6 Ways to Avoid Spending the Whole Day Cleaning When You Have Little Kids

published Aug 27, 2022
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I’ll never forget visiting my high school best friend years ago when we had five kids between us. The kids were little and in that messy stage of crayons strewn all over, train tracks sprawling under living room chair “tunnels,” and all kinds of LEGOs and doll clothes and snack crumbs trailing them everywhere they went. 

My friend is one of the cleanest, neatest, and most minimalist people I’ve ever known. I’ve learned so much from her about how to simplify everything from my kids’ wardrobes to the contents of our garage. If I’d had to guess, I would have thought she’d be following her kids around and picking up their messes as soon as they made them. 

But she didn’t. Her whole attitude around our children’s play and the impact on the spaces in her home made such a deep impression on me. She let them have their fun. She was completely present and interested in whatever activity they were doing, and only after they had exhausted an undertaking did she consider picking up the fallout. (I should mention that they were too young to clean up themselves without assistance.) 

Now I have five children, and my friend’s example has always guided me when I begin to stress about the near-constant messes my kids leave in their wake. I don’t want to be a tornado of my own, in a constant tizzy of tidying up messes that never end. Here are six ways I avoid cleaning up all day every day, while still maintaining a mostly orderly home. 

Adopt a realistic mindset.

Expecting a home with everything put away in its proper place all the time is unrealistic. The adage that expectation leads to disappointment is just as true in this scenario as any other. I don’t want to be disappointed in the state of my home, especially during these precious and too-few years where they’re all here at home with me. I try to actively accept that messes here and there are “signs of life,” little reminders of all the people that are growing and learning in our place. When I feel overwhelmed, I try to remember that the mess will get cleaned up eventually and that stressing about it (or getting upset with my family members) does nothing to change it! 

Set and enforce a toy rule.

Before kids are verbal, I model this one rule: that one toy must be put away before another is taken out. Having only one out at a time, and making it a habit to put something away before taking something else out, is an effective way to keep play areas from becoming absolute chaos. Young children will need many reminders and lots of help, but it pays off in the long run to make this a consistent family practice. 

Make it fun. 

Set a timer and race to see if you can clean up a certain area in a designated amount of time, or blast the clean-up song or upbeat music for the duration of your cleaning session. Another fun strategy is “magic trash,” in which an adult picks one item to be the “magic trash” and whoever picks it up wins. 

Do it together. 

Asking my kids to pick up their messes, seeing that they didn’t do it, and then asking again is a recipe for an unpleasant atmosphere. If at all possible, I try to clean up with them to boost morale (and productivity). This eliminates the “us against them” feeling that kids can get when parents make them do things they don’t want to do and instead cultivates an atmosphere of mutuality. In our family, each kid has a zone they’re responsible for and we do daily “Power 10s” together. They make a significant impact on the state of our home. 

Or, do it alone. 

On the other hand, there are days when things don’t go according to plan or it’s too busy to clean up together. Have it in your mind that you will spend a specified amount of time cleaning up alone each day (and accept that). This way, you won’t be trying to clean up while your kids are playing instead of playing with them. It’s a valuable trade-off. I like to listen to music or a podcast while I do my nightly pickup after they’re asleep. 

Set an end time. 

Whether you clean with your kids or supplement with solo pickup times, it’s important to put parameters on the task and call things “good enough” when necessary. This way, you won’t be stuck in an endless loop of messes and cleanups and you’ll be able to enjoy that bedtime story with the kids or a quiet night recharging alone.

This post originally appeared on Apartment Therapy. See it there: 6 Ways to Avoid Spending the Entire Day Cleaning When You Have Little Kids