Keeping on top of the mess with kids

I think this has been the hardest thing for me as a parent – finding the balance between letting my kids be kids and having my own space. Isn’t this the struggle for all of us? I’ve seen the extremes of both – not a toy in sight and living rooms full of every toy you could ever imagine.

So where do we start? Where do we stop?

It’s taken me a few years to get comfortable with my new normal, but I feel like we now have a system that works if we are consistent. With three little ones of different ages, it has certainly been a challenge! But here are some tips on how to maintain your own space while letting your kids be little.

Designate play areas

When we were looking for a house, i was pregnant with my son and had a two-year old daughter. My non-negotiable was a basement or a room that could be used as a playroom. We live in an extreme climate, one that keeps us indoors for 8 months of the year. I knew that in order to survive winter, i needed a space that didn’t always need to be clean or organized.

Our basement is small but it is the perfect space for our older kids to play. Every year, we switch things around so that the space works for their age. Since i stay at home, we are on a tight budget. The items i use to organize are either from the dollar store or garage sales. While the kids are little, I’ve learned not to invest in furniture that needs to be kept in mint condition. I would like to NOT freak out about one area of the house.

Since I could not keep the kids in the basement all day, I converted our front closet upstairs into a craft area. I keep everything there, accessible to little fingers who want to get creative. That is where we keep the markers, crayons, paper, notebooks, playdough, board games, etc.

Kids want to be with you. They will inevitably make their way up or over from their “zone” to crawl onto your lap or colour on the floor next to you while you are trying to do ab burners. Instead of shooing them away or stepping on Lego, find a spot in the “shared area” of the home where they can spread out.

Designate shared areas

We are constantly drilling it into our children that the living room, kitchen and bathrooms are “shared spaces”. This means, they are welcome to play in it as long as it isn’t being used for anything else. When we have playdates, the moms are usually in the kitchen or the living room. If this is the case, i (patiently) try to explain that it is being used for mamas right now and they can either play in the basement or in their rooms.

They are also allowed to play with whatever they want in the house, but at the end of the day, all toys have to either be in their rooms or in the basement. This is a CONSTANT battle. There have been several evenings when my husband pulls out an enormous black garbage bag and starts scooping up Hotwheels and barbie accessories. This usually produces a lot screaming from paralyzed, grief-stricken children who stop cleaning. So, effective? Not in the moment. But it is something we say every night and it’s now become a habit.

Designate Sacred Areas

I believe that kids have become entitled because we have allowed it to happen. Nothing is sacred anymore. Toys are cheaper, so they can have whatever they want. Parenting is looser, so they can get away with a lot more. Houses and living spaces are bigger, so there is no corner or nook that cannot be filled with kids paraphernalia.

Must…hold…back…the wave…of…preschool crafts..

Our bedroom (meaning me and my husband’s) is a SACRED area. Ain’t nothing shared about it. There are no toys allowed (or playing without us) in our room. This does not mean we deprive our children of morning snuggles or a bedtime tickle fights. But you cannot find one thing of a child’s in our room. It is my safe zone. My clean zone. My i-need-to-be-an-adult zone. OBVIOUSLY, I will occasionally find a toy under the bed or under my covers. Right now, there is a purple smudge from a marker that somehow made it onto my coverlet.

I had to swallow fiery, red rage that was almost unleashed on the 4-year-old.

There are also things in our room that our kids aren’t allowed to touch or view, so it’s really in their best interest that they are kept out of there if they are unsupervised. Also, kids need clear boundaries. They need to know that not everything is a toy (another mantra repeated daily in our house) and some things are only for adults. When we start allowing kids to trample on every area of the house, we are also telling them that they have no limits. They are desperate for boundaries and thrive when they are told no. This is GOOD FOR THEM.

Our office and the back patio of our deck are also sacred space. Again, they are allowed to be there but only with us. Our yard is tiny. Our kids are attracted to mud. As soon as we tell them the whole space is theirs, there is nowhere to sit with a cocktail that does not have muddy fingerprints all over it. We are ruthless about these areas…as soon as a muddy bowl comes around the corner and approaches my pretty white picnic table, there is a resounding “NO” from the lips of me and my husband.

Too harsh?

Let me ask you – do you remember your grandparents having lots of toys for you to play with? Do you remember being allowed to get whatever toy you wanted growing up? Do you REMEMBER how much Power Wheels cost?

Every generation has its limits. With my parents, it was financial. Families didn’t make as much and toys were not as cheap. That has changed. So that means our parenting has to change. We must set limits, and that includes the areas of our living spaces.

Buy less crap

This seems like a no-brainer. But it isn’t. How many times has your child begged for a toy that you know is garbage and even if you don’t buy it right then, you get it eventually? Because they will LOVE IT.

False.

There are very few toys in our house that get used over and over. In fact, those toys were purchased years ago and have withstood the wear and tear of three children. It means they are probably good quality and inspire my children to get creative. Toys that do all the work for kids are short-lived and poorly loved.

Invest in good toys that:

  1. Inspire creativity. In our house, that includes Duplo, Lego, Magformers, Playdough and craft supplies,
  2. Encourage cooperative play – we love board games, cards, and toys that can be used for both boys and girls to play together. My kids usually lead us in this way (for instance, my son loves Hotwheels. So we build tracks and give the kids different jobs depending on their interests. Our 6 year old girl can play cheerleader or help tape down the track).
  3. Aren’t garbage. It’s $3 for that knock-off pony at the dollar store. Who cares if it gets wrecked or lost, right?
    Wrong. It teaches kids that toys are disposable and they don’t learn how to care for the toys they really like. Our daughter recently lost a toy that meant a lot to her and we didn’t replace it. She now leaves her favourite toys at home because she learned her lesson.

Give it away

Whenever my kids see a plastic bag in the hallway with various items inside, they drop what they are doing and inspect the contents. “Are you giving this away??” they ask in shrill, panicky voices. Sometimes it is bound for the thrift store. Other times, it is bound for the basement where it will be stored until it is forgotten about or needed for the next kid. But more often than not, it is being given away.

I have a friend who is an absolute genius in this area. One day, i got excited because i had found all the tiny broken junk toys in the house and threw them away. I sent her a text and i immediately received a picture in return. It was a picture of her garbage can, filled with tiny broken, junk. I swear she does this every day and lives a kind of life that I only dream about.

Not only is it healthy for us to get rid of useless items, but good for our kids too. It keeps them on their toes. That’s a joke. But i do find it helps their generosity (at an appropriate age – my daughter is now amazing at giving stuff away. One year ago, I asked her to go through her barbies – there was a grand total of zero barbies in the give-away pile). They also realize which stuff is important and what is not.

Kids with less play with more.

Set limits and expectations

Like any kind of discipline, kids need clear limits and clear expectations. If you’re annoyed with how your kids treat their stuff, chances are that it’s not their fault. They don’t understand the value of their stuff because their boundaries (and your pockets) are limitless. If you’re overwhelmed by the toys in your living room, then make clear expectations of where your kids need to put them at the end of the day. Like anything, it will take a while to make good habits. But in the end, your kids (and your sanity) will thank you for letting them get away (and play) with less.