Clutter or cleanliness?

Do you feel discouraged sometimes when you read books or articles about home educating? Or – worse – those TV adverts for breakfast cereals? Do you wonder where you’re going wrong, when you look at photographs of beautifully dressed children sitting, smiling, at the table, with a perfectly tidy house in the background?

If not, don’t bother to read the rest of this article. If you’re a natural housekeeper, and the snapshot above describes a normal day in your household, that’s wonderful. But this article is not for you.

If, on the other hand, your house tends to have books and toys scattered around, dust in awkward places, dirty socks under beds, and children happier playing with lego than writing in workbooks… then relax. You are one of the majority. Unfortunately writers and photographers tend to idealise the scenes and descriptions, and inevitably will tidy away the junk and comb the children’s hair before posing them… maybe even bribing them with chocolate if they can smile and sit still for just five more minutes.

The problem is that because we rarely see other people’s houses in their everyday state, we can assume that everyone else is far better at cleaning and tidying than we are. And other people get that impression of us, when they see our rapidly-tidied quickly-vacuumed living rooms prepared for our turn at hosting the support group meetings. And they too go away feeling discouraged….

What can we do to break this cycle?

Firstly, realise that your task is not to be perfect. It doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help your children. It certainly doesn’t help your friends. Forget the mask, forget the image, and be yourself. Admit your faults (within reason) and you are likely to be far more popular than if you only talk about the good days, and the happy times.

Secondly, look at your own needs and wishes for your home. Not your neighbour’s, or your mother-in-law’s, or even your husband’s, but yours. How do you feel most comfortable? Do you like having clutter around you? Many people do. Or does it make you feel unable to concentrate? Are you bothered by unwashed dishes overnight, or do you secretly prefer to leave them for the morning? How much does a dirty floor worry you? How often would you actually like to have the house really clean? Every day? Once a week? Once a month? Never?

No rules in de-cluttering

If you’re a list-making kind of person, try making yourself a list and think about what you think you ‘should’ do, and also what you seriously want to do, and how often. Or just think about it anyway.

Perhaps, ideally, you would dust once a week, and clean the toilet every day. Or vice versa. Perhaps you like ironed clothes, and find ironing relaxing, but really hate vacuuming. Or maybe vacuuming comes naturally to you but you can’t stand doing laundry.

We’re all different. If you are the main homemaker, then it’s up to you to decide what kind of standard you want for your home. Remember too your priorities. If you are the stay-at-home mother of small children, and/or a home educating mother, then that is your first priority. Housework can wait.

Consider everyone’s needs

Next, consider your family’s needs. All the family. Have a family council session if you like, brainstorming together about how everyone would like their rooms, and their home.

Children often have strong views about this, and object to having to tidy away toys every night, particularly when they are in the middle of a game. It’s usually Mum who cares most what the house looks like, so you might be surprised to find, if you really listen, that nobody else really understands why you hassle them to tidy up, or worry about vacuuming when guests are coming.

Your husband might insist he really doesn’t care what the house looks like, because he never notices anyway. Then again, he might be more fussy than you, and frustrated by general children’s clutter. Equally you might have a teenager who’s embarrassed by the huge ironing pile in the kitchen and the unwashed windows. So take note of all comments, positive and negative, and accept each opinion as valid without getting defensive or upset in any way.

When you’ve listened to everyone else’s ideas, share your own wishes about the house cleaning. Because you’ve thought them through, they should be fairly reasonable. Explain that, because you all live there, you should all take some part in keeping the house acceptably clean, but that you’ve decided not to worry about being perfect. Propose a plan of campaign, and give everyone the chance to discuss it.

Tell everyone what parts of the housework you’re happy to do, and what parts you dislike. If some of your family are bothered by untidiness or unwashed dishes, discuss with them what they can do to solve the problem. Together, see if you can come up with a rough outline of a plan.

De-cluttering campaign

The plan will obviously depend on everyone’s wishes, and also partly on the ages of your children. If they are very young, expect your home to be untidy. This is normal – even preferable – for home educating families, where the children are learning all day every day, through investigation and play, and ideally for all families with young children.

If you want a permanently tidy house, you should probably not have had children. Or at least, send them to school and extended daycare. But when you care about your children’s learning, it’s obvious that they need the freedom to explore. Their play might look like a mess to you, but if it’s important to them then it needs to be left.

Tidy zones and cluttered corners

Perhaps you can agree some ‘tidy zones’, like the living room, which get tidied each day. Perhaps you could provide some large trays or boards where toys can stay, and insist on cleaning the floors. Perhaps you can simply make sure that most of the messy play stays in rooms you’re not using…. or perhaps you can ignore the clutter and the mess, and see instead your children’s happy faces as you sit down and play with them instead of tidying!

If you decide on a once-a-week (or once-a-month) thorough clean-up, give plenty of warning about this. Once your children know that you really are going to tidy up at set times, but mostly are prepared to leave their things as they want them, they will be far more likely to co-operate.

I’d suggest, too, a bit of family brainstorming to see how your children can help with things that need to be done every day. At 6 or 7 a child is quite capable of wiping up spilt food, helping fold and sort laundry, drying dishes and so on. I don’t believe in assigning ‘chores’, but it’s fine to encourage everyone to help as needed. It’s part of being a family. Ask for volunteers. Or suggest a rota, which the children draw up by themselves.

There are no rules that say Mum has to do all the housework, and I found that mine used to love things like vacuuming, or putting on the washing machine! The novelty wore off by the time they were about ten, but as teenagers they were both responsible entirely for their own rooms. For the rest of the house, we generally tidied up all together when guests were coming, and share jobs reasonably amicably.

Easier with older children?

When your children are older, it becomes easier, because they no longer have hundreds of bright plastic toys, and are more likely to want to keep their stuff in their bedrooms. But then again, toys seem to be replaced by left-over science experiments, empty cups, half-read books, and ever-increasing piles of paper with designs and ideas and notes.

What you do about this depends, again, on your master-plan (which should, of course, be infinitely flexible) and your personal wishes. Some families leave everything out, and everyone is happy. Some have a once-a-week tidy where everyone rallies round and the house becomes tidy and clean for a day. Some prefer to gather up all the stuff that’s lying about and dump it on the relevant person’s bed, so it can be dealt with. The important thing is to be consistent, and to keep calm. Yelling and nagging rarely achieve anything.

On the other hand, an occasional, ‘Would you put those books away, please?’ does tend to get good results. Eventually, perhaps, the children will decide that they prefer a measure of tidiness in their rooms, and like to be able to find things. Perhaps they’ll start to put books away when they’ve read them, and file their paperwork.


But then if it didn’t come naturally to you, why is it likely to with your children?

Untidiness is relative

Many years ago when I was a registered childminder (‘day-care provider’ in US English) in the UK, we had an unexpected visit from the health visitor. I apologised for our untidy house and she said cheerfully that an untidy house was an ideal environment for children; she was much more worried when she arrived at a house that was spotlessly clean with no clutter or toys.

In the scheme of things, how important is a tidy house anyway? Have you ever heard of someone, on their death-bed, muttering that they wished they’d kept their house cleaner? I doubt it. The years with your children at home will vanish before you know it, leaving you years of retirement to have your house spotless, if that’s what you want. But in the meantime, enjoy your children. Enjoy your home.

If you would like help beginning to de-clutter, and find daily routines and frequent email reminders helpful,then you might like the Flylady site, although some of the advice (and much of the timing) is not appropriate for those in the UK. But there are gems beneath the ultra-enthusiastic American style; ¬†if you’re drowning in clutter and overwhelmed by mess, it’s worth trying Flylady for at least a month.