The truth about managing messy kids, in 6 steps

The truth about managing messy kids, in 6 steps


The truth about managing messy kids, in 6 steps


I know where Olivia has been and how she has busied herself that day.

In this corner, she decided to draw, as witnessed by the bucket of crayons, colored pencils and paper, upon which appears to be etchings of an elf.

In the living room, a mat and floor beam lay where she practiced gymnastics hours earlier.

Sonja’s daughter, Olivia, practicing gymnastics in the living room. 

Upstairs, the bath tub is littered with Littlest Pet Shop toys and a kayak accessory while a tipped bottle of shampoo spills blue liquid down the side for what I guess served as a waterfall.

She is my messy child

Credit: Giphy

I’ve devoted entire weekends to cleaning her messes. She has cost me hours of frustration. We still bicker about the messes, which far surpass anything her two older sisters could make, even with a two-day head start.

But we’ve come to a peaceful understanding.

Things culminated one afternoon when putting away laundry. I entered her room and seeing the chaos, tossed out a cliché, “How can you live like this?”

I didn’t expect a response, but my 9-year-old gave it some serious consideration and answered:

“Well, I look around and I say to myself, ‘It is what it is.'”

Credit: Giphy

You know what she meant by that?


First, she could give a flip about mess. Duh. Second, she’s probably a tad too sassy.

How she conducts herself throughout her day at home is an expression of who she is: An extremely creative, active child who lives in the moment. I don’t want to take that from her. But I need some semblance of order in my home some of the time.

Here’s how we compromise.

1. Nighttime is the right time

I could trail her all day and make her stop and clean up one mess before making another. But I’d have to quit my job and literally follow her with a toy bucket, a broom and wet wipes. So much of her cleanup time comes after dinner or right before bed.

2. More is only fair

A child does laundry as part of her chores. Credit: Getty Images

Her daily chore list is often longer than that of her two sisters because, although she’s the youngest, she has created the larger share of messes to clean up. She accepts this. She also has come to know that although the word “messy” has a negative connotation, she doesn’t hesitate to tell people she’s also creative and that mess is part of her “process.”

3. Delayed gratification

If I see Olivia dragging out yet another art project or a bin with more toys, I might halt whatever she has in mind and tell her that until her room is picked up and the clutter from an earlier project has been cleared, she can’t proceed. She reluctantly agrees. Yaaaaassss!

Credit: Giphy

4. Assert non-negotiables

No one should live in squalor. Whatever it is, make sure the messy child knows what is non-negotiable. The crippling pain of stepping on LEGOS should make the list. Mine are clothes discarded on the bathroom floor that should be in the hamper. Make sure the messy child knows what these are and that no matter how free-spirited he or she is, these chores must be done.

5. Dangle the carrot

Credit: Giphy

Someday soon, Olivia will want something from me. We know each other so well that before Olivia even approaches me with a want — a place she wants to go, something she wants to buy — she’ll volunteer that she has cleaned under her bed, put away her toys, even cleaned out the backseat of the car. If, on the odd chance she hasn’t, I have a list of things she can tidy up waiting.

6. Ignore it

Credit: Sonja Haller

This too shall pass. One day, I’ll have the house to myself, with only my spouse’s mess to complain about. Until then, I shut doors. I kick stuff under couches. I shove things in closets.

I remind myself that Olivia is the most compassionate, happy child I know.

It is what it is.

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