Mark Pupo is the author of Sundays: A Celebration of Breakfast and Family in 52 Essential Recipes.
That crack you heard in the space-time continuum early this year was Marie Kondo admitting she’s a slob. Okay, true, she didn’t put it precisely that way. The tidying-up guru, who in her books and two Netflix series needles us to rid our homes of anything that doesn’t “spark joy,” said she sometimes – a not-insignificant qualifier – lets her home get messy. She’s now a mother of three with bigger priorities. And that, she said with a hint of defensiveness, is all right.
Social media bubbled with a sludge of mockery and schadenfreude. Her fans, with reason, felt betrayed. Ms. Kondo is the apotheosis of a neatness-is-good obsession that’s gripped us with a special intensity this past decade. For proof, just scroll through Instagram and Pinterest, where influencers share #springcleaning hacks and every kitchen is freakishly immaculate. No half-empty cereal boxes, no chipped juice glasses, no geriatric toaster ovens.
Our shared clutter fears took root in the seemingly self-evident belief, backed up by scientific studies, that a messy home is a sign of a disordered mind and depression. Similarly, developmental psychologists say that a chaotic home – characterized by chronic disorganization and confusion – is no place to raise kids. The stress of chaos manifests as poor sleep and equally poor diet. One analysis of 764 families in Wuhan, China, published in the Journal of Family and Child Studies, perhaps unsurprisingly connected an uptick in anxiety, stress and acting out among children to the household chaos created by pandemic lockdowns. If chaos is bad for us, the thinking goes, then we need neatness, perfection and bare kitchen counters.
But what if we’ve taken our clutter fear too far? Chaos, clutter and mess exist on a spectrum. Too much of anything is never good – and the same goes for decluttering. I’ve periodically struggled with a nagging impulse to make everything neat and tidy. And by “periodically” I mean every other minute for the past 47 years. I can’t start work until every laptop file gets slotted in the correct subfolder. When I visit friends I ache to alphabetize their bookshelves and empty the dryer’s dust trap. I vacuum to procrastinate.
Perfection, as Ms. Kondo discovered, can be limiting. When the Children’s Aid social workers interviewed my husband and me about our qualifications as adoptive parents, they directed skeptical looks at our monastically spare living room. I’d set the chairs, the tea tray on the coffee table and my feet at rigid right angles. They asked how we’d cope with a kid leaving plastic toys on our floor. A fair question. I’d let perfection define me. It can too easily slip into uptightness, dullness and a kind of emptiness.
Clutter can be healthy. In fact, a cluttered house can be proof of a creative and well-lived life. And Ms. Kondo isn’t the only influencer taking pride in her household mess. The flip side of the clutter-free perfectionism of Instagram is the latest TikTok trend of relatable clutter – the so-called messy-room aesthetic, where social media-famous icons, in a bid to appear more authentic, take followers on tours of their cluttered closets. If a lack of inhibitions about sharing what’s in their closet doesn’t seem all that remarkable, that’s because no one’s home is truly private any more. In those first months of the pandemic, the bedrooms of the nation became home offices, with mess on the bedside table visible to everyone in your Zoom meeting. Some of us would (and still) use the blur-background setting on the video-meeting app (or a digital stock image backdrop of an imaginary office or – never advisable – a tropical beach). But in the unwritten code of working from home the disguised video background seems oddly anti-social – the equivalent of ducking a handshake at an in-person meeting. What are you hiding? A basket of unfolded laundry is just proof that you’re human. We’re all now Robert E. Kelly, the professor whose kids infamously bounded into the home office where he was giving a televised BBC interview.
Those Children’s Aid social workers gave our household a passing grade – despite our pristine living room. Correction: our once-pristine living room. Today we’re dads to a six-year-old who hasn’t met a mud puddle into which he won’t jump. Mess is the disorder of the day. Sam is like a tireless puppy, running at 110 per cent from the crack of dawn. Like any kid he seems to leave a trail of clutter and chaos in his wake: Play-Doh crusted on tables, crayons between couch cushions, die-cast trucks in the bathroom sink (better known in our house as the “car wash”), and the spikiest Lego pieces always underfoot. But unlike many other kids, he’s been diagnosed with ADHD and autism, which means that he experiences the world with a uniquely neurodivergent intensity. Chaos is, in some respects, an essential part of him. It’s not something that can be tamped down or tidied away. Like other aspects of his emerging personality, it’s who he is, and we love him unequivocally for it.
We’ve tried to follow parenting methods recommended by ASD and ADHD pediatric experts. Those methods always come back to a kind of constant badgering of the neurodivergent child with strict routines that’ll prepare him for life in the “normal” world. There’s a Kondo logic running through it: The parent must strip the child’s world to its essentials, a sort of distraction-free tunnel we escort Sam through every day, where he’s protected from overstimulation. In practice, that can mean steering him away from the tools aisle at Canadian Tire, where he’ll want to adjust and readjust, again and again, the mechanisms of every wrench on the shelf, or avoiding the park at peak hours, because the shrieks and laughter of other kids at the playground, paired with the dazzle of midday sunlight, will send his senses and brain spiralling.
The problem with that overprotective method is it’s exhausting for the parent, who like a chess player must constantly be planning moves several steps ahead. It’s also likely robbing the child of experiences he might actually crave and even learn from – as if we’ve fit him with blinders. You can try your best to declutter the world for your child, but there’s always more clutter. At some point, the decluttering parent needs to relax and accept the world isn’t perfect.
I’d like to imagine I’m living up, in my better moments, to what the developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind called authoritative parenting, which she contrasted with authoritarian parenting. The authoritative parent is in charge – the authority in the parent-child relationship – but unlike the authoritarian parent, she or he steers the child to better choices through engaged conversation, not through decrees. The authoritative parent is akin to the pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s notion of the “good-enough” parent, a concept that’s recently regained some traction as an alternative to the model of the uptight helicopter parent. The good-enough parent recognizes that the world is imperfect, and you as a parent are imperfect, too. The good-enough, authoritative parent raises kids who are more independent, better adjusted, more confident to cope in a world that’s unavoidably messy, never perfectly tidy.
The place where I first saw the good-enough parenting model could really work was in our kitchen. Most mornings, Sam would hop on a stool at our kitchen island, power up his iPad and grow silent as he watched an endless stream of YouTube videos of other kids playing Farming Simulator. Following the parenting model for ASD-ADHD kids, I’d set strict boundaries: Cooking was for Daddy. Let him crack an egg, and that opens the door to playing with knives, cranking the gas burners and burning down the house. But what if we cracked the eggs together – would our world fall apart? One morning about two years ago, I dragged Sam’s stool to the counter and asked him to help me whisk eggs into a pancake batter. He looked at me stunned. It was like I’d unlocked a door to a new world.
That morning we made a considerable mess – flour dusted the floor, milk pooled on the oven, and one or two bits of eggshell ended up in an unlucky someone’s pancake. But Sam was overjoyed, and asked if we could make pancakes again the next day. And what about for lunch? Best of all, he was engaging with me, not lost in a YouTube feed. He was learning how to count and measure, how heat transformed a wet batter into something crispy and delicious. Yes, there were moments when he turned instantly hyper and impatient and forgot himself, and I had to remind him to keep a safe distance from the hot pan. But what mattered was that he was happy. And proud of what we created together. (Dr. Winnicott also wrote about how the creative urge is a sign of a healthy mind, in babies, adolescents and adults alike, and noted that creativity almost always involves making a mess.)
The breakfast experiment was a breakthrough for our family. We made it our new weekend routine. It’s true, I hadn’t fully given up on routines, but whenever possible I wanted those routines to be ones that Sam initiated or wanted to follow, not rigid rules he’d been handed down by an authoritarian. I’d accepted how much I can control. More importantly, I’d seen how too much control – too much fear of getting messy – gets in the way of my child living his best life.