Not one of the parenting manuals prepared you for children’s ability to create such an extraordinary amount of mess. So what to do about it?

Words: Rachel Webb

You don’t have to be a physicist to understand chaos theory: just bring a child into your life. First the sticky walls and random piling of toys and sharp objects all over your floors. Then this morphs into the true pit of awfulness – a crammed, cluttered, stinky bedroom. While the occasional meltdown provides you with temporary relief, it won’t cure their untidiness, so here’s what you need to know in order to stay sane. 

Disordered development

Small children have no concept of disorder – their great mission is to explore the frontiers of their world. Watch any toddler and marvel at how they become absorbed in the process of taking everything out of a toy box, kitchen cupboard or drawer and chucking it on the floor. While they are messing up your home, they are also building co-ordination and motor skills, pattern spotting and learning about colours, textures and shapes, so there’s a positive.  

Little helpers

Young children do usually enjoy helping out – part of natural role play and mimicry – and this is to be encouraged, even if they slow things to a crawl every time you restore some order. Getting your pre-schooler to put things back into the toy box, hang up their coat, even help sweep up crumbs, is not only fun for them but instils habits that their nursery and school will thank you for.  

Try tidying up to music or making a game of it with a time challenge or a guess-the-right-place competition. Be realistic in your expectations and give lots of praise to keep the helpfulness going.  

Bedroom battles

Your child’s bedroom is a whole other issue – and one that invariably gets worse as they head towards teenage years. While they live under your roof, it’s best to put any dreams of a Marie Kondo-style existence on hold.  There are diverse theories as to why children are so untidy in their own space. One is that they don’t see the chaos. Another is that they have a different sense of order (and sometimes they do actually know where everything is).

“While children live under your roof, put any dreams of a Marie Kondo-style existence on hold” 

For many children, planning and organisation are challenging, so the instruction ‘tidy your room’ causes panic because it is so open ended. Break things down into a ‘must do’ list of achievable tasks – return mugs to kitchen, put clothes in laundry basket, and so on. Offering to help with a more thorough declutter every so often may be welcomed. Mentioning the possibility of a tidy eBay or garage-sale profit for them or their favourite charity might be the incentive that persuades them.  

As you yearn for that well-ordered universe far, far away console yourself with the thought that all parents – yours included – survive these chaos years and sometimes even feel a twinge of nostalgia when there’s nothing to tidy away.      

Further reading: Tackling tiny terrors before they become big phobias