The Idle Parent: Happy Mess is Better than Miserable Tidiness

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This is the fifteenth part in a series of discussions regarding The Idle Parent Manifesto, which can be found in Tom Hodgkinson’s book The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids. Need to get caught up? You can do so here.

For this topic, Lisa and I decided to give both out perspectives, since everyone’s definition of “mess” and “tidy,” along with how they feel about house cleaning, can be so drastically different.

Front Room

Happy mess is better than miserable tidiness.


I grew up in a miserable tidy house. Hubby Roger grew up in miserable mess. (Please note, I am referring to the cleanliness only.)

My mother prided herself on having a clean house and she succeeded. My friends said that our house looked like a museum. But my parents set up our basement with a pool table, air hockey, foosball and a hot tub. Kids flocked to our basement but I never remember hanging out in our formal living room.

Roger’s house was the exact opposite. His mother found other activities that made her happy besides cleaning.

It worked for both of them.

I continued to rule over a miserable tidy house until we had kids. Then it took ME about 8 years to find the middle ground. Roger likes things clean but he isn’t going to drive anyone crazy to achieve it. I on the other hand, HAVE AND WILL. After years of telling me to let it go! I finally figured it out. Here is how.

Do the bare minimum that still makes you happy and then cheat!

1. Tidy up before bedtime. Pick up toys, clean up the kitchen and get the coffee ready. Get everything organized so that mornings flow smoothly and are not a madhouse. It sets the tone for the day. I am convinced that this helps morning be our best time of the day.

2. Never leave a mess.I hate coming home to a messy house, so I tidy up before I leave. I never find time to come back and clean up, so I tidy up as I go. One mess at a time. I clean something up before I move on to the next mess.

3. Vacuum.

3. Get rid of clutter People also confuse clean with clutter-free. My friends tell me that I have a clean house. I have a clutter-free house. Try this. It works.

4. Make cleaning convenient.. Gritty floors drive me nuts, so I keep one vacuum upstairs and one downstairs. A ring around the toilet bowl freaks me out so I have cleaning supplies in all the bathrooms. If I have the tools ready, I am more likely to use them.

5. Keep the powder room clean.Think about it. There is only one room in your house where guest lock themselves in and sit down. Go in your powder room, lock the door and take a seat. Now clean it up.

6. Spend minimal time at home.The house doesn’t get dirty if you are outside playing.

7. Rally. This is what I call the first 15 minutes after we arrive home. Put everything away right then. There is never time to come back and clean things up.

I love it when someone walks into my house and says, “wow, it’s so clean.” If that makes you happy, these are great ways to get that response. Some of you out there don’t care and that is fine. What I think is important to all of us is that guests feel welcome and comfortable in our homes. They can have a good time regardless of the state of the house. It’s the feeling you get when you walk in a house that makes it a home – the feeling and the people.


I’ve never mentioned it here, but I work part-time at The Container Store.  Messy people don’t typically dream of working at The Container Store.  They don’t call it their “happy place.”  My husband is a lot like Lisa’s husband … he likes things picked up and the floors swept, but beyond that?  Well, let’s just say there’s only one of us that cleans the baseboards with a toothbrush … and it ain’t him.

He grew up with a very tidy mother.  I once saw her vacuum the curtains.  Even my neat freak self was flabbergasted. With one kid and a small house, I was able to maintain my tidy ways.  Once we added another kid and an additional floor to our home, it was another story.  Like Lisa, I realized I could drive everyone (myself included) crazy, or I could find a good enough middle ground. Here’s the thing for me:  I need cleanliness and order to feel happy in my home.  I need it in a way that nobody else I live with does.  It’s not fair for me to demand everyone else to live up to my admittedly high standards.  I actually enjoy doing housework – it soothes my soul.  On the other hand, it’s not fair for everyone else I live with to treat me like the maid.  And so we make concessions.  I clean the majority of the house to my standards because I’d be miserable if I didn’t.  Everyone else has what I like to think of as respectful obligations for peaceful living.  Things like:

  • making your bed.
  • putting your dirty clothes in the hamper.
  • putting your shoes on the shoe mat or in the mudroom, not wherever you feel like kicking them off.
  • picking up the messes you made.

I also have the kids clean their own bathroom.  I don’t care how much you like to clean, nobody likes cleaning someone else’s toilet. I have to remind myself that we live here … with children. There will be toys scattered about the house at times.  Things will get spilled, dirt will get tracked in on the floors, there will be fingerprints on the doors and windows.  In the not too distant future, I will have far fewer messes and more time on my hands to clean them up, and I will miss this happy, messy season.  Being miserably tidy is simply not worth sucking the joy out of a home that is well-lived in.

Where do you fall in the messy/tidy scale?  Do you have to have things tidy?  Do you struggle to keep house?  Does it matter to you?