If body language could be heard, mine was screaming. From the doorway of my daughter’s bedroom, I stood – hands on hips and jaw clenched. "Elizabeth," I hissed, "I told you to clean this room an hour ago, and it’s still a mess!"

"I know," she sighed, taking in the ankle-high, wall-to-wall debris with a look of defeat. "It looks like a tomato hit it." (She was only four, but I knew what she meant.)

"Put these toys away right now, or it will be a long time before you see them again," I demanded.

Her eyes widened. "Ohhh! Where are you gonna put ’em – in layaway?"

Don’t ask me what happened next.

In the 14 years since that messiness crisis, I’ve learned a bit about kids and clutter: lower my expectations; teach by example; and break down big jobs into small tasks. Other moms have taught me to avoid procrastination, scale down possessions and make cleaning fun.

All this insight and advice worked, but a couple of obstacles still undermined my dream for a clean house.

Setting an example

Telling my preschooler to clean her room while I got sidetracked with a reorganization project elsewhere frustrated us both. It didn’t help that I kept forgetting that children have to be coached repeatedly through a new task. Toss in my perfectionism and – voila! – instant stress for everyone.

The turning point came when I found myself lecturing Elizabeth again about neatness while, simultaneously, I glanced down the hallway at my room: unmade bed, crumpled clothes and jumbled books. In a flash, irritation gave way to embarrassment. The mess wasn’t just in her room.

I knelt beside Elizabeth and repented for being hypercritical of her and hypocritical.

"Elizabeth, I need to apologize for getting upset about your room when my own wasn’t clean. That’s not fair. I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me?"

She did, and her little heart lightened at the new rule: If Mommy’s bed isn’t made, she doesn’t have to make hers.

Several years passed, then another messy child, Andrew, came into our family. My practice-what-you-preach-before-you-discipline rule still held. But we faced a new challenge: How much clutter is OK?

Beyond the unmade bed

Some games just can’t be played properly without creating a little mess. Andrew and his cousin Robbie, both 10, recently spent hours re-enacting epic scenes from The Lord of the Rings movies with their action figures. One of life’s great mysteries, though, is how these boys can identify each character’s miniscule accessories yet be blinded to the collective clutter that dominates their play area. ("Mess? What mess?")

Because it’s important to respect their play "work," my husband and I can ignore the chaos – for a while. We draw the line when it begins to cost any family member:

  • time – because repeatedly searching for lost items is a waste;
  • money – because we have to replace an item we either can’t find or (crunch!) found too late;
  • space – because the clutter is encroaching on shared areas; or 
  • peace – because mess fuels stress.

Andrew didn’t understand the cost of clutter until some of his favourite toys broke underfoot (limited-edition collectibles, naturally). Though de-cluttering for him is ongoing, he now prefers a neat area to play in. "Then my toys are not at risk; they are safe, and so am I," he admits.

Whose house is it anyway?

Elizabeth is 18 now. Because she’s spending more time away from home and buying more of her own things, there’s scant need for parental lectures about her room. Besides, most days it’s the neatest one in the house.

What about the independent teen who claims, "It’s my room," and the clutter-conscious parent who counters, "It’s my house"? No amount of cleaning will reveal a clear boundary between the two. But for families of faith, such border wars can end by embracing the truth that the house – and every room within it – belongs to God.

A few years ago, our family memorized 1 Chronicles 29:11, which includes, "Everything in heaven and earth is yours." This has done more to inspire household order than any guilt trip or discipline ever could.

© 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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