I worry that when I write about kids and tidying I’ll come across like a draconian weirdo. Or, more precisely, that I’ll have come to my own defense.
No, I’m not constantly haranguing my children. No, my kids are not scarred by being asked to put their toys away. No, I don’t imagine they might revolt and start hanging their underwear from the ceiling fan when they’re 16, but hey, who knows?
In general, I have an expectation that my kids will more or less take care of their stuff and help to make sure the house stays neat. Yes, they’re two and four. Yes, they seem to be more than up for the task.
Since writing about sharing tidying responsibility with James last week, a bunch of folks have asked for me to share a bit more about how I extend the invitation to tidy to the much younger members of the household. In general, I’d say that getting kids to clean up after themselves and to keep the apartment neat, isn’t so very different from encouraging adults to do the same. It’s a practice that requires laying out some expectations, offering easy-to-use solutions, and then following through with them until they become second nature. Kids get a bad rap for making messes of things, but I’ve found that given the right tools, they’re really expert organizers.
Here, a few of the guiding principles that we use to encourage our kids to help keep our place tidy.
For me, access is critical to kids being able to help with tidying. If kids can easily access the spot where something is supposed to be put away, they’ll have both the agency and the ability to clean up after themselves. Over and again, I’ve found that creating better access in our apartment has made it more tidy, not less. I understand the compulsion to limit child access as a way of controlling messes (or because of a need to keep them safe) but I’ve found that overtime, the more access kids have to their belongings, the more accustomed they become to the process and ritual of returning their things from whence they came.
To me, access doesn’t mean needing to have a full-blown Montessori-style classroom set up in our tiny apartment. For a long time, I would look at the wide, low, open shelves standard in Montessori spaces and bemoan our lack of space. But I’ve found that the actual specifics haven’t mattered so much. It doesn’t matter, for instance, how books are stored, or where, but that they’re in a consistent spot that kids can easily reach. Sure, it means they can pull them all down from the shelf, but it also means they can put them back again just as easily. Throughout the apartment we use wooden wine crates to create central but discreet storage locations for everything from school gear to books to winter hats and gloves.
In our kitchen, we reorganized things this fall so that our lowest cabinet can be a spot to keep our selection of small cups and bowls for kids. Likewise, in the fridge, we cleared a spot for a small glass water pitcher on a low door shelf. When the kids are thirsty, or helping to set the table, they have the materials they need within easy reach.
In their shared bedroom dresser, Faye and Silas can’t reach the tallest shelves themselves, but the height of the dresser helps us take advantage of space that would otherwise be wasted. We’re still able to keep things accessible by using soft-sided bins to organize the kids’ clothes on the shelves. The lowest bins house pajamas and undies and socks, which both kids are tall enough to reach. Higher bins are easy enough for me or James to pull down in the morning so the kids can get themselves dressed.
When easy access isn’t possible, we set up way stations for things that kids can’t manage to put all the way away themselves. On the wall by our front door, we use two hooks for temporary storage of winter coats. This gets them off the ground immediately upon entry and gives me or James a minute to breathe and take off our own coats before hanging everything up in the closet. In the morning before school, James or I set coats back out on the hooks so our kids can put them on themselves before we head out the door.
I’m really not interested in constantly policing my kids and so I try hard to embrace a mentality of mostly tidy with my kids. If they get their scarves and gloves into the box under the couch, excellent. Who cares if they’re perfectly folded? (They never are.) If their backpacks make it into the crate by the front door, superb. I can straighten them out if I want to. If they ask for help to pick up a pile of dumped blocks, I don’t deny the aid. For me, when it comes to teaching kids to tidy up, the effort and the intention behind the process matters more than the finished product. I think introducing the idea to kids that they’re able to help themselves is really what’s most important. In my experience, kids love having a job to do and love knowing that an adult trusts them enough to complete a task. I can’t work up extreme cheer about cleaning one hundred percent of the time, but I do find that my kids respond extremely well to a small job presented with great enthusiasm.
As always, my deep and abiding tidying principle is to start with a manageable collection of items. Even the most organized adult can have trouble keeping track of their things. Add kids and the general daily chaos of a young family and I feel like so many parents set themselves up for failure or frustration. Whether it’s shoes, or winter accessories, or art supplies, or dishes, or toys, I try to make sure we only have what we need and what we can manage.
Is a perfectly tidy home possible with young kids? For me, the answer lies in encouraging them to take ownership of their belongings by providing them with easy access to a manageable number of materials.
What’s the answer for you guys? What kind of guidelines do you keep in your families? Do you feel overrun by kids’ stuff or do you find that it’s mostly been manageable?
For the curious:
We’ve gotten all of our wooden wine crates for free, by way of local wine shops that put them out on the curb (or else, I’ve noticed a crate getting unloaded and asked for it outright).
Our rag rugs are all from Willaby.
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