraining from doing everything for them.
What this looks like in my life right now is this:
I welcome scraps of yarn on my daughter’s shelf, the stuff of future art projects. I will one day miss the sight of the tiny beds she makes for her littlest dolls out of books and wooden blocks. I admire the tattered drawings my son has taped above his bed, because he chose them, and they make him proud. I accept that while sharing a room with us, our three year old will sometimes have her story props spread across my bed. I am thankful for the little tin box of gluing supplies my husband keeps tucked in among his books and CDs on his shelf, which he accesses quickly to immediately repair his children’s broken treasures, if they can be saved. They bring a broken toy to Papa, trusting it can be fixed.
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 observe free play and we’ll-clean-up-later times. I also observe designated no-nonsense clean up times.
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.
I accept a stack of unreturned children’s library books on this multi-purpose desk where the children watch online videos and where my husband and I do our work. I also enjoy knowing this pile won’t be here three days from now.