Every parent has a different level of cleanliness – the state of the house where we feel comfortable and “done” with cleaning. And everyone goes through the same cycle: your house gets dirtier and messier and you feel overwhelmed, and then when you get time (and energy) to clean it and get it back into shape, you feel calmer. There is a range or spectrum of normal cleanliness, and wherever you are on that range is okay. You know where you feel comfortable and how much energy and time you want to or are capable of putting into it. Your level of cleanliness comes from the type of house you grew up in and the habits you have developed over the years. It takes a lot of work and energy to raise your overall level of cleanliness, and I’m not suggesting that is necessary. There are pros and cons to being super clean. Your house looks great and you avoid embarrassment when people pop by, but you also can get frazzled about messes and be overly strict with your children about cleanliness. I’m not saying everyone has to be perfectly clean, or that doing so will make you happier. But I did want to share with you some ideas of how to prevent messes, with the understanding that your housekeeping methods may be different than mine, and that is okay.
I like to be organized and have everything in its place. But I don’t really enjoy cleaning, as in getting out the cleanser, spraying, wiping – deep down cleaning. Therefore, as a parent, one of my main goals is to prevent messes! If I can prevent a mess I will not have to do as much cleaning up afterwards and I will have fewer loads of laundry, which not only saves time but also uses less water, soap, and energy. My motivations for preventing messes are somewhat selfish, but teaching children to be clean is beneficial to them (creates good lifelong habits), and it can lead to more interaction and time spent with your children.
There are three areas of the household you can focus on to prevent messes: the kitchen (eating), the bathroom, and toys and activities. Because we eat so often and eating can be so messy, meal times are the main opportunity for avoiding messes. To help contain the mess and give children structure and order, have rules about where, when and how children eat. Examples of such rules are: ask before getting any food; only eat in the kitchen area; sit down on a chair at the table to eat; wash hands after eating. After these ground rules are set you can encourage them to eat as cleanly as possible: take small bites, lean over their plate, use their napkin. All these skills take years to perfect, of course, and there is a certain amount of messiness inherent in feeding children. But the point is you have a goal in mind. You want to encourage and teach these practices all along the way, and eventually they will be natural to your children.
You also have to model these habits yourself. Eat purposefully, which means make your meal, sit down to eat, turn off the TV or other electronics, and enjoy time with your children. This approach to eating has many benefits. It is better for your health – you end up eating healthier foods and less overall food. It is calming rather than stress-inducing. And it creates built in time with your children. What starts out as a selfish endeavor aimed at having less cleaning and laundry is actually the ideal way to have a meal as a family.
Focusing on preventing eating messes can be a strength and a weakness. It’s important to get children in these good habits, but you don’t want to get too uptight about it. Children have a developmental need at different ages to play with their food, touch their food, or feed themselves. These are trying times for a clean parent! You have to balance your need for clean with their need for exploring their food. But you have the goal in mind to teach them, over time, the clean way to eat. When your children are eating, stay close by with a rag or wipe to clean their hands and face before they touch furniture or their clothes. If they are always seated (and hopefully supervised) while they eat, their clothes have a greater chance of staying clean. Little by little you teach (but don’t expect) children to not throw their food, to not smear it in their hair, to take smaller bites that fit into their mouth, to not spill food on the floor, etc.
Another place that gets dirty quickly is the bathroom. Kids + brushing teeth = huge mess! I didn’t want to be wiping down the bathroom sink all the time, so I taught my kids to be clean when brushing their teeth. I brush their teeth until they are about six years old, and after that I teach them to not use too much tooth paste, spit close to the drain, and wash down the spit when they are done. If there are any globs of toothpaste in the sink I have them wipe those down with water and their fingers. They don’t like doing that and learn quickly how to avoid creating those globs.
We have four girls, so our toilets don’t get very messy. Some families with lots of boys teach them to grab a wipe and wipe down the toilet seat (one or both, depending on where the pee got) every time they go (once they start standing up to go). This sounds extreme, but even with my little exposure to boys’ bathroom habits, I think I’d adopt that rule!
Lastly, children can be taught to be cleaner with their toys, activities, and other possessions. Try to get children into the habit of putting away whatever game or type of toy they were playing with before getting out something else. Also, teach them to ask you before they do a messy activity like painting or beads. That way you can supervise them properly. Another prevention tactic is to keep certain toys out of children’s reach. Toys with lots of small parts like Legos or Polly Pockets can be kept up high. The child has to request to play with them, and then you know (try to remember) that they’ll need to be cleaned up and put back up high when she is done playing. You can see that teaching children these habits requires you to supervise them closely and continually remind them. Children who are taught to stay out of certain cupboards or drawers will cause fewer messes. I know this all sounds slightly ridiculous, as if you can just tell a child once to stay out of a cupboard and he’ll never open it again! But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m just saying you can try. Improvement in behavior happens over months and years.
When you walk into your child’s bedroom and see a huge mess, often there is part of you that knows you could have prevented this. You could have checked on them more often instead of being on your computer or phone call. You could have asked them to clean up the one game before moving on to another. It’s a trade off: if you are more present and aware during the time they are playing, you’ll have less work to do afterward. Sometimes it’s worth it to let them make a big mess, but it’s important to know that it is possible to prevent it.
In summary, you don’t have to prevent messes, but if you want to, there are strategies to decrease your time spent cleaning and doing laundry. Try to help your kids learn clean habits (in a kind and calm way!) and you will reap the benefits.