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Don't Put it Down, Put It Away! 11 Tips for Clutter-free Living with Kids

11 Tips For Living Clutter-Free With Children

By Chris Jordan

Summer is here. The kids are home from school all day. And I don’t know about the rest of you, but I sort of feel like I am “owed” a summer vacation too. I don’t want to clean. I don’t want to cook. I don’t want to organize things. I want to stomp my foot and take a book outside to the hammock and read all day. However, that’s just not possible.

However, summer is the perfect time to establish some new habits and cleaning routines that will free you up to have more time for doing things you enjoy. When people come to my house, they always remark that it is so clean. I’m not sure clean is the word that they mean, I think they mean tidy and clutter-free. But having things put away makes it seem clean. Fifteen minutes and I can have the main floor of my house “company ready.” But honestly, if you stopped by my house unannounced most of the time I could invite you in for coffee and not be at all embarrassed. That is freeing.

Because my house is an open floor plan, the kitchen, family room, breakfast room and kids’ study are all visible. This can be a curse- nowhere to hide anything! But I like to think of it as a blessing- nowhere to hide anything!

How do I keep the house clutter-free?

Everything has a place. Everything. This also means that you have to be willing to let things go. Most of us live in houses that are big enough to accommodate our possessions, or at least should be big enough. How many of us really need 30 wine glasses? I decided that I did not.

Recently one of my friends said that she just doesn’t even know where to start when it comes to cleaning up her kitchen and she asked me for advice. She feels like she spends forever cleaning it up only to turn around and have it look exactly the same. Her kitchen has become the dropping ground for everything. Papers cluttered up the counters, bags hung off the stools at the counter, food smears on the cabinet handles, dishes piled in the sink… and looking at it I agreed. It was a wreck. I also know from experience that when you devote a large amount of time to one project like this, the rest of the house can go to shambles and then you are just creating a vicious cycle of only having one area that is clean and feeling overwhelmed.

Looking around I had told her that I didn’t think the kitchen was the problem, it was a symptom of other issues. First, all the bags hanging off the counter stools, where did they go? Did the kids have a place to put their school bags when they came home from school? Why are there close to 30 glasses in the kitchen sink if there are only 4 of you? Why are there so many piles of papers?

Tackling Clutter

I helped her tackle the clutter and papers on the counters. Most of the papers could be discarded, she found very few that she needed to save. We put those in a pile and after we finished the counters, she brought that pile into the office. It needed to be filed, and bills need to be paid, but that could be dealt with tomorrow. It is important not to get sidetracked.

Everything off the kitchen counters. Yes, everything. The only exception is the coffeemaker. I think this is especially important when you are trying to get into the new habit of keeping a clutter-free room. If there is nothing that belongs on the counter, you can’t justify putting stuff down. And even more importantly, your kids will also not put things on the counters. I think once you get into the habit of keeping your kitchen clean and clutter-free you could put decorative items back out if they make you happy, but until you have established the new habit, I would keep them put away.

I hate things stuck on the refrigerator. It is my own personal pet peeve. It just screams messy to me. I know other people love having photos and invitations where they can see them, but what about a magnetic board inside the pantry door? Or inside on the of the upper cabinet doors? While you are at it, take that pile of stuff off the top of your refrigerator, people can still see it even if it is up high. Basically you don’t want your eye to rest on anything as it scans the room.

My kids are older now, gone are the days of toys strewn all over the house. But they still make messes, they are just different messes. They are far more likely now to leave craft supplies everywhere, take off their clothes and drop them in the middle of the floor, or make themselves a snack and leave crumbs, utensils, drinks behind in their wake. A common excuse I hear for the messes in the kitchen is, “I thought someone else wanted to use it after me.” Even teenagers seem oblivious to the small messes they leave behind. I do not let them get away it. I will call them downstairs, make them get up from the table, end a phone call, to put their stuff away. Sometimes it just seems like it would be easier to do it myself, but in the long run it won’t be. Trust me. I made that mistake frequently with my older kids. Based on years of experience and success…

These are my main tips for a tidy and clutter-free home: 

1. Everything has a place. I know. You have heard it before. But what does it really mean? What does “a place for everything” look like? It means that I can hand my child any item that belongs to them or is communal and say, “Put this where it belongs.” and they know exactly where to go.

2. Just Do It. No one really feels like doing chores, but if you just do the chores instead of putting them off you will feel much better. More importantly, you are setting an example for your kids.

3. School papers. We all have this one, don’t we? Most of the papers the younger kids bring home go right into the recycling/trash. I don’t need to save piles of worksheets of math facts or editing sentences. The things I save for them fall into one of two criteria: a) will they need it again to study for a test, or b) is it something really adorable. If it meets those criteria it goes into a wicker basket in the study. This basket is probably 10″ x 12″ x 5.” Very few of their things ever go into this basket. The middle school-aged kids empty their backpacks of quizzes and tests and stick them into this basket also. I can’t tell you how often in the past they would throw things away that they needed a week later. This way if they need it, we have it somewhere safe, not being crumpled in the bottom of a bookbag or locker. At the end of the marking period I go through again and toss whatever wasn’t needed. If I still think something the younger kids did is adorable, but not something I’d want to save forever, I photograph it and toss the item. I just went through and did this at the end of the school year. The basket had filled up with miscellaneous notes from school about end of the year activities, projects, etc. Now the basket is empty, everything has been filed away where it belongs. And most belonged in the recycling bin. The key to making this work is that there is a designated place for all the school-related papers to go and we all know where it is.

4. Shoes, jackets, backpacks, lunchbags. Where do these things live? Are you constantly telling your kids to “do something” with these items? If so, then they need a better home. I have a coat hooks that hang on the wall outside the foyer closet. Oh sure, in fantasy world the children would open the closet and use the hangers inside to hang their coats up, but in the real world I have never seen kids use hangers for anything other than makeshift weapons. Their jackets go on the hooks, the backpacks on the floor under their jacket, and we have a giant shoe basket where all the shoes go.

5. Embrace the idea of clean enough. I pay my 12 year old-son to clean the bathroom he shares with two of his brothers. Is it perfect? No. But it is cleaner than it would be if I hadn’t done it. It also means when I go in and do a really thorough cleaning, I don’t have to wear a hazmat suit to do it. That is worth $5 to me. I use cleaning wipes to wipe down my bathroom sink and counter and the half bath every day. It only takes a few minutes. I know that many people hate these cleaning wipes because they don’t think they “clean” as well as traditional methods. But in my world any cleaning is better than nothing. And when you make it a practice to do it every day nothing gets away from you and becomes an overwhelming task. Having a half bathroom that unexpected guests can use without me cringing is a worthy accomplishment when you have six boys.

6. Toys and electronics all need a place.  I have a designated charging area for all the Kindles, iPads, iPods, etc.  Every night electronics get plugged in and left in the charging area.  We always know where the cords are. We always know where our electronics are. Most of our toys are small now since the kids are older, but they all have places to live.  Board games, Legos, K’nex, etc all organized in bins inside of an armoire. Smaller baskets in the family room end table hold cards, marbles, yo-yo’s, random smaller toys that are usually ignored until they are wanted RIGHT THAT MINUTE!

Clutter is Like a Magnet. 11 Tips for Clutter-free Living with Kids.

7. Clutter begets more clutter. Put a pile down on a flat surface and the next thing you know there are three piles. Clutter is like a magnet. I have noticed that if there is clutter in the kitchen the kids are far less likely to clean up after themselves. It’s as if the standard has been lowered. They think, Why should I clean up after myself if no one else is?     I sometimes sound like a broken record because I say so often, “Don’t put it down, put it away!”

8. Everything off the floor. This is an easy cleaning rule. Nothing belongs on the floor except for the furniture, right? I send my kids up to their room to clean them this is pretty much the only thing I say. I give them control of their own bedrooms and as long as they aren’t dirty I am willing to overlook the messiness, but I need to see the floor. In the family room this means shoes put away (see shoe basket), electronics in the charging station, throw pillows back on the furniture, etc.

9. Make your bed every morning. It makes walking into your room a joy. It feels like you began your day with intention, not like you could go crawl back into bed at any time. I think of it as getting the bedroom dressed and ready for the day.

10. Clean the kitchen completely after dinner/before you go to bed. Set up your coffee pot for the morning, run the dishwasher. I promise you that making a small effort to have the kitchen tidy and clean before you go to bed will make a huge difference in your mood when you wake up in the morning. The few times that I haven’t done this and have woken up to a messy kitchen I feel as though I am operating on a deficit. Like I have a weight hanging over me before I even drink my coffee.

11. Periodically assess if there are new “hot spots” or areas of clutter that just seem to appear. I have a niche in my house where I sometimes will set down my keys, because it is just so convenient. Then the next thing I notice is that there will be sunglasses, a belt, an iPod, random chargers, and mail sitting next to my keys. It really is true that the clutter collects itself.

In the end, it really comes down to cleaning-up after yourself and teaching your children to do the same. While it seems like an overwhelming task at the beginning, it gets easier. It becomes a habit, the good kind. And, then you really can spend time reading a book, baking, or playing games with your kids. When nothing is hanging over your head, you will be able to enjoy the time more.

About the Author

Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she wrote about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children. Yes, they...

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she wrote about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.
Yes, they are all hers.
No she’s not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.
Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That’s why her youngest is a teen now.
Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.


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