Clean freak mother strongly supporting her child’s right to be messy

“[M]y mother had no preconceptions or agenda… She didn’t think—this will make him an orderly person… She allowed that while ‘order’ was a value for her, it might not be for me…”
– Michael


From the archives: Posted on 6th December 1997

“When I asked for ideas on how to begin Taking Children Seriously, I meant in the most basic way.”

Amy, I wasn’t trying to be glib in responding, what I wrote is about as basic as it gets. There’s the requisite attitude and then the adventure follows. I’ll try to give you an example in responding to Angie, who wrote:

“One of my children gets toys out in their bedroom, plays with them dumps them on the floor. It has now got to the stage where you cannot walk across the room. The carpet is covered in a layer of toys and clothes 6-18 inches deep. As long as I don’t have to see it I don’t mind.
           The problem is the amount of toys that get broken and ruined, child’s father does not wish to buy child any new toys.”

A bunch of questions spring to my mind here. Why do you mind if you DO see it (the mess)? Is the child upset about the toys being broken? If the answer is “no” and the only problem is the father’s refusal to buy more, what are the family’s ideas regarding ownership of toys—are they your child’s or lent out to the child by your husband. Again, I’m not being glib or trying to put anyone on the defensive. I’ll offer you a different perspective on “mess” from my own experience to show you where I’m coming from.

When I was growing up, my room was always, continuously, in a state of disorder. I marvel at my mother because she was a “clean fanatic” but she always had a strong sense of respecting my rights and so a mess it remained. I imagine I broke a few toys in my time but the issue, if it ever arose, was the mess, not the breakage because, obviously, as you grow older, if something’s of value to you, you make sure you don’t break it (I don’t see breakage and mess being integrally connected unless you put the toys away so the child can’t play with them or can’t combine Thomas with Superman or if you impose other such creativity quelling rules). It all came to a head when I was about eleven, my father demanding that order be enforced and my mother challenging him on “why?”

It was a major deal, I remember the discussion, my mother making the point that I was extremely creative in my mess, knew where everything was. My father took her to task on this and quizzed me on the location of about a dozen items, all of which I produced after some minor rummaging. With my mother backing me up, my father didn’t have a leg to stand on. And this support, I repeat, from a mother who was herself fanatical about maintaining all of her possessions and the household in order. When it came to cleaning, she and I came to an agreement we were both happy with—my mother could move things around unless there was a specific pile of things which I would indicate (on cleaning day) could not be touched (I’d leave a note on the pile).

My point is that my mother had no preconceptions or agenda in taking me on my own terms. She had no idea where it would all lead. She didn’t think—this will make him an orderly person—or even—it is necessary that he experience chaos. She allowed that while “order” was a value for her, it might not be for me i.e. she just took me seriously and went along for the ride. And this story doesn’t have the requisite ironic “happy” ending—her actions didn’t teach me the virtues of fastidiousness. I’m as messy as I’ve ever been—especially in the areas in which I’m most creative. I love mess. If I’m working on something, my desk and office are piled up with an extra layer of mess that I sift through, bringing order out of chaos. It would drive me nuts to put everything in its place beforehand. I LOVE the chaos.

I can put on a great dinner party but don’t ever go in my kitchen. Which doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the value of an orderly kitchen (a very good friend of mine is a chef in a four star restaurant in Paris and whenever he and his wife come to visit, he cooks up an exquisite gastronomic feast, cleaning as he goes along—I marvel at his talent) just that an ordered kitchen and that style of cooking would drive me insane and if that was the requirement for cooking, I lot of people, including myself, would be missing out on my unique culinary style 🙂

Lest you lose hope, I must add that my sister, brought up the same way, is extremely orderly.

My son is like me only he has an entire house, a car, a truck, and a few acres at his disposal. Toys everywhere. I would challenge David to check out our family budget to see if anything could be cut back further to accommodate more toys. 🙂 About six months after we moved to our present home, our homeschooling group was visiting an organic farm up the road. No one had seen our house since we’d moved in. “Don’t you live in this area?” someone inquired. I was subtly putting everyone off the idea of visiting, our house was in a huge mess, boxes still everywhere. Six months after we’d moved in! was the incredulous response. Like I say, mess doesn’t bother me. I’m always too busy to arrange the house.

My son, on this occasion, thought it a great idea to have all the kids visit our house. I took him aside and shared with him my ideas on why I thought it less than the optimal circumstance under which to invite everyone over. “I think they’ll be really shocked by the mess in the house,” I told him. “I think a lot of them won’t come and visit us again.”


“Well, because most people think that’s important, that we should be cleaning up the mess instead of always going up in the mountains or doing the other stuff we do.”


I couldn’t offer him a good theory. I’m as baffled as he. So my son invited everyone over. Judging by the parent’s faces, they didn’t need to yell “The horror, the horror,” they’d already arrived in the heart of darkness. Their reaction was really quite frightening: “by ‘mess’, we all thought you meant, order, like we all mean when we talk about the house being a mess.” They didn’t say that aloud, but they all couldn’t leave fast enough, and indeed, most have never returned.

And this is what I mean by going along for the journey. I thought it a bad idea to invite everyone over. In a way, I was right. But in another way, that incident turned out to be a very clarifying experience for my son. It’s not enough to tell your child that people get freaked by messes. Rationally, it doesn’t make sense, at least to my mind and I’m sure my son’s. So we both still don’t understand the phenomenon, but we accept that it is a reality. And so now, if my wife is having her boss over for dinner, I don’t have to tell my son to clear the living room of toys, I just tell him who’s visiting—he never wants to see an adult freak like that again and he accepts that, but for a rare few friends, most WILL freak when they see his toys piled up over every inch of the livingroom. Sometimes, he’s still willing to accept the consequence for the benefit he gets out having someone over (rather than cleaning up i.e.) Each circumstance is different.

On the question of gratitude, I agree with Janet:

“It seems to me that we tend to express gratitude when we are acutely aware that someone did *not* have to do something for us, but they did it anyway.”

I thank my son every time he helps me in the barn. I don’t expect his help. It’s always such a gift when he gives of his time and effort so willingly. He takes my example and thanks me too when circumstances are reversed. But the point is—I don’t thank him to “teach” him to thank me. And I know a lot of kids that just don’t “thank” their parents no matter how demonstratively thankful their parents are. But appreciating others, taking everyone on their own terms just “happens” to be my son’s special talent—he’s always amazing me and revealing truths to me in this arena.

That’s what I mean by “going along for the journey”. You adopt the attitude and see where it takes you, but setting an agenda, expecting reciprocation, in gratitude or whatever, is still not quite adopting the attitude. It’s not allowing your child the possibility of finding out what kind of person they are, and where their talents lie. How will you or they ever determine if they are really the kind of person that expresses gratitude or the kind of person that doesn’t feel the need if you “expect” it and if you’re not willing to allow that the latter may be the case and that that’s just the way the child relates to the world? Do you really want your child saying “thank you” by rote? And as Janet pointed out, not expressing gratitude is not the same as being ungrateful.

What’s important, IMO, is the child finding out who they are, what their preferences are exactly, not you having YOUR expectations fulfilled. Your actions can result in what you expect or not. And sometimes, as in my story, your worst fears turn out to be correct, the child ignorant, and it still turns out to be a very compelling and informative and formative experience by which everyone learns about how the world works and how they fit in its scheme.

See also:

Michael, 1997, ‘Clean freak mother strongly supporting her child’s right to be messy’,

Leave a comment