The baby was crying. Dirty dishes filled the sink and threatened to spill over. Clothes covered every square inch of carpet, and there was a distinctly odd odor.
“So how do you like it?” Sarah moved the baby to her other hip and smiled apologetically. “I know it’s not exactly clean. We’ve been trying to unpack a little each night.”
I turned to study a picture to my left. Sarah had been asking me to visit her new home for more than a month. Now that I was here, I didn’t know what to say. The house was beautifully designed, but I’d never seen such a mess. How did she find clothes to wear to work in the morning? I said a quick prayer for wisdom, then turned back toward her and reached for the baby.
“This picture is lovely, almost as precious as your baby.”
Sarah smiled and led me back to the kitchen. I walked carefully to avoid stepping on anything that might be breakable.
The preschool years may be the most difficult time in any family’s life. By definition, it seems to entail too little sleep and too many demands—in short, chaos. Yet there are things parents can do to avoid turmoil and climb out of the clutter.
1. Choose to have a calm and pleasant outlook. Your attitude really is more important than what cleanser you buy, how many times a week (or month) you mop your floor, or when you do the laundry. Paul reminded us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right . . .” Perhaps Paul had been in a home similar to Sarah’s. He had probably seen that look of weariness in someone’s eyes. Regardless the state of your home, choose a calm and positive outlook. Once you do, it will be much easier to tackle the mess around you.
2. Train them young. Remember the text that says “Train up a child up in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not turn from it?” Maybe King Solomon wasn’t talking about housework, but the principle is the same. Teaching your children how to maintain a peaceful home is a wonderful gift to them. Assign daily chores to everyone. Even a two-year-old can fill the puppy bowl with dog food. Four-year-olds love to dust. (Pledge wipes will keep them from over-using the spray.) Any child who can push a scooter can push a vacuum. Involve your children in caring for your home. They’ll learn from it, and you can use the help. Do not fall into the it’s-easier-todo-it-myself trap. It may be easier at first, but if you train your kids now, you’ll be grateful for their help later.
3. Set the right example. What you do really does speak louder than what you say. If you tell your children to always put their dirty clothes in the basket, make sure you don’t sling your dirty clothes across a chair or drop them by the bed. Take your dishes to the sink or dishwasher immediately after you eat and expect everyone else to do the same. You may think your children ignore what you say—and they might—but the majority of the time, they will imitate what you do.
4. Evaluate your needs. What items do you really need to bring order from chaos? It’s probably not a weekly maid or a shopping spree at The Container Store (although both would be nice). A few small, inexpensive purchases can go a long way in restoring order. For example, it helps to have a laundry basket in each bedroom, maybe even in each bathroom. Go through your house and evaluate carefully what items you could purchase that would help eliminate clutter. Then decide what you’re willing to sacrifice to pay for it. Would it be worth giving up pizza one week so you’d have the money to purchase five storage bins? How about skipping lunch out and buying nets to hang your child’s stuffed animals in? Make a list and check it twice, then follow through by purchasing one or two items each week.
5. Seek out friendships that enrich. Hang around people who have households you admire. Good habits are as contagious as bad ones, and you might pick up some great home management ideas. My sister keeps a grocery list on the refrigerator. When they run out of something, it goes on the list. She only shops once a week—no emergency trips. If they don’t have eggs to make omelets, they settle for frozen waffles. This cuts down on impulse spending, puts an end to those after-work shopping stops, and forces her to plan better.
6. Talk about it. Do not expect your spouse to know when you need help. I cannot count the number of times women have said to me, “If I have to tell him what needs to be done, forget it. Hogwash. Your spouse is not a mind reader, and he probably doesn’t have the same nesting instincts you do. If you want help, you have to ask for it. Don’t nag—just ask.
7. Set goals. Aim high, but be reasonable. Your home might not look like the cover of Southern Living immediately. If you want the house to be picked up every night before you go to bed, make that a priority. Explain to your entire family that it’s important to you. Try making a game of it. One full week of a clean house, and the entire family can play miniature golf. If you don’t set a goal, you probably won’t accomplish anything. An orderly, reasonably clean home is within every family’s reach.
8. Rest is important for everyone. Frenetic movement is not the answer, so rest when you are tired. If your back is sore, rest. If the baby is sick, rest. Now is not the time to work until you’re exhausted and resentful. If a room is really bothering me and I’m tired, I give myself 15 minutes (or better yet, I call the rest of the family in and give us all 15 minutes). It’s amazing what you can do in a short period of time if you focus. Don’t worry if you don’t get it all done every day. It will all keep. As my Granny Ruth used to say, “The dirty dishes will still be there tomorrow.” Of course it’s a lot nicer if you get them cleaned and put away tonight.
9. Know when to let go. Once you’ve started, you’re going to love having a clean house—so much so that you might have a hard time relaxing. It’s okay to play games, watch movies, and not clean up every night. Just allow yourself an extra hour the next morning to straighten things back up. Often the reason our house falls into disarray is because we are constantly on the go. Plan time at home. Give yourself time to play, and then schedule an hour to get things back in order.
10. Enjoy these years. They really will fly by. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself in my situation, contemplating which car your son or daughter is going to drive. It makes me almost yearn for the days when I had to remind my son to pick up his Matchbox cars. Instead of agonizing over the difficulties of the preschool years, remind yourself that they won’t last forever. Try to enjoy them. Thank God for them. They really are precious.
The atmosphere of a home is set very early in a family’s life, but it’s never too late to change. We all want that atmosphere to be a pleasant one. Sometimes we just need a little nudge in the right direction, someone reminding us that it really is possible to have order and calm amidst the chaos. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go pick up the mess the dogs just made.