Cleaning House

Consider it a preemptive strike.

Each December, roughly mid-month, I attempt to rid our home of its thin layer of excess. Ken loves this about me, my Grinch-like tendencies to Subtract during The Great Season of Addition, but I don’t know. Consider it a gift in white space. (Like snow.)

We will forever be on opposite ends of the spectrum, Ken and I. He, with his pack-rat bent, his sentimental attachment toward odd everythings. The man has never thrown away a child’s drawing given to him. His closet is filled with stacks of old college tees, service project tees, gifted tees he never wears. Once, in college, I opened a drawer in his rented kitchen to find an astronomical stash of Wendy’s ketchup packets for “Someday Use.”

It’s darling until it is not.

And me? Well, you know me by now. If it holds no purpose, it holds no place. Ever the practical. There’s a balance somewhere, and I haven’t yet struck it.


These are the folks I live with, and these are the folks I love. A bit of grace, then.

Below are a few simple tips that help me keep a tidy(ish) home while embracing the styles and bents of the ones I share it with:

 Person over point.
I am forever repeating this mantra in my head throughout the day. It’s a wise method to keep myself in check when I start to let my own theories or philosophies get in the way of embracing someone else’s. Person over point invites you to stop and think about the relationship, rather than your reasoning. Am I seeking to correct this behavior because it’s best for the other person, or because I’m attempting to prove a point? (Be honest; it’s generally the latter.) Person over point forces me to peek outside of my ideals to see the nuanced people in my home for who they are — and teaches me to see myself in that same light. When at the forefront of my mind, this simple phrase helps me to deliver teachable moments in a far more gentle manner.

Consider the style.
My organization style is compartmentalization – I love having set “collection” zones in my home to house a variety of different uses: baskets for books and blocks, a bin for stuffed animals, a caddy for art supplies, storage ottomans for puzzles, a toy chest for miscellaneous items. But this sort of organizational style feels overwhelming to Bee, and she’s prone to dreading the act of tidying because she dreads the act of sorting. Instead of forcing her into my own methods, we have a new rule: Off the floor, period. Toys can be sorted as she wishes in whatever storage area she’d like, as long as they’re cleaned up and off the floor by the end of the day. (Note: Just as our organizational style changes by season, their’s will as well! Older kids are far more gifted in the art of compartmentalization, so play to their current strength – it will all shift in good time.)

Model it.
Get on the floor and clean out your diaper bag, your laptop bag, your backpack. Let your young kid practice organizing (even though she’ll inevitably find gum wrappers she wants to keep as treasures forever and ever, Amen). Teach her the main tenets of tidying – a place for (nearly) everything and everything (nearly) in its place. It’s an easily-contained lesson you can tackle in 5 minutes or less – and who doesn’t love a clutter-free diaper bag?

Get specific.
When asking little ones to clean their rooms or tidy up, we often have to get specific about what that means. Using additional directives like, “Put your clean pants back into the bottom drawer of your dresser,” or “Throw away your paper scraps into the kitchen garbage,” or “Move your stuffed animals from the floor and into your toy chest,” helps offer a tangible task they can grasp, rather than an overwhelming concept that’s open to interpretation. (This also avoids the ever-familiar exasperation of “I asked you to clean your room!” and the child’s loose translation of the task: “But I made my bed!”)

Gather up.
Young kids haven’t yet developed spatial reasoning and often overlook clutter, so I’ve found a gather mat or blanket is immensely helpful in their understanding of what, precisely, needs tidied. At the end of the day, a gather mat goes into the center of the room and Bee and I throw the day’s toys and activities onto the mat. She’s in charge of making sure everything on the mat finds a home for the night (Bonus: sometimes the mat doubles as a super hero cape when tidied, so it’s a natural reward!).

Try a stealth purge.
As kids get older, more stuff comes into your home than you have the time or inclination to control. My rule is simply this – the space available is the space available. We have a set amount of hangers, a set amount of storage, a set amount of capacity. Once those capacities are filled, they’re filled. So if Bee wants to keep her rock collection of approximately 1,23,493 pebbles, she needs to find space for it, and that likely means letting go of something else in order to make room.
For the littles with packrat tendencies, my secret, tried-and-true method for de-cluttering is simple: the stealth purge. Sort through her toys/games/books while she’s preoccupied. Take notice of what you see your child playing with (no bias – sometimes the cutest toys you love are the ones she could care less about!) and place everything else into a bag or bin for the garage. Style what’s left so it feels orderly and tidy, then invite your toddler to come see how organized her space is! Communicate that you’ve designated some old things for donating, but that if there’s something she misses in the next few weeks, she can let you know. (Chances are, your kid will never even notice, but I always like to give them the benefit of the doubt.) After a 2-week mark has passed, you’re in the clear for a Salvation Army drop-off or to move your more beloved items into storage for future generations.

When you can, be mindful of what you’re bringing into your home. It’s no secret that the toys kids love most are cardboard boxes, sticks, blocks, balls, etc — the basics. There are clear benefits to offering our children less toys and more creativity, so whenever possible, avoid the temptation to fluff their nest with more bells and whistles (the grandparents and loving extended family will do plenty of that, after all).
In that same vein, being mindful about the way toys are stored will go a long way, too. Open storage looks pretty when styled on Instagram, sure, but when kids are involved, exposed shelving often invites clutter and appears chaotic. Be realistic about your own boundaries and limitations. For me, clutter only bothers me when it’s visible, so I opt for closed storage (chests, bins, boxes, cabinets) whenever possible.

Deep breaths.
There will be clutter. There will be clutter. There will be clutter. This is a season, and it’s a beautiful season – vibrant and busy and full and bright. There are Legos to step on and marker stains to remove, but soon there won’t be. Let yourself enjoy this for what it is: a magical mess.


Tell me, what are your secrets to keeping a tidy home that’s void of rigid rules and offers a bit of flexibility for all? I’d love to hear!

  • I love this! I am the um…not tidy one in the home, and I found this really helpful to read from the other perspective. As if I am bee and you are teaching me how to keep tidy in a manageable way :D.

    • hahaha, i love this, laura! and i love a good non-tidy person. did you know abraham lincoln was noted as the most disorganized (but arguably one of the best!) president of all time? it can be a gift, that kind of brain. :)

  • I adore your person over point concept. I can identity with your leanings where my husband and daughter are natural “collectors.” Although I will say my husband has witnessed the perks of my more minimalist habits and has shifted that way! Also the stealthy purging has bit me a little – but my 3 year-old has a crazy memory and will randomly want something I got rid of six months prior! As a former preschool teacher, the specific directives for littles and allowing them to sort themselves are great tips and developmentally appropriate! Love it!

    • thank you emily!!! i appreciate you offering your expertise in terms of development for the child — i’m sort of flying by the seat of my pants over here. but these definitely work well for us! and ha, those 3 year olds do have crazy memories, don’t they?

  • Since I have pack rat tendencies I’m looser with Forrest’s, but I’ve noticed he doesn’t really feel the need to hold onto most of the stuff. We have a bin of toys he and Daddy sorted out over the weekend that I WILL put in the 2-week zone before they find new homes, despite the fact some of them are only a few months old and really, you want to get rid of the Mr. Potato Head??! = )

    • oh that is AMAZING! i’ve never met a young kid who isn’t super attached to everything. your forrest is so uniquely wonderful. :)

  • When my mother downsized, what she wanted me to save and what I wanted to save did not match. Then it happened again with my daughter. My mother kept a few extra of my things and I kept a few extra of my daughter’s things. After all, we are each entitled to our own opinions as to what to cherish.

    • amen! what we find to be of good worth isn’t always what others find to be of good worth. :) one man’s trash, i suppose!

  • Love all the tips and could have definitely used several when our kids were little. I successfully used a variation of your stealth plan, though, by paring their stuff down by about half and boxing it to store. What was left always seemed brighter and more interesting to them since it was easier seen. After awhile, I would rotate, store the other half, and free the previously stored stuff. Less is more can be created on a schedule and be more enjoyable, we discovered.

    Love how you limit the amount that is in your space. If you have any thoughts on what to keep long term for the next generation, please share. So far, I’ve got way too many well-loved children’s books set aside, since those go out of print, you know. :) Plus, an extensive collection of Batman and even more so, Star Wars with some Indiana Jones mixed in. And if there were an adoption plan for Build-A-Bears, I would be all in. Giving them birth certificates might not have been the best for letting them go. lol And, yes, I’ve considered whether this is about getting rid of toys they may want “someday” or might become valuable on eBay for them, and relinquishing their childhood for me. :)

    • hahha, i love your mindfulness, cathy! i don’t save a lot, actually, and my theory is that it’s reallllllly hard to save joy for later. who knows what brings us joy, or when? so i often opt for gifting the most loved toys and things to others who i know will experience that joy today, rather than 30 years from now in the attic.

      the things i do save are family heirlooms (stuffed animals from our childhood that we’ve given to bee), and a few favorite things from each stage (favorite blanket, favorite sweater, favorite toy, etc) and we’re definite book savers as well. we have an old family rocking horse we’ll store, and i anticipate as bee gets older i’ll welcome her into the process as we decide which toys she might want in the future.

      likely, we’ll stick to the 1 bin rule — here’s your bin. fill it as you’d like with keepsakes, and as you have something new to add, we’ll let something else go so that it all fits. but i don’t know – i never want to truly squelch a sentimental spirit —it’s a lovely gift!

  • I like rotating toys so I don’t have to see them all at once and it makes it exciting when I bring something out that’s been in a closet for a couple months. I have started asking our 4 and 7 year olds if something is important to them, or if I can throw it out/give it away. I talk about how it feels when their rooms are clean, and I get really excited when our 7 year olds desk
    Is clean and I remind her how much that inspires her to make stuff.

  • Love this post… I especially appreciate the Gather idea. For us it’s always books or craft materials everywhere. I found the less toys we have it’s much easier for our littles to figure out where everything goes. Keep it up. Much love. Merry Christmas!

    • Absolutely, 100% agree! The best way to stay organized is to just have less. :) Merry Christmas!

  • Yep I’m definitely bee here, I get overwhelmed with tidying things and do have to split it into tasks to make my own life easier and so I don’t just move mess around. I am very good at getting rid of the old though, I love a good clear out and de-clutter.

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