Like a bajillion other people, I eagerly read Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, a manual on decluttering and organizing your life and your home. It’s a quick read, and has been much lauded for its effective and ruthless purging techniques. To sum it up, you should get rid of anything that doesn’t "spark joy" inside of you. Anything that you don’t truly love and use often should get the heave-ho.
Kondo’s book is pretty thorough in how to undertake this tidying up, and I enjoyed the streamlined yet largely simple way she approached clutter. BUT there was one huge, gaping hole: Kondo doesn’t have kids (or a live-in partner/spouse), and she makes no attempt to address these additional experts in making messes. I'm not an organizational expert, but I do have the perspective of being a parent forever struggling against chaos and entropy in my home, so I came up with several tactics for tidying your home while living with kids and (perhaps more importantly) keeping perspective.
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Before I had kids, I fit all my junk inside a tiny bedroom in an apartment (it wasn’t even supposed to BE a bedroom, but welcome to New York City). I may have needed more than one mason jar as a container for my trash for an entire year, but I didn’t have much, and I didn’t need it. When I got married and my husband and I traveled to Ghana and Morocco and then explored the northeast for several weeks, I lived happily out of a suitcase. We bought a small(ish) house and decorated it as thoughtfully and environmentally consciously as possible. I took pride in having a home that was clean, neat, organized, sustainable.Then… along came my beloved children.
First there was the adjustment to all the mounds of tiny baby clothes, the toys, the books, and the various other baby accoutrements. Some babies are chill and don’t need much. They are happy playing on a blanket, sucking their toes, etc. Other babies (and my first fell into this category) need constant stimulation, so we ended up buying more gadgets (a swing! a bouncer! three different types of swaddling blankets!) so that we might have a chance at taking a shower once every few days without our son freaking out. Some babies also have grandmothers who cannot stop buying them stuff (even when the babies’ parents have tactfully asked them to restrain themselves).
Anyone with a child of any mobility knows that the next stage includes pulling down and messing up anything within arm’s reach. You could freak out about this and spend all day every day
a) following behind your child and cleaning up his mess
b) watching him like a hawk and redirecting him every time he gets near anything
c) getting extremely frustrated and wondering desperately when he will understand that certain things are better not scattered all over the floor or
d) pick your battles and move most of the stuff at his level somewhere else until he can help pick up the mess.
Once my kids became school age, I realized that I would forever be fighting another battle: let’s call it the macaroni necklace wars. From the first piece of “art” my son ever created (he painted a picture of a pumpkin, and I loved it so much I insanely had it professionally framed), I knew we were in trouble. How could I possibly throw something away that those miraculous, adorable, creative little hands had made? Fast forward 7 years, and I am much more able to toss random things he and my daughter made while at a museum or that came home, stuffed in their backpacks and wrinkled. But while I cull through their artwork a few times a year, I notice something: it always sparks joy. I love watching them evolve as creative little artists. As a parent, I cannot use Kondo’s definition as an efficient way to get rid of things.
And then there is the matter of what sparks joy for my kids. As much as I would love to throw away all of the-let’s be honest- crap that they get as party favors, it’s not necessarily fair for me to just chuck everything I can get my hands on. Kids pick surprising toys and stuffed animals as their companions. Some of the most random, illogical items have become their favorite playthings. My daughter, for example, will play with a half-deflated balloon for hours.
The Washington Post just published an article about how millennials are shunning the collections and heirlooms that their baby boomer parents have spent years amassing. I imagine our children will one day feel the same way as I do: I have heart palpitations when I think of all the stuff in my parents’ house. My mom has of late been trying to throw out some of our old stuff, but she and my Dad are collectors of china and various other knickknacks and my mom is an artist and the last time I was home I found the rice cooker I used my freshman year of college tucked away in a cabinet. I know I don’t want to burden my children with stuff; I want them to feel free to move about and explore the world and not worry that grandma’s china doesn’t have a place to live too.
Kondo says, “Your real life begins after putting your house in order,” and I have to disagree. My real life is happening now, as my family grows and changes. I want a clean, organized, tidy house as much as the next person, but here is what I have realized: there is no magical art of tidying up and getting rid of everything. There are, however, methods that will be invaluable to your sanity, but there is little that is mystical about them. Here are 9 ways to keep your house in some semblance of order.
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1. Teach your kids to clean up.
Raise your hand if you have ever cleaned up your kids’ toys because it was faster and more efficient. Okay, stop! You have to teach your kids to clean up after themselves. I was shocked at my toddler’s baby music class to realize that kids that young can clean up after themselves (and they actually really like it!!). After they were done playing with the various instruments, we would sing the “clean up” song, and like little automatons, they would all begin picking up a chime or finger cymbals. We followed that routine at home for years. Now we generally set a timer after dinner for 5 or 10 minutes and see how much they can get cleaned up and/or put away.
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2.Be realistic about the future of your child’s artwork.
Your child is NOT going to want every single little piece of art she created (nor will she know what pieces you did throw away). Some of the earliest pieces basically amount to her teacher sticking your child’s finger into some paint and then pushing said finger onto a piece of paper. Also, consider tossing pieces with extra 3-D baubles-like shells, sticks, etc. They are not going to survive intact!
I keep my kids’ art in a giant folder. Once a year I go through and toss out stuff. It’s amazing how letting a little time go by makes you realize that you don’t need eighteen crayon drawings of a volcano; just one will probably suffice.
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3. Recognize that the biggest stage of junk collection will likely occur between the ages of 3 and 8.
This is the age of overflowing party goody bags, Thomas the Tank engine obsessions, playing with teeny tiny dollhouse figurines, etc. Take a deep breath. Your house will probably not look perfectly maintained for a while, but it doesn’t need to. If your kids are young enough to be home with you during the day, trying to keep it impeccably maintained every day is soul-crushing. They are just going to turn the place into a tornado again when they wake up, so it feels a little ridiculous to get the house completely in order just while they are sleeping. My kids will both be in school for traditional school hours next year, and I already know my house will be in better shape because they will only have four or five waking hours to create chaos instead of twelve. When your kids are older, they may start actual curated collections, but by that point, they are definitely old enough to keep those items in their room and organized and will likely want to display them.
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4. Make rules for rooms.
My kids don’t play in their own rooms much so it has been challenging to keep their stuff from spreading all over the house. Most of our space is truly shared, and I never liked the idea of having certain rooms that they weren’t allowed to play in. However, we do have certain rules, such as that LEGOs stay in my son’s room instead of scattered around the living room. My daughter has a dress up cabinet, and while she can parade around the house in as many princess costumes or capes as she can layer on her, she knows that they all go back into their home at the end of the day. I like having an orderly bedroom (tripping over toys on the way to bed is not my idea of fun), so my kids know that if they bring something in there to play with, they take it back out with them when they leave.
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5. Make the outdoors your second home.
There are about a million great things about playing in nature. One of my favorite is that the toys are already there. Gathering rocks or leaves satisfies a child’s collecting bug, making fairy houses from moss and sticks is a natural art project, and letting kids stomp around in puddles and smear mud around are all ways that you can keep your house from getting trashed and your kids happy.
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6. Purge regularly.
Ok, your closet doesn’t need to look like the one above, but paring down on a regular basis is helpful. Pick a time once a month/every six months/etc. to go through old stuff (including clothing your children may have outgrown). If your kids aren’t old enough to handle this and will just end up playing with their toys, do it at a time when they aren’t around. It’s tempting to say, when a toy has been unplayed with for a while, “But what if my child comes back to it/goes through another Frozen stage?” Most kids don’t even remember their old toys! If you’re really torn about giving something up, put it out of sight for a few weeks/months and then bring it back out. If there’s no interest, pass it along to another child. Kids actually understand the concept of making room for new things, so if your child has a birthday or a holiday coming up (and will likely be getting gifts from friends and family), have him go through his toys to remove what he no longer wants. My kids have been so ruthless with the purging process that I realize I am often the one holding on to things for sentimental value. They are ready to toss most of their old toys without a backward glance once they have moved on to their next obsession.
7. Think very carefully about what you want/need to hold on to.
We have passed on a lot of baby clothing and furniture, but we have kept some to gift to friends and family members who we expect will expand their family down the road. We also have a few family heirlooms that aren’t particularly useful, but have so much tradition and sentimental value associated with them. Honestly, I can’t throw away everything I would like to: I hold on to a lot of my kids’ favorite books in the hopes that they will read them to their children someday. I have saved some of my own favorite clothes for my daughter because my Mom threw away almost all of her awesome hippie clothes from the 60s and 70s and I cry every time I look at old pictures of her in outfits that I wish she had saved. A lot of us have attics or basements or places to store extra stuff, which can be dangerous for hoarding but which also offer us a little wiggle room to save some of the things we are most sentimental about. But that’s not a free pass to keep everything!
8. Don’t just kick your old stuff to the curb.
Kondo doesn’t seem to be much of a recycler (I don’t actually know how prevalent recycling is in Japan), and she tells many a tale of her clients clearing out bags and bags of unused or unloved stuff, ready to start a life free of clutter. Please freecycle, upcycle, Craiglist, yard sale, etc. your goods as much as possible. Day care centers, homeless shelters, and other organizations are often in desperate need of many of the things we have just chilling in our attic.
9. Give up (or relax) the magazine-ready house dream.
You know what I’m talking about: those glossy spreads of families living in pristine houses with everything in its perfect tidy place. Here’s a little secret: they don’t look like that all the time. Some magazines have entire teams of people who come in and stage those photo shoots. In any case, for most of us, we just want to live with less clutter, a little more organization, without the feeling that “oh man, I have to clean this all up AGAIN.” So let go of the dream of having a house that’s perfect and focus on having a house that is clean and tidy enough for you to have time to play, read, create, and spend time with each other however you please.
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