Learning to love mess: 8 ideas to get unstuck from the 'tidy up' battles
author By Emilie Leeks,

These days, I am a tidy, organised sort of creature. I wasn't once; I distinctly remember telling my parents that I liked my room with belongings strewn across the floor because 'then I know where everything is'. But nowadays I prefer a little more order - I like to have useable space, and to be able to lay my hands on things easily when I want them.

But now I have my own children of course. And orderly is not a word I would want to be using to describe my kids. I want them to live expansively, to have the freedom to play, to experiment, to use and do.

But oh! The mess! The tremendous, mind-boggling, heart-stopping mess!

mess lounge 4

Sound familiar? We want to give our children freedom to be, right? But for most of us, we just have SO much stuff, that before we know it we are wading knee-deep in dressing up clothes, lego blocks and goodness only knows what else.* And then we lose it. We try not to - first we ask politely for our children to 'please put their things away' - you know, when playing becomes impossible because there's literally no floor space left. Then it gets a bit more forceful; 'we must get things put away - please' (through lightly gritted teeth). And suddenly we find we have shifted gear into shouty mummy, shouty daddy, and we are yelling and stomping and screaming at our kids to 'get this mess tidied up or it will be ending up in bin bags!!!' This is probably the moment where you also notice the voice of your parent** coming out of your mouth - all those things you promised you'd never say. Sigh.

Now I know that not one of us here thinks that our own behaviour in these moments is ok. Yes, it would be lovely if our children would pick up after themselves on a regular basis, but in reality, we know - they are children. It's not their priority, their brains aren't yet developed enough to see the consequences of vast amounts of near constant mess, nor its effects on others, and it is just not realistic of us to expect them to get on and clear it up enthusiastically.

Not realistic to expect children to tidy JiP meme

So, what do we do? Do we leave it, pick it up ourselves, sweep it all into a massive heap in the corner and be done with it, make our children pick everything up (because we're told that otherwise they'll never learn, right?!!)…? What are our options here??!

Well, we do have choices, even though it doesn't always necessarily feel that way - we don't have to stay stuck in either the mess, or in the bad feeling it engenders. I am not suggesting you need to use all of the ideas below to make a difference in your home, but what you might find is that something here resonates, or sparks your thinking, so that you don't have to just keep on struggling and struggling and struggling with the interminable mess and the bad feelings around it!

1) Find our priorities

What is it we are trying to achieve when we ask our children to clear up their mess, or when we seek that tidy house? Where is that need for tidyness coming from? Is it that we function better in a tidy space, or is it more to do with feeling like we 'have to' have a tidy house for some reason? If we think about our own core values around our family and household (such as maintaining connection and warmth, or having a comfortable house that belongs to everybody), we can start to work out what is most important to us in how we move forwards as a family around this issue.

2) Find someone to listen

Listening Partnerships - where you swap time with another adult to just share and really feel into how things are for you - are a great way to vent about how hard it is living in a pigsty, or to really say what you think about how feel like a servant or how 'ungrateful' you feel your children are. Once you've had a chance to release some of the hard feelings around a situation, it's a lot easier to gain acceptance around what is going on (like that it may never be completely tidy!!), and to think clearly and plan about how you want to move forwards. (Listening Partnerships are one of the Hand in Hand Parenting tools, and you can find out more about them here)

LP Em Stuart
3) Declutter

If you're anything like my family, you have a lot of stuff. Like a LOT of stuff! We have been gradually working on minimising how much we bring into the house, and on getting rid of what doesn't serve us. And it is really really helping - even though it's hard work to get things going in this area!! Here's an interesting article if you'd like to look into this further: How to Let Go of Things

4) Make a plan

Spend some time talking together as a family around this issue - briefly explain that the level of mess is an issue for you, and why (for me, it's that we often can't then use the space for something constructive!), and ask how it is for others. Really listen to their views, and work out a plan between you as to how to move forwards. Accept any suggestions at first, then narrow it down to something you all feel you can try. If the plan doesn't work, then you can come back to the drawing board and try something else - but you all have input to and ownership of the plan, and that way it's a lot more likely to be effective

5) Learn to love tidying!

I know, I know - that's probably not what you want to hear! But if you realise that, ahem, shall we say 'encouraging' your children is not in keeping with your core values, but having the place tidy is still important to you, you might be tidying up for a while yet. In which case, why not enjoy it?! Since that is the way it is right now, finding some peace around having to do it can really help to maintain your sanity (after all it's your priority, not theirs). And modelling that attitude is much more likely to allow your kids the space to decide to help out more and more over time as well - because they just see it as a job that gets done, and there are no hard feelings about it

6) Request help

People love to feel useful, and it's no different for our children. So asking them to help out in small ways that line up with their developmental level (this will vary hugely from child to child of course) will actually make them feel like a valuable and contributing member of society. If you let them know at appropriate times, in a warm way, that you have a lot to do and you would really value their help, they may well want to support you. However, we must always remember that they may not want to help out, and respect that decision - after all, I don't always like to be interrupted when I'm in the middle of something that it is important to me either!

7) Create your space

If you can't wait for any big changes, or have decided that an overall tidy house is not your priority, but you still want a place to focus, try choosing an area that is only yours and that you keep tidy to maintain your sanity! It could be your desk, a whole room, or even just your bedside table! Wherever it is, make it just as you want it, and request that others respect that space by not leaving their things there

Desk tidy Em
8) Keep it fun!

And finally, if you want or need help with the tidying, avoid making your children feel you are nagging by going playful - not only is it very effective in terms of getting stuff done, but it also increases your connection with your child, and will often put you in a better mood than you were to start with, which is definitely a win! You may have to dig deep to find the energy to do it, but if you can, it is so so worth it! Here are some great ideas you could try: 25 tips for having fun tidying up

Of course these aren't by any means the only ideas you can try - but I highly recommend thinking about the issue from different angles, and really digging deep into your 'why' around what is going on, to help you make changes.

So, have we nailed it in our home yet? Are we paragons of calm when it comes to the mess?? Not in the slightest! Are things better around the issue of mess in our home? Definitely. So I invite you to take a small step to get unstuck… What will you try?

mess lounge 1

*Sticks. Probably sticks. Or maybe stones. Or feathers.
**No slur or blame intended to our wonderful parents, who were also doing their best, just as we are!!

A word or two about Journeys in Parenting; a responsive parenting community

Emilie is a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor, and was a paediatric speech and language therapist in her former life. She provides support and coaching for parents via the Journeys in Parenting community. Emilie lives in Berkshire in the UK with her husband and 3 children.

Journeys in Parenting is a community group for parents, carers and parents-to-be, who want to find out more about parenting in a responsive and peaceful way. The community offers information, advice and emotional support for this hard work we do as parents. The vision of the group is to be a safe space, where parents are supported in guiding their families in ways which: are respectful to children; meet the parents' needs; and lead to a more peaceful planet for all.

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